Death of a Salesman symbolism / imagery

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Death of a Salesman

  • Willy symbolizes the common man

  • Biff's football game = a symbol of success for the future to Willy

  • Ben represents all that Willy wishes the boys to be, yet his actions in the past are not firmly established. He is, for Willy, a symbol of all that is "good in the land of opportunity"

  • The garden symbolizes both Willy’s need to leave something behind for people to remember him by and as a form of provision for the future of his family.


  • consumer society’s pressures of advertising persuade people to acquire goods and to do so by paying for them by installments

  • money defines success: people are judged by the amount they acquire, and the amount of success is linked with the amount of money they have.

  • that is why Willy feels he has to succeed, and the only way to show his success is to acquire money and material goods.

  • Willy's America is a land of opportunity in which ambitious young people like Biff can accomplish great things

  • Real America: although it still may be the land of opportunity, it seems to have acquired a new set of values

  • countryside is different from modern consumer society: the structure of society there is much simpler and different - it is an image of an older America

  • Willy feels that he has to be within society yet looks back to a golden age when life was simpler.

  • Society in which the Loman family lives is governed by people like Ben—ruthless managers who care little for the opinions of others, and in such a society the Lomans, although they only occasionally realize it, are out of place.

  • There are many forms of failure as well as success that are spawned by our American system. The Lomans are all an example of what life is like if you continually live in a dream world and never train yourself for anything. Ben is the exception in the Loman family. He is the only one of them to turn our successful. However, Charlie and his son Bernard were able to achieve greatness and to make the system work for them. In the end, the decision to make it in this American system is, ironically, up to the individual.


  • D.O.A.S. attempts to explore the implications of life for which men—not gods—are wholly responsible.

  • Willy is disturbed by the element of rapid obsolescence which is a highly oppressive aspect of life


  • Loman's suicide is obviously intended as a gesture of the hero's victory over circumstances

  • it is an act of love, intended to redeem his house

  • The exhausted, idealistic man who has visions of a great future for his sons does not in the end come to terms with reality, but retains his hopes. To Willy, death is the only answer.


  • Loss of job and money defines success; by losing his job, Willy has let everyone down, most of all himself.


  • inconsistencies which Willy displays show the conflict inside of him. e.g. Willy says that his car is "the greatest car ever built", but later contradicts himself when he changes his opinion to "that goddamn Chevrolet"

  • needs to believe in himself in order to survive

  • cannot accept the supposed hurt to his pride that a job offered by Charley might inflict upon him



  • lacks self assurance because of the uncertainty about his father's attitude towards him, and his doubts about his own life and future

  • has not found his place in society, but also realizes that he does not fit into any of the openings that society has made

  • as a result of Willy's lies he is undisciplined and disillusioned

  • sees the city as a concrete jungle, but refuses to conform to the city's demands


  • tries to share in Willy's ideals, yet suffers great torment as she observes Willy's decline knowing that she is unable to help

  • Fails to understand what happens to Willy and fails to fathom what has occurred between him and Biff, but still manages to retain a belief in the need to treat human beings properly

  • loyal and supportive

  • anger stems from her beliefs in the Loman family, and memories of happy times in the past

  • she is a woman struggling to come to terms with the city, her husband, and her sons

  • "Linda, as the eternal wife and mother, the fixed point of affection both given and received, the woman who suffers and endures, is in many ways, the earth mother who embodies the play's ultimate moral value, love. But in the beautiful, ironic complexity of her creation, she is also Willy's and their sons' destroyer. In her love Linda has accepted Willy's Greatness and his dream, but while in her admiration for Willy her love is powerful and moving, in her admiration for his dreams, it is lethal. She encourages Willy's dream, yet she will not let him leave her for the New Continent, the only realm where the dream can be fulfilled. She wants to reconcile father and son, but she attempts this in the context of Willy's false values. She cannot allow her sons to achieve that selfhood that involves denial of these values

 Happy

  • similar to Willy - lost because he has never allowed himself to turn his face toward defeat

  • regular guy has a job, hopes for promotion, committed to conform

  • never acquires Biff's ultimate self-knowledge and realization of the truth

  • remains the Loman that he always was, incapable of interpreting the message of Willy's failure

 Ben

  • Willy's foil

  • ruthless business man, rich, adventurous, not confined by any psychological restraints

  • acts as a mentor for Willy, Willy wants Ben's story of success to happen to him

  • is an example of the very small population who are successful without much work—the dream of most people to have that happen to themselves

 Charley

  • Willy cannot understand Charley's success, his own formula seems to have broken down, and yet he can never admit this.

  • helps break down Willy's belief that to be well liked is the most important quality in a salesman

 Bernard

  • Biff's foil

 Woman

  • at first makes Willy feel wanted, has made him feel as though he were the salesman that he imagines himself as being

  • Willy's longing to be seen as a successful man and to be placed in a position where he can reach all the buyers is obviously connected to the woman, while it also reveals the superficiality of Willy's family life

  • his concern for Linda is genuine but his need for success overcomes his feelings of loyalty

 Howard represents the professional business man—consideration for the firm must come first. He has no sentiment, which probably accounts for his success.


