The Death of a Salesman was a tale of broken dreams, aspirations of the characters and unfulfilled promises. The Loman family is portrayed in the play as a dysfunctional family, each member with his or her issues. Willy Loman is sixty-three and nearing retirement, his wife, his two sons, all in their own ways indicated their displeasure with a life that had since been changed by modernity. This discourse indicated several symbolic imageries used in the play as effective devices to develop the story. The symbols used made Willy Loman and the other characters more comprehensible to the audience. The symbolic imagery of urban and rural, interspersed with past and present events created more depth and drama.
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Symbolic Imagery in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman
Arthur Miller’s play portrays some realities that the Loman family faced ranging from family issues to economic ones. Miller expressed some of these situations in through symbolic imageries that allow readers and theater patrons alike to discern and dissect. In many of the dialogues and narratives in the play, the author chose to unfold the drama and ultimately concluded it tragically. Bert Cardullo in Death of a Salesman, Life of a Jew: Ethnicity, Business and the Character of Willy Loman interpreted Loman’s inconsistencies and delusional tendencies as a man descending into the abyss of mental instability (586).
The characters of the play were apparently attached to a past life that they long for to escape the reality of urban living. For Loman’s sons, flashbacks into the past, to some extent expressed their yearning for less complicated lives. Miller made use of different descriptions and narratives to implicitly to refer to better times for the Loman family. In the opening, Miller’s description in the opening paragraph of the Loman’s New York apartment, which begins “telling of grass and trees and the horizon” while the soothing music from a flute gently plays (Miller 11). In the following paragraphs, Miller abruptly shifts to the more austere urban surroundings where the audience could visually discern “the towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides.” (11) The contrasting point of view on the same setting sets the mood of the drama. Miller’s description of the Loman home is symbolic in a sense that it portends the events that were forthcoming. The jarring description of the Loman abode appeared to be alluding to the frustrations of the Lomans. The featureless description of the interiors such as the bare kitchen with all but three chairs contradicted the customary assumption that life was better in the city.
Mentioning features that were rural and quite out of place in urban cities such as New York reflected how the Lomans pined for a former life when it was quieter, less hectic and stressful. Willy Loman’s “planting seed in the backyard” after he was fired from his salesman job was a gesture on his part that he longed for the past when he was still very much inspired to attain those dreams (Miller 138). Now, an old man, the futility of planting seeds in a concrete jungle such as New York alluded to Willy’s despair and how everything was much to late to amend. Radavich in Arthur Miller’s Sojourn In The Heartland wrote that the Lomans’ situation had deteriorated so much that it was difficult to re-establish the balance (40). Miller kept referring to the rural Midwest when he moved back and forth between rural and urban setting in Willy’s reveries. The Midwest is something which symbolizes the world one leaves behind and which is replaced by high-rise buildings. Like the Lohans’ dreams of better life in the city, it would be difficult to take root because essentially, nothing could grow on concrete.
The house itself was Willy Loman’s frustration where the aging couple lived amidst the materials they were made – the bricks and the windows. (Miller 17) Although the Lomans were not explicit about their yearning for their past life when everything was pristine, simple and natural, Willy Loman’s disgust over what became of the place when compared to when the family first moved in continued to echo his aggravation.
Willy Loman’s brother Benjamin intermittently appears in his monologues and nostalgic recollections of the past again emphasized his discontent. The older sibling described as “a stolid man, in his sixties, with a moustache and an authoritative air” represented what Willy could never become (44). His older brother was Willy’s insecurity. Willy could never measure up to the success his brother had achieved in his lifetime and this haunted Willy incessantly. Willy expressed his insecurity mentioning how Benjamin was so self-assured and well-traveled (44). The more Willy’s reveries conjured his admired, deceased brother, the more self-conscious he became. The vision of his brother making it in contrast to his feeble attempts at eking out a decent living as a salesman only widened the difference between siblings.
Miller’s reference to facial hair as a feature of masculinity and confidence among the male members of the Loman family tree only emphasized the distinction between the accomplished and the failures. Ironically, Willy and his two boys did not have any facial hair. In the context of associating facial hair to success, the lack of it among Willy and his two sons only led to the conclusion, albeit unfairly, that they were destined to become failures. Miller portrayed the younger Loman generation as rudderless and they will remain “forever immature and impulsive, juvenile, and jejune.” (Thompson 247) A character flaw that father and sons had the misfortune to possess. Thompson’s critical essay on Miller’s Death of a Salesman aptly described the lack of facial hair among the younger Lomans was the “clear reinforcement of the trio’s lack of masculine gravitas” by portraying the three as clean shaven (247).
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Willy Loman’s descent into the abyss of lunacy was best shown in each character’s sense of time. The setting itself which a progression from night, the next day and night again indicated some sense of chronology. However, in describing Willy Loman’s neurosis and mental instability, Miller made use of several devices, dialogues and scenes. The “small-fragile seeming home” surrounded by “a solid vault of apartment houses” symbolically described Loman’s current frame of mind (Miller 11). Towards the end of the first Act, the audience sees Willy looking out of his bedroom window and stared pensively at the moon. He remarked, “Gee, look at the moon moving between the buildings.” (69) Miller mentioning the moon and including it in the play’s setting strengthened the assumption that Loman was losing his mind. Ardolino in Like father, like sons: Miller’s negative use of sports imagery in Death of a Salesman associated the moon as a symbol of lunacy (33).
