Themes & Imagery in Death of a Salesman

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      The play Death of a Salesman was a thumping success at Broadway. Undoubtedly, the play consisted of themes and Imagery that had a mass appeal. The play got a variety of interpretations. The reaction of scholars and drama-critics was a mixed one. They have explained painstakingly why it is or is not a great play, or a genuine tragedy.

      Regarding its essential theme, different explanations have been forwarded. Some regard it as communist propaganda denouncing capitalism in all its muck and sooty filth, while others view it as a sympathetic study of the problems of big business. Some have interpreted it in exclusively Freudian terms and have attributed to its author, rigid psychological theories. A Catholic view of the play regards it as warning of the meaninglessness and futility of life in a society where religion has been thrown to dogs.

      Miller rejects the validity of any of these interpretations as his intention one after the other.

Essential conflict between public image and the real personality

      So it is for us to deduce the essential theme of the play. We should take care to see that our vision is not partial. The essential theme in Death of a Salesman appears to be the one that recurs in Miller’s plays. It is the relationship between man’s identity as an individual and the image that society demands of him. The playwright, in the process of the play shows us, how we are the cause of disappointment to those we love, by disappointing our own selves. He depicts the torment of family tensions, the compensations that friendship provides, and the heart-break that accompanies, hurt ego and lost confidence. He is aware of loyalties, not blind but open-eyed, that are needed to support lonely mortals. The playwright displays his insight into and his dexterity at, the depiction of an anatomy of failure, the pathos of age, and the tragedy of those years when life is on its descent from the hill, it has labored to climb. Miller has really excelled himself in dealing with these subjects.

The play grew out of the images

      According to Miller, “the play grew from simple images.” A key to the underlying theme of the play is given by Miller’s description of the images from which the play grew in his mind:

1. A little frame house in a street of little frame houses, which had once been born loud with the noise of growing boys, and then was empty and silent, and finally occupied by strangers—strangers who could not know with what conquistadorial joy Willy and his boys had once reshingled the roof. Now it was quiet in the house, and the wrong people in the beds.

2. It grew from images of futility—the cavernous Sunday afternoons polishing the car. Where is that car now? And the chamois clothes carefully washed and put up to dry, where are the chamois clothes ?

      And the endless, convoluted discussions, wonderments, arguments, belittlements, encouragements, fiery resolutions, abdications, returns, partings, voyages out and voyages back, tremendous opportunities and small, squeaking denouements—and all in the kitchen now occupied by strangers who cannot hear what the walls are saying.

3. The images of aging and so many of your friends already gone and strangers in the seats of the mighty who do not know you or your triumphs on your incredible value.

4. The image of the sons hard public eye upon you, no longer swept by the myth, no longer rousable from the separateness, no longer knowing you have lived for him and have wept for him.

5. The image of ferocity when love has turned to something else and yet is there, is somewhere in the room if one could only find it.

6. The image of people turning into strangers who only evaluate one another.

7. Above all, perhaps, the images of a need greater than hunger or sex or thirst, a need to leave a thumb-print somewhere on the world. A need for immortality, and by admitting it, the knowing that one has carefully inscribed one’s name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.

      So far, none of these images, applies particularly to the American dream, to capitalism or salesmanship. These are concerned, instead with human life and what Time does to our youthful hopes and expectations from it. Disillusionment and a sense of futility will be intenser and more weakening in a man who recognizes himself to be a failure. This recognition is bound to be staggering where the failure is assessed in figures—in the world of business. Now the author starts adding up images which are applicable to Willy.

8. The image of suicide so mixed in motive as to be unfathomable yet demanding statement. Revenge was in it and a power of love, a victory in that it would bequeath a fortune to the living, and a flight from emptiness. With it an image of peace at the final curtain, the peace that is between wars, the peace leaving the issues above ground and viable yet.

9. And always, throughout, the image of private man in a world full of strangers, a world that is not home nor even an open battleground but only galaxies of high promise over a fear of falling.


      So we see, that the themes and images in the play are complementary to teach other—both fade away into non-existence without the other. A proper comprehensive appraisal of Miller’s technical dexterity makes the wary reader realize that the themes and images enhance each other. Both are made for each other.

University Questions

Themes and Images in Death of a Salesman
Critical Comments on the Themes of
Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman—Its Subject Matter

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