Death of a Salesman
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The American Dream
Willy believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream—that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Oddly, his fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. Willy’s interpretation of likeability is superficial—he childishly dislikes Bernard because he considers Bernard a nerd. Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life.
Willy’s life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy’s father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy’s zealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy’s adultery. Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank’s Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cusp of greatness, Biff shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.
Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him. Willy believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him. When Biff walks out on Willy’s ambitions for him, Willy takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with “insult” and “spite”). Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff’s ego-crushing rebuff ultimately reflects Willy’s inability to sell him on the American Dream—the product in which Willy himself believes most faithfully. Willy assumes that Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with The Woman—a betrayal of Linda’s love. Whereas Willy feels that Biff has betrayed him, Biff feels that Willy, a “phony little fake,” has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Willy’s tendency to mythologize people contributes to his deluded understanding of the world. He speaks of Dave Singleman as a legend and imagines that his death must have been beautifully noble. Willy compares Biff and Happy to the mythic Greek figures Adonis and Hercules because he believes that his sons are pinnacles of “personal attractiveness” and power through “well liked”-ness; to him, they seem the very incarnation of the American Dream.
Willy’s mythologizing proves quite nearsighted, however. Willy fails to realize the hopelessness of Singleman’s lonely, on-the-job, on-the-road death. Trying to achieve what he considers to be Singleman’s heroic status, Willy commits himself to a pathetic death and meaningless legacy (even if Willy’s life insurance policy ends up paying off, Biff wants nothing to do with Willy’s ambition for him). Similarly, neither Biff nor Happy ends up leading an ideal, godlike life; while Happy does believe in the American Dream, it seems likely that he will end up no better off than the decidedly ungodlike Willy.
The American West, Alaska, and the African Jungle
These regions represent the potential of instinct to Biff and Willy. Willy’s father found success in Alaska and his brother, Ben, became rich in Africa; these exotic locales, especially when compared to Willy’s banal Brooklyn neighborhood, crystallize how Willy’s obsession with the commercial world of the city has trapped him in an unpleasant reality. Whereas Alaska and the African jungle symbolize Willy’s failure, the American West, on the other hand, symbolizes Biff’s potential. Biff realizes that he has been content only when working on farms, out in the open. His westward escape from both Willy’s delusions and the commercial world of the eastern United States suggests a nineteenth-century pioneer mentality—Biff, unlike Willy, recognizes the importance of the individual.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Seeds represent for Willy the opportunity to prove the worth of his labor, both as a salesman and a father. His desperate, nocturnal attempt to grow vegetables signifies his shame about barely being able to put food on the table and having nothing to leave his children when he passes. Willy feels that he has worked hard but fears that he will not be able to help his offspring any more than his own abandoning father helped him. The seeds also symbolize Willy’s sense of failure with Biff. Despite the American Dream’s formula for success, which Willy considers infallible, Willy’s efforts to cultivate and nurture Biff went awry. Realizing that his all-American football star has turned into a lazy bum, Willy takes Biff’s failure and lack of ambition as a reflection of his abilities as a father.
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. Despite Willy’s belief in the American Dream, a belief unwavering to the extent that he passed up the opportunity to go with Ben to Alaska, the Dream’s promise of financial security has eluded Willy. At the end of the play, Ben encourages Willy to enter the “jungle” finally and retrieve this elusive diamond—that is, to kill himself for insurance money in order to make his life meaningful.
Linda’s and The Woman’s Stockings
Willy’s strange obsession with the condition of Linda’s stockings foreshadows his later flashback to Biff’s discovery of him and The Woman in their Boston hotel room. The teenage Biff accuses Willy of giving away Linda’s stockings to The Woman. Stockings assume a metaphorical weight as the symbol of betrayal and sexual infidelity. New stockings are important for both Willy’s pride in being financially successful and thus able to provide for his family and for Willy’s ability to ease his guilt about, and suppress the memory of, his betrayal of Linda and Biff.
The Rubber Hose
The rubber hose is a stage prop that reminds the audience of Willy’s desperate attempts at suicide. He has apparently attempted to kill himself by inhaling gas, which is, ironically, the very substance essential to one of the most basic elements with which he must equip his home for his family’s health and comfort—heat. Literal death by inhaling gas parallels the metaphorical death that Willy feels in his struggle to afford such a basic necessity.
by Kennethtidge, September 15, 2012
This analysis is so much simpleminded BS. A less than cursory, sloppy interpretation.
40 out of 229 people found this helpful3
by WhiteRaven007, October 09, 2012
I went on here to review for a test, and it was a complete waste of time. The interpretation of the play is no narrow minded my 10 year old brother could have figured it out.
14 out of 74 people found this helpful1