English Literature » Notes » Death of a Salesman: Symbolism

Death of a Salesman: Symbolism

Symbolism is a technique, employed by a large number of playwrights, in which an object or a metaphor is described having meaning and implications beyond its apparent meaning.

Many of the symbols used in “Death of a Salesman” have specifically American connotations. The play opens with reference to cars. Caris an American symbol of individual mobility, freedom and social status. But Miller uses it in a negative and ironic manner. In the very beginning of the play Willy comes home exhausted with driving. His exhaustion with driving symbolizes his tiredness from life. The car is going out of control. This symbolism gets its final intensity in the climax of the play when Willy drives his car out of the house into darkness and death.

Even in the setting of the play symbolism and expressionistic technique are obvious. There is an angry glow of orange in the environment in which the apartment houses are bathed. When Willy is lost in his memories of the past, the house is draped in a mantle of green. Similarly when Biff and Happy picks up two women at the restaurant callously ignoring their father, the stage directions demand “lucid red”. Finally when Willy appears to be at his wit’s end trying to sow seeds, the stage is flooded with “blue” simultaneously suggesting moonlight and his desperate mood.

There are references to stockings. These references have a narrative and psychological function in the play. Stockings symbolize Willy’s guilt. Willy gives new stockings to the woman as a presents while his wife has mend for her old stockings. Stockings make Willy nervous and his reaction is sudden.

“Will you stop mending stockings? At least while I am in the house. It gets me nervous.”

Even the sound of flute in the play is symbolic. The play opens with a melodyof the flute. Here is a symbolism that subtly supports the meaning of the play. As the play closes with Linda leaving Willy’s grave the only thing left on the stage is the sound of the flute playing a rather sad dirge. Thus the melody of flute opens and closes the play or it may be said to encompass the entire drama. But the use of symbol of flute becomes more important when we come to know that Willy’s father used to make and sell flutes. In this way he was also a salesman but he used to sell flutes prepared by his own hands, whereas, Willy sells wares of some other person.

Half way through the first act, the reader hears something about Willy’s brother Ben. Willy wishes that he had gone to Alaska with his brother Ben. At the same time he speaks of Ben’s having walked into a jungle and when Ben came out he was rich. Happy tells his dad that he is going to retire him for life. Willy flares up and tells both the boys that:

“Woods are burning. I can’t even drive a car.”

Ben becomes Willy’s ideal. Ben is a man who has nothing in the beginning but he ends up in riches. The Jungle than Ben walks into is symbolically the jungle of life. But the jungle becomes the woods for Willy. Thus when Willy says that ‘the woods are burning’ he means that life is closing in on him. Whereas, Ben conquered the jungle of life, Willy was trapped by the burning wood. Consequently the phrase ‘the woods are burning’ suggest that time is running out on Willy. He no longer has enough time to do anything. This concept of time is again emphasized by Ben. Every time we see Ben, he has his watch out and keeps saying that he has only a few minutes or that he has to catch a train. He is always on the move while Willy remains stagnant still.

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, but he can’t do so because of the hardness of earth. This implies that his life is a barren thing. But it is already too late and his gestures of planting in the hope of future growth are desperate and futile.

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 dilemma than they are public issues.