Willy’s contradictions as seen in some of the dialogues signalled his apparent mental instability. In one instance, after reprimanding his son and calling him lazy, he would later retract his accusation and reverse himself. When Willy advised Biff on how to approach his old boss, initially, he would suggest the formal approach but after a few lines, one could hear Willy advising Biff to be more relaxed and nonchalant about it and put on his charms to impress his old boss (Cardullo 487). Such a contradiction within a small span of time indicates something must be wrong with Willy. Throughout the play, contradictions about Willy abound that Miller made it quite clear to the audiences on Willy’s state of mind.
The intermittent introduction of the garden and buildings in the story backdrop also typified Willy’s lost connection to reality. In one of his reverie-conversation with his deceased brother, Willy pointed out to his brother “This time of the year, it was lilac and wisteria. (Miller 17) That scene would be impossible in the urban jungle that New York had become. Willy’s delusions pointed to his deteriorating mental health. Another line from the play that symbolizes Willy’s mental instability was when he mentioned how his house was built, “All the cement, the lumber, the reconstruction I put in this house! There ain’t a crack to be found in it anymore (Miller 74). Ardolino described this as Willy’s “metaphor for his mind, an airtight prison which confines him in neurosis.” (35)
Miller effectively used name imagery to illustrate failure and Willy’s delusions about himself and self-perceptions. To illustrate Willy’s apparent omnipotence and unusual influence over others, Willy remarked, “You take me for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer (33) Taking much pride in being an accomplished salesman according to Willy’s point of view and elaborating on name imagery only reflected his skewed self-assessment. The name imagery also revealed Willy Loman’s failures. After hearing, Biff relating to his mother how people used to laugh behind Willy’s back, invoking name imagery only heightened Loman’s failures. By pathetically asserting the importance of his name, the more Willy reinforced the idea that he was a failure (62). Name imagery would likewise describe Biff’s shortcomings. When he waited to see a former boss, Bill Oliver, Biff said he “kept sending my name in.” (104) However, Oliver did not recognize him and the opportunity to ask Oliver for a favor was shut in Biff’s face.
Willy Loman would likewise use the names of places and cities as part of his “temporal expansion to enhance his relationship with his sons.” (Ardolino (b) 176). However, no matter how successful he was in his travels, it failed to reflect in his professional success. One of the cities that Willy had visited was Waterbury. It was a “big clock city” but the image mocked the Lomans on their unfulfilled dreams of success (Miller 31). Portland was the final destination that Willy was unable to reach because of his deteriorating mental health. It was the cusp of his failures and associating it with boat, Portland symbolizes Willy’s last hold over his sanity and he deemed the best way to get out of his situation was by killing himself. The image of ‘boat’ mentioned in Willy’s final delusional conversation with his brother, imploring that he escorted him to the final destination only emphasizes Willy’s mental condition at the time of his suicide. These haunting lines signaled Willy’s psychological union with his brother Ben. “Time, William, Time!”. We’ll be late…” (Miller 135).
When the play opens with such contradictions, it already provides the audience some clues on the tenor of the plot. The author used a variety of devices to reinforce his point. In the foregoing discussion, the play was examined through the author’s use of symbolic imagery. Several symbols represented insecurity, despair, insanity and skewed self-perceptions. Many of the symbols pointed to Willy Loman’s state of mind that could explain why he committed suicide in the end.
The symbols portended the events leading to the tragic ending of the play. The contradictions presented by the urban and rural setting, the manifestations of mental instability, insecurity and skewed self-perception all marked the flawed man that was Willy Loman. Several devices alluded to insanity such as the moon, the night, the way Loman’s house was built. Other objects such as the boat, the clock and the seed planted that would not grow all symbolized death – death of a dream and death of Willy Loman. Arthur Miller’s dark drama to some extent was critical of what modernity and crass commercialization could do to a man and his family. Judging whether Willy Lohan failed or not was left up to the audience to discover.
Ardolino, Frank, “Like Father, Like Sons: Miller’s Negative Use Of Sports Imagery in Death of a Salesman.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 25(1-2) (March 2004), 32-39.
Ardolino, Frank (b), “”I’m not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman!”: the significance of names and numbers in Death of a Salesman.”Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, (August 2002), 174-185.
Cardullo, Bert, “Death of a Salesman, Life of a Jew: Ethnicity, Business, and the Character of Willy Loman,” Southwest Review, 92(4 )(Fall 2007), 583-596.
Miller, Arthur, “Death of a Salesman,” New York: Penguin, 1949.
Radavich, David, “Arthur Miller’s Sojourn In The Heartland. American Drama, 16(2)(Summer 2007), 28-45.
Thompson, Terry W. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman.(Arthur Miller)(Critical Essay),” The Explicator, 63(4 )(Summer 2005), 244-247.