Exploring Settings, Symbols, Themes, and Author’s Style in “Death of a Salesman”
Within Death of a Salesman, there are three different settings: Boston, Brooklyn, and inside of Willy’s mind. The play starts off in Brooklyn, New York, inside an apartment that is super cramped by other buildings. Willy dislikes his home because of how enclosed and claustrophobic it is. He desperately wants to move to somewhere more open and free, like Texas. In Boston, the Lomans have the conversation at the restaurant; it is also where Biff discovers Willy and the women’s affair that has been going on for so and so years.
Boston is a place of heartbreak and misdirection for the Lomans. The final setting in the play is inside Willy’s head. We see many flashbacks: for instance, times when the boys are in high school, when the Lomans are at Biff’s football games when they are at home just hanging out together, etc. This implies that most of the setting takes place within the mind of Willy Loman. As readers, we can not always trust Willy because he is not a reliable source. The main setting was in the 1940s. The flashbacks are in a time 15-25 years before then; we see a time of relief and prosperity in America before and after World War II.
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Major Symbols, Motifs, Images
Some of the major symbols throughout Death of a Salesman are the seeds, the stockings, and the tennis racket. Willy has a garden, and at the end of the play, when he has no seeds planted in it, he goes nuts. By planting the seeds, he is striving for his legacy to keep “growing” or to be passed on to his children. He does not want to leave the earth without creating a legacy for himself and his kids. The stockings are a reminder to Willy that he has failed at life and show that he can’t provide for his family as he dreams of doing. Bernard’s tennis racket is a symbol of success for him and a symbol of failure for Biff.
It is ironic that Bernard succeeded in life because he was not well-liked like Biff. Willy realizes this and assumes Bernard blames him for the fall of Biff. Some motifs within the play are wealth/debt, Alaska/Africa/American West, diamonds in the jungle, and open/enclosed spaces. The Loman’s wealth and debt fluctuate a lot, but they never seem to be out of debt until the requiem. The burden of debt shows the Loman family’s struggle to secure financial freedom. It also shows that it can tear apart a family who is poor. The motif of Alaska, Africa, and the American West represents Willy’s want for freedom and an escape from the tight, lonely lifestyle he lives.
It gives Willy a false sense of Hope for his kids and himself that they will get out of the economic gutter. In Willy’s flashbacks, Ben talks about diamonds in the jungle a lot. These diamonds represent a high-risk, high-reward outcome. Back then, technology was not very advanced. Diamond diamond mining was a scarce job due to the fear of death in the mine, but those who sought out that job were surprised with riches beyond their wildest dreams.
Significance of the Opening Scene(s)
Miller begins Death of a Salesman with Willy and Linda talking about Willy’s accident with the car; although it does not seem like an accident, Linda supports him through it. Willy talks about not feeling well and having uncontrollable daydreams. This shows Willy’s deception of real life. Miller shows Willy contradicting himself a lot and pressing his hands against his eyes, showing he is depressed. It is shown that the Lomans live in a small apartment in Brooklyn, and compared to the other lots, theirs is just adequate. The Loman’s lack of content shows their societal role within the book as a low-income, middle-class family struggling to achieve the American dream. Miller proves all of these facts through stage directions.
Significance of the Ending/Closing Scene
The closing scene of the play shows Linda, Biff, Charley, and Happy at Willy’s funeral, with many fewer people than expected. While they are reminiscing his memory, Linda can’t seem to understand why. Willy never identified who he truly was, and the dreams he wanted to achieve were misdirected by his family and flashbacks. Linda held him back because she always agreed with his lies and opinions, no matter what they were, because she cherished and admired him. Because Willy did not truly know his goals, this led him to discontent with his life; he was constantly seeking something new or better to do. Biff ultimately disliked Willy for that very reason. It also signifies Happy, who has become complacent with his life even after his father’s death.
Description of Author’s Style
Miller takes on a style of recording Willy’s mental state throughout the play. The protagonist of Death of a Salesman is subject to uncontrollable daydreams/flashbacks of reality. Willy’s Psyche grew extremely “tired” and out of control, which led to him having a hard time coming back to reality by himself; it was always outside forces that brought him back, for instance, a tap recorder playing its recording after he bumped it. Miller’s style is to never let Willy be free from his clouded mind. He, in addition, uses ordinary language commonly used in the 1940s to express the realistic and expressionistic side of the story when he has flashbacks. Miller gives the reader expressionistic and realistic views of Willy’s declining life in his style.
The passage that Demonstrates the Author’s Style
This passage demonstrates Miller’s style because it has the literary technique of ordinary language, realism, and expressionism.
“Howard [getting up]: You’ll have to excuse me, Willy; I gotta see some people. Pull yourself together. [Going out] I’ll be back in a little while. [On HOWARD’S exit, the light on his chair grows very bright and strange.] Willy: Pull myself together! What the hell did I say to him? My God, I was yelling at him! How could I! [WILLY breaks off, staring at the light, which occupies the chair, animating it. He approaches this chair, standing across the desk from it.]
Frank, Frank, don’t you remember what you told me that time? How you put your hand on my shoulder, and Frank… [He leans on the desk, and as he speaks the dead man’s name, he accidentally switches on the recorder, and instantly–] HOWARD’S Son: … of New York is Albany. The capital of Ohio is Cincinnati, the capital of Rhode Island is… [The recitation continues.] Willy [leaping away with fright, shouting]: Ha! Howard! Howard! Howard! HOWARD [rushing in]: What happened? WILLY [pointing at the machine, which continues nasally, childishly, with capital cities]: Shut it off! Shut it off! HOWARD [pulling the plug out]: Look, Willy… WILLY [pressing his hands to his eyes]: I gotta get myself some coffee. I’ll get some coffee…” (Miller, 2.62).
Themes/Universal Truths/Author’s Purpose
Throughout Death of a Salesman, there are many themes portrayed. For instance, the American dream, freedom/hope/plans, and Abandonment.
The American Dream
Willy has always had this fixation on freedom and the right to wealth and success, also known as “the American dream.” He craved it ever since he was a little boy because his dad had achieved it before him, as well as his brother Ben. Willy felt the weight of being the only man in the family who had not amounted to anything particularly amazing in life. This insistent nerve causes Willy to become distraught and conflicted with his daily life. Willy has standards for the American dream. You must be physically representable and well-liked in general. Willy’s death is ultimately because of his misguided faith in that he thinks the American dream is the best and only source of Hope to achieve success.
Freedom/hope/plans for the future
Willy is no doubt a dreamer. He always has these absurd plans to achieve success in some way or another, but he is so infatuated with this concept that he thinks all he has to do to conquer success is to dream and plan for it. While this is definitely a step into material success, Willy loses sight of the idea that he actually needs to execute his plans and dreams for them to pan out. His recurring flashbacks cause him to become mentally blind to the real obstacles in front of him, blocking his path to the American dream. Biff and Happy are similar in the fact that they also have big hopes and dreams, but they never really seem to go through with them. With the exception of Biff moving to Texas.
We see the theme of Abandonment several times in Death of a Salesman. At first, we find out that Willy’s father left him and his brother Ben when they were little kids. This causes the severe depression Willy suffers from throughout the play. On top of his dad leaving, his older brother Ben also leaves to look for their father in Alaska. This forces Willy to fend for himself and become the man of the family. We also see Abandonment through Biff when he leaves to go out west for ten years, comes back, and expects his family to accept him back into the family. His rising fear of Abandonment causes him to have an unhealthy obsession with the American dream and success over happiness.
- “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller
- “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman” by Harold Bloom
- “Understanding Death of a Salesman: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents” by Brenda Murphy