English Literature » Notes » Death of a Salesman: Time Motif

Death of a Salesman: Time Motif

Half way through the first act, the reader hears something about a 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 he came out Ben was rich. In the next speech, Happy tells his dad that he is going to retire him for life. Willy flares up and tells both his boys that:

.. the woods are burning. I can’t even drive a car.

All of these ideas and images emerge into one. Ben becomes Willy’s ideal. Here was a man who had nothing and ended up rich. The jungle that Ben walked into is symbolically the jungle of life.

Thus when Willy says that the woods are burning, he mans that life is closing in on him. Whereas, Ben conquered the jungle of life, Willy can only be trapped by the burning woods. Consequently the phrase “the woods are burning” suggests that time is running out on Willy. He no longer has enough time to do anything. This concept of time hurrying past man is again emphasized by Ben. Every time we see Ben, he has his watch out and keeps saying that he has only a few more minutes or that he has to catch a train. He is always on the move while Willy remains stagnantly still. What Ben stands for is captured in his phrase:

When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out … And by God I was rich.

Here was a man who utilized time while time has simply passed Willy by.

When Howard fires Willy, he has nowhere to turn. Now the woods are really burning. He must now rely upon boys, but his boys are not reliable. So when Biff tries to tell Willy the truth, Willy maintains that he is not interested in the past.

… because the woods are burning, boys, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around. I was fired today.

Willy then has spent his life “rising up a zero” and now there is no place for him to go. Therefore he conceives of a way out of his burning woods. This involves suicide. Through suicide he would be able to leave his sons twenty thousand dollars. But as Ben says:

It does take a great kind of a man to crack the jungle.

But here the jungle is no longer the jungle of life; instead it is the jungle of death. This jungle “is dark but full of diamonds”: that is, the diamonds represent the insurance money. And to Ben frantic calling that it is “Time, William, time”. Willy drives off to his own death.

Therefore, for Willy, the jungle was a life that he could never conquer and instead it became a type of burning woods that was constantly closing in upon him. But in the end, when time had completely overtaken him, the jungle became the darkness of death which wily thought he could mistakenly conquer by suicide.