Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
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Symbolism is a device that uses symbols to represent something beyond the literal meaning. An object was described or a metaphor introduced which had meanings and implications beyond its apparently “realistic” function in the action. Miller’s earlier play, All My Sons, also used symbols, though these are, for the most part, much cruder and narrower in their implications than the symbols employed by Ibsen. However, in Death of a Salesman, Miller uses symbols with great subtlety and effect. They are recurrent and thus help to structure the play. In other words, by their repetition they give form to a play which has abandoned conventional formal arrangement.
Cars Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
Two of the symbols used in Death of a Salesman have specifically American connotations. The play opens with references to cars. Cars are an American symbol of individual mobility, freedom, and social status. But Miller uses the positive American suggestions of this symbol in a negative and ironic manner. For Willy Loman a car offers geographical mobility but little freedom. At the beginning of the play he has come home, exhausted with driving the car. This is, on the surface, a realistic statement of fact. But the implications of driving are quickly conveyed to the audience. Willy says:
“I’m tired to the death. I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.”
“Suddenly I realized I’m goin’ sixty miles an hour and I don’t remember the last five minutes. I’m-I can’t seem to keep my mind to it.”
Beneath the statement of fact is an implication about Willy’s state of mind. He has been driving himself off the road; his life has been a long competitive progression of futility and now, in his desperate tiredness, the car is going out of control and, like his life, is about to be wrecked.
This repetition of the symbol prepares for the revelation to Biff that his father has been considering suicide by another method-by gassing himself. (Linda informs the boys that she had found a length of rubber-pipe behind the fuse box down in the cellar). The symbol achieves its final intensity in the climax to the play when Willy drives his car out of the house into darkness and death.
In the past, the car had been a status symbol and a centre of interest absorbing the activities of the male members of the family: Biff and Happy, under their father’s boyish eagerness, had cleaned and polished the car in a manner which took on the proportions of a Sunday ritual. This past association of the car with family happiness and eager activity contrasts with the symbol of the car in the present, when its implications include mental and physical exhaustion, a means of committing suicide, and death.
Symbol of American West
The second symbol, which is specifically American in its connotations, is that of the west. We may recall that Willy’s father used to start journeying from Boston in the cast, travel and sell his flutes through the Midwest- Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois- and then journey onwards through all the western states. Biff has inherited this urge to wander but lacks the capacity to make money in the process. Further, the condition of western society has changed since his grand-father’s day. Traditionally the American western territories suggested a freedom to explore, settle, and make money in a manner impossible in the eastern states or in Europe. But now, with the frontiers of the western states having been decided, opportunities are fewer. Miller inverts this particular dream-value in American experience. One of the final remarks made by Biff to his father is that the west has offered him total constriction, and not expansive freedom. In Kansas City he had stolen a suit and spent three months in jail. In this symbol a second aspect of the American Dream is shown to be deceptive and destructive.
Seeds Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
Two other symbols are used to suggest certain processes in Willy’s consciousness. The temporary optimism at the beginning of Act II is conveyed partly by references to seeds and tools. Willy imagines that he can make seeds grow in his garden. Linda, with her womanly practicality, says: “That’d be wonderful. But not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow anymore.” But Willy later in the day purchases seeds and at night rather absurdly tries to plant them. He has stated:
“I’ve got to get some seeds right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.”
The implication is that his life is a barren thing. Nothing has grown out of his endeavours. As he says:
“A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something.”
But it is already too late and his gestures of planting in the hope of future growth are desperate and futile. Instead of growth, the slow adding up to something, there is only sterility and the subtraction of dream from reality. Instead of meaning, there is only the disconnectedness of a half-comprehended despair.
Tools Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
References to seeds serve to link past, present, and future in Willy’s consciousnes. A similar function is served by references to tools. Willy asserts at one point: “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man” He is efficient as a handyman; he is excessively, almost childishly, anxious to make improvements in the home:
“Biff, first thing we gotta do when we get time is clip that big branch over the house. Afraid it’s gonna fall in a storm and hit the roof.”
But he dreams of constructing something entirely with his own hands, rather than improving or altering what other men have made. He hopes to leave the urban constriction. Rather naively he qualifies this hope in a conversation with Linda :
“‘Cause I got so many fine tools, all I’d need would be a little lumber and some peace of mind.”
But the peace of mind is never granted to him. Instead of the large construction job, which he would have happily undertaken for the sake of his children, there are only the smaller, though skilful, accomplishments of Willy’s handywork upon the house in the city. After his father’s death, Biff summarises the “nice days” he can remember with him, and the strongest recollections are those of his father active with tools.
Like the symbol of seeds, the symbol of tools contains implications of growth of living to make something with one’s own hands and leaving it as a memorial after death. Both symbols, one from the world of Nature and the other from the world of craftsmanship suggest a frustration of growth and the subtraction of dream from reality.
Stockings Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
Then there is the symbol of stockings. These references have a narrative and psychological function in the play. Within the narrative they are used as a mystery-making device. As Linda sits darning stockings and talking to her husband with a wifely sympathy for his unhappiness, on another part of the stage a cheeky, self-assertive woman walks around, looks at herself in a mirror, and thanks Willy for a gift of stockings.
In Willy’s mind stockings become a symbol of guilt. Although we are not told the full reasons for this psychological phenomenon until near the end of the play, we are reminded, at the beginning of Act II, of some mystery surrounding silk stockings. Linda kisses her husband as he prepares to leave for work in the morning but he notices that she is holding a stocking. His reaction is sudden:
“Will you stop mending stockings? At least while I’m in the house. It gets me nervous. I can’t tell you. Please .”
Linda hides the stocking, as one might hide an object which arouses & sense of guilt or shame and no further clarification of the incident is given. This is offered only towards the end of Act II when we return to the hotel bedroom where the woman was surveying herself in the mirror; the past relationship between her and Willy is seen to be not only an adulterous affair but also the essential experience of disillusionment in his father for the adolescent Biff :
“You-you gave her Mama’s stockings ….You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!”
Thus the symbol of stockings operates on the narrative plane by providing an area of mystery, the solution to which is with held as a dramatic technique: the symbol operates also on the psychological level implying not only an adulterous relationship but also disillusionment in Biff’s mind. Willy harbours a double guilt–towards his wife and towards his son.
Flute Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
Throughout the play, the flute makes numerous appearances, each time convey different symbolism. The flute, an expressionist device represents Willy, the protagonist’s, memories of his father. As the play begins, flute music plays symbolizing Willy’s overwhelming life as well as his abandonment issues. The flute appears again and portrays Willy’s father’s haunting him. In Act II, the flute resurfaces to portray the hardship Willy faces as a result of his father’s leaving him isolated. As the play comes to a close, the flute music plays for the last time to finish the ongoing theme of desertion that Willy feels.
Diamonds Symbolism in Death of a Salesman
To Willy, diamonds represent tangible wealth and, hence, both validation of one’s labor (and life) and the ability to pass material goods on to one’s offspring, two things that Willy desperately craves. Correlatively, diamonds, the discovery of which made Ben a fortune, symbolize Willy’s failure as a salesman.
Finally, it is possible to treat Willy as a symbolic character. Willy may be regarded as an American Everyman. Willy is much more emphatically a representative figure, than any of Miller’s other characters. This means that Willy’s problems are much less personal dilemmas than they are public issues.