 Willy Loman(the common man)

 Miller attempted to personify certain values which civilized men in the twentieth century share.

 his life's experiences seem to intermingle and disturb the logical flow of reality

 views his life as a totality. conventions of time and place are not relevant for him.

 has high ideals-perhaps unattainable ones

 wants to be loved by all; wants to succeed by terms that do not suit his nature; wants to leave his mark upon the world.

 feels he has to succeed, and the only way to show his success is to acquire money and material goods. He does not want to face the fact that he is not earning enough.

 when he finally evaluates his performance, he realizes that he has fallen far short of his goals at that point, suicide becomes an art of valor for him


 follows an aesthetic, rather than a logical mode of development

 represents the protagonist's attempt to reconstitute the progression of his experience

 "stream-of-consciousness"

 Miller does not divide his vision of reality into discrete units. He conceives Willy's mind as a place out of time, as a state in which all boundaries have been erased, in which all things are coexistent.

 aesthetic progression: a reconstruction of the movement of consciousness: the perception of facts, events, and ideas; fears, passions, and superstitions; hope, dreams, and ambitions, in their various stages of maturity and immaturity.

 Return to the past in Willy's mind happens because:

  1. the family is all important to him

  2. he is becoming deranged , and it portrays his frame of mind to the audience

  3. shows the extent of Willy's disillusionment

  4. flashbacks reveal the truth

  5. adds to understanding of characters and relationship development

 The play is divided into three main parts, Act I, Act II, and the Requiem. Each section takes place on a different day in present-day. Within Act I and Act II, the story is presented through the use of Willy's flashbacks. This use of flashback is fundamental to the structure and understanding of the play.

 The story starts at present-day and Willy then lapses in and out of the past. Each flashback is somehow related to the present. Very often, the contents of the flashback offer essential background knowledge for understanding why the present-day problems in the Loman family are occurring. For example, when Willy is thinking about Biff and Biff's problems, Willy is transported to the summer of Biff's senior year. The events that took place in the past expose for the reader the situations that have led up to the present-day boiling point in the Loman household.


  • The enactment of his suffering, fall, and partial enlightenment, provokes a mixed response: that anger and delight, indignation and sympathy, pity and fear which Aristotle describes as "catharsis"

  • tragic feeling is evoked when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity

Is Willy a tragic hero?


  • Miller argues that tragedy is not restricted to kings and queens

  • the common man is capable of heroism and tragedy

  • Miller's tragedy = The result of an individual's quest for personal dignity and occurs when an individual attempts to evaluate existence justly.

  • tragic flaw = an unwillingness to submit passively to the established order and values

  • in Willy's descent, there is a tragic paradox; for as he moves towards inevitable destruction, he acquires that knowledge, that sense of reconciliation, which allows him to conceive a redemptive plan for his house

  • Loman, the contemporary hero, embarks upon a most courageous Odyssey: the descent into the self, where he engages his most dangerous enemy, himself.


  • In the traditional sense, Willy is neither noble nor heroic

  • does not measure up to the stature of a great and good man

  • a small man, a mere failure who does not have the sufficient grace to warrant universal concern

  • doesn't have just one tragic flaw - he has many (disloyal, headstrong, short tempered, proud, false, etc)

  • common man is not of high stature


  • set in twentieth-century industrial society, complete with apartment blocks, financial difficulties and pressures to succeed.

  • East Coast America

  • Willy's America - land of opportunity in which ambitious young people like Biff can accomplish great things


 because the play is about Willy's search rather than the socioeconomic environment in which his search takes place, the play's setting is scrupulously devoid of detailed reminders of place and time.

 Ben's remarks, the flute music, and the voice of the Woman illustrate Miller's concept that everything exists at the same time-at least within the human mind.

 The Salesman image was from the beginning absorbed with the concept that nothing in life comes next, but that everything exists together and at the same time within us; that there is no past to be brought forward in a human being but that he is his past at every moment and that the present is merely that which his past is capable of noticing and smelling and reacting to.

 Music: sets the mood
opening stage direction "a melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” flute is an expressionist device
flute is an instrument associated with nostalgia can be heard playing when Willy begins to imagine a happier life in the past
at times of promise of better things to come in the future, the music is "gay and bright” creating a mood on the stage
"raw, and sensuous music” during the "woman” scenes

 Light
  Apartments are surrounded by "an angry glow of orange”...represents the anger of people who fall in the city, who are deprived of promise, who, like Biff, are angered by the way of life.


 Willy lives closer to our experience than many protagonists, he is struggling with the pressures of twentieth century life: of money, of the city, of the family, of the job, while his weaknesses are those which ordinary humans share. Loneliness, the inability to decide exactly what one wants, the breakdown of communications between the two generations, are all part of our lives to some extent. Miller shows that man is isolated, and, even though he struggles, he may actually be faced with impossible odds.


   relationship between Willy & Biff (father and son)

(a) Biff is the favorite son, and yet cannot live up to what Willy wants for him, nor can he really share Willy's ambitions for the future
(b) gap of generations between father and son, a gap of ideals and one which Willy comes to see as the play progresses
(c) Willy is unable to face the fact that Biff will never become a great man
(d) Willy's hopes are so closely associated with Biff that he seems unable to remember for long that Biff is a mature man, supposedly capable of making his own decisions.


 D.O.A.S. is a statement about the nature of human crises in the twentieth century which seems, increasingly, to be applicable to the entire fabric of civilized experience

 the play grew from observations of ordinary life: a simple frame house filled with children who will grow and leave; a house that will one day be full of strangers.

 It is about the fabric of family life: the day-to-day banter among family members, as well as the moments of intense joy and sorrow.

 About failure and disillusionment, a boy's belief in his father and a father's dream for his sons and himself are sadly crushed.

 also celebrates humanity and the love between father and son.

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