Symbolism in Death of a Salesman


Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a tragic tale published in 1949. The play is considered one of the most classic American stories exploring different perspectives of achieving the American Dream. Through the character of a salesman, Willy Loman, Miller develops a compelling story that illustrates the shortcomings of the American Dream as the protagonist literary gives his life to achieve the dream. After several years of traveling as a salesman with meager earnings, Willy realizes that he has failed as a husband and a father to his children, Biff and Happy. Consequently, he becomes immersed in the past, reminiscing over missed opportunities. His view of prosperity is unrealistic and delusional as he fails to recognize the changes around him. Miller uses effective symbols that give readers a profound insight into Willy’s romantic dreams and idealized past, which make him lose touch with reality. Through the symbols of diamonds, seeds, and stockings, the author efficiently depicts the limitations of the American Dream, delusion, and betrayal.

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Symbols of Unrealistic Dream and Expectations

Diamonds signify wealth and prosperity, which justifies one’s dedication and determination to succeed. To Willy, diamonds are the tangible wealth that an individual can show for the validation of their labor. Similarly, the diamonds represent Willy’s ability to pass substantial wealth to his children. Willy desperately craves success and material wealth that he can leave to his generation despite the struggles he has endured almost his entire life. On the other hand, Ben has achieved his American by heading into the wilderness of Alaska and discovering diamonds. According to Juan (2010), Ben’s success illustrated Willy’s failure and missed opportunity as he failed to follow his brother’s endeavors. He states with Happy, “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” (Miller, 1996). Because his brother successfully fulfilled his dream, Willy feels like a failure in front of his children. However, his vision of prosperity varies slightly from his children’s view and outlook on life due to Willy’s delusion and being stuck in an idealized past.

The seeds exemplify Willy Bowman’s failure as a father to achieve success and wealth for his children to inherit. He envisions molding his children to have the same view of prosperity as him, but he fails to recognize that the world is changing. Eventually, his romanticized past coincides with the realities of the contemporary world, creating a conflict of interest with the sons. When he envisions growing seeds in his backyard garden, Linda states, “But not enough suns gets back there. Nothing’ll grow anymore.” (Miller, 1996). He buys some seeds that he tries to plant at night but, unfortunately, results in nothing. Willy exclaims, “I’ve got some seeds right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.” (Miller, 1996). Willy admits to his failure for not s protecting the children’s future enough to leave them with something to inherit. This statement implies that Willy has constantly failed in his endeavors as a salesman. His life remains barren, and so is the children’s hope of inheritance, as nothing has come out of his efforts yet (Rim & Aissa, 2020). It seems that it is already too late to try to reinvent himself in the hope that he can invest in the children’s future. The seeds represent the futility and desperation of fulfilling his American Dream.

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Symbols of Betrayal

The stockings symbolize Willy’s guilt and past mistakes that have haunted his dreams and hopes for a better future for his family. The stockings are psychological torture for Willy, as they remind him of how he betrayed and abandoned his family by having an affair with another woman. When Biff discovers him with the woman he is having an affair with, he tries to explain, stating, “She’s nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely.” Biff shockingly asks, “You gave her Mama’s stockings.” (Miller, 1996). This outburst cements the stocking as a symbol of betrayal as Willy lets his family down through the affair.

Similarly, Willy disregards his family’s already strained financial resources by engaging in the affair (Thompson, 2017). However, he feels guilty for making a wrong decision even though he does not know how to make up for it. When he sees Linda holding a stocking in his hand while mending it, he immediately becomes disappointed. He tells her, “Will you stop mending Stockings? At least while I’m in the house. It gets me nervous.” (Miller, 1996). Willy’s reaction indicates his guilt and disappointment, pretty much like his failure as a salesman and a father, as he decides to commit suicide.

Generally, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman presents a relatable tragic story of a man who gives his life to fulfill his dreams. Miller employs symbolism through objects such as diamonds, seeds, and stockings that help readers visualize Willy’s thought process, delusion, unrealistic expectations, and betrayal. Through Willy’s failure to grasp the realities and changes around him, Miller explores the negative impacts of buying into a dream with unrealistic expectations. Willy Bowman becomes so obsessed with getting tangible wealth that he loses touch with essential things such as the love of his family. Ultimately, Willy abandons his family by committing suicide, hoping the insurance money will aid his financially retrained family.

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  1. Juan, Z. (2010). Corruption of the “American Dream” in Death of a Salesman: A Thematic Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Cross-Cultural Communication6(3), 122-126.
  2. Miller, A. (1996). Death of a Salesman: Revised Edition. Penguin.
  3. Rim, D., & Aissa, D. (2020). The Tragedy of Modern Man in Death of a Salesman (Doctoral dissertation).
  4. Thompson, T. W. (2017). The Baggage Handlers: Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. The Explicator75(1), 52-54.
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