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.
The sound of flute music occurs at key points throughout Death of a Salesman. It opens and closes the play, and serves as a haunting glimpse into Willy’s regrets and the cyclical nature of the relationship between fathers and sons. Willy’s father had been a flute salesman, and apparently managed to find success making and selling the instruments himself. There’s a humility and authenticity to his father’s career in flute-making that Willy’s own career clearly lacks.
Furthermore, just as Willy has a vision for Biff’s life, so too can it be seen that Willy is trying to follow in his father’s. He yearns for the success he imagines his father had, and for the wilderness that claimed him. The flute music indicates the existence of another path, one which Willy is unable and in some ways chooses not to take. it is notable that the concrete details of his father’s life elude Willy in the same way wealth and success do; much of what he knows comes from Ben. In a way, Willy recreates these same circumstances with his own sons, crafting a narrative for them that doesn’t reflect his actual life. Tragically, Willy takes away all the wrong lessons from his father, forgoing a meaningful career in favor of a path that lacks fulfillment, thereby cementing the trap into which he ultimately falls.