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Death of a Salesman: Themes & Symbols

Death of a Salesman: Themes & Symbols
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  • 0:04 Willy Loman's Dreams
  • 0:24 The Play's Themes
  • 1:43 Symbols
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Arthur Miller includes several memorable symbols in ''Death of a Salesman,'' his play about the tragic life of Willy Loman. These symbols add additional layers of meaning to the narrative and often serve to underscore the play's main themes.

Willy Loman's Dreams

Most people experience disappointments in their lives at some point, but most people are able to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of their dreams. Willy Loman's dreams, however, set him up for failure. His mistaken ideas about the American Dream lead to tragedy, not only for Willy, but for his family, as well.

The Play's Themes

The American Dream is the dominant theme, or main idea, in Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman's notions of the American Dream equate success with being well-liked. Likeability is an important quality for a salesman like Willy, yet he is unable to achieve the success he desires. His neighbor Charley, in contrast, is able to establish a comfortable living through hard work.

Charley's son Bernard has grown up to become a successful attorney, while Willy's sons - reared on the idea that being liked is all that matters - have not found professional success. The Lomans' ideas about the American Dream leave out one critical component: hard work.

The American Dream has betrayed Willy, and betrayal is another significant theme in the play. Willy betrays his wife Linda with a woman in a hotel; Biff's discovery of the affair is a turning point in his life, for it leads him to think of his father as a phony.

Willy has made much of Biff's status as a high school gridiron hero, and he wants Biff to live up to the potential he has shown as a young man. Willy understands that Biff has simply given up after learning of his betrayal of Linda. Willy says to Biff, ''