Symbolism in Death of a Salesman

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Introduction

The play “Death of a Salesman” by Miller shows how the main character, Willy, is living in modern America at a time when many technological advancements are taking place. However, the main character does not accept his current condition and focuses on living up to the modern world’s standards despite not doing well financially. His inability to accept change makes him lose his identity. This makes him live in despair and regret his past decisions, believing that if he had made a contrary decision, he would be living the life he desires in modern times. In the play, the author uses symbolism to express the main character’s feelings, thus giving a deeper meaning to his experiences while building the plot and illustrating the themes of failure and success. Therefore, the use of symbols to represent ideas is called symbolism. This means one thing can be represented by another thing to convey a deeper meaning. The symbols may include a person, object, or situation. Literary symbolism includes similes, myths, metaphors, and archetypes. Since the author uses several symbols within the book, a critical analysis will facilitate a better understanding of the storyline. Three symbols of interest used in the play “Death of a Salesman” include stockings, seeds, and diamonds.

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Stockings

Stockings are garments worn by women that fit closely over the legs and thighs. In this case, the author uses stockings to signify guilt and regret. The stockings belong to the main character’s wife, Linda. Miller (1949) states that while Linda was mending her stockings in the presence of Willy when he snatched her stockings from her hands and placed them inside the garbage can. This is because Linda’s stockings reminded him of his infidelity, bringing out feelings of guilt. Seemingly, when his son, Biff, sees stockings, he is reminded of his father’s affair in Boston; he states, “You- you gave her mama’s stockings” (Mambrol, 2020). In both instances, Linda’s stockings symbolize Willy’s infidelity and betrayal. This indicates that his conduct has affected his son, who has developed anger towards him. In addition, his son, Happy, has developed the character of sleeping around with all manner of women; he states, “I just keep knockin’ them over, and it doesn’t mean anything” (Miller, 1949). This indicates his failure as a husband and a father by being not faithful to his loyal and devoted wife and setting a bad example to his children.

Diamonds

Diamonds are one of the most precious stones available in the world: They are associated with wealth and prestige. According to Pei (2020), Willy believed that people become successful by being popular and good-looking; his older brother Ben is an embodiment of this illusion, whom he perceived as the idealistic American dream. This is because he looked up to him. To ascertain this, Mgamis (2017) suggests that Willy Loman’s failure was due to his pursuit of perfection and illusion. Therefore, his thoughts about achieving success were contrary to the true American dream advocating for hard work yielding success. In his narration, Miller (1949) states that Ben equated Africa to a diamond mine since he walked into the African jungle at seventeen and walked out at twenty-one rich. Here, the diamonds signify the success of his brother, Ben, compared to his salesman job, which has not given him any wealth. This is because he did not take up the opportunity to travel to Alaska with his brother; instead, he remained behind as a salesman. Furthermore, with Ben’s encouragement, Willy contemplates taking his life for his son Biff to earn some insurance money: Ben states, “It’s dark there, but full of diamonds” (Miller, 1949). This indicates that diamonds are the source of wealth, freedom, and success, which Willy would accord his family once he dies, and they will receive the insurance money following his death.

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Seeds

Another symbol used in the play is seeds; they are supposed to grow and bear fruits. The main character insists on looking for and buying seeds in the play. While conversing with Stanley, he asks him if there is a seed store within the neighborhood, even when Stanley tells him it is late and the hardware stores are located on the sixth avenue, willy states, “Oh, I’d better hurry. I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds’ right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” (Miller, 1949). In this case, seeds symbolize his efforts and the fruits he has cultivated for his family, especially his sons. He sees himself as a failure since he has nothing left for his sons and is hoping to redeem himself through planting and achieving success as a farmer, exposing his poor parenting abilities.

Conclusion

Death of a Salesman,” by Miller, shows how the main character, Willy, is living in modern America during technological advancements. The author uses symbolism to explain the themes of success and failure in the play. The dominant symbols in the play include seeds, diamonds, and stockings. The symbols represent his perception of the American dream and how to achieve it. However, his view differs from the true American dream since his thinking is clouded by illusion, setting him up for failure. Therefore, the play illustrates how perception influences the outcome we receive.

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  1. Mambrol, N. (2020). Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Literary Theory and Criticism. https://literariness.org/2020/07/30/analysis-of-arthur-millers-death-of-a-salesman/
  2. Mgamis, M. S. (2017). Death of a Salesman: Critique of the American Dream. International Journal of Language and Literature. 5(1), pp. 69-71. : https://doi.org/10.15640/ijll.v5n1a9
  3. Miller, A. (1949). Death of a Salesman. https://Death%20of%20a%20Salesman%20(Miller,%20Arthur)%20(z-lib.org).pdf
  4. Pei, G. (2020). Interpretation of Tragedy in Death of a Salesman from the Social Perspective. Journal of Education, Teaching and Social Studies. 2(4), p38-40. http://dx.doi.org/10.22158/jetss.v2n4p38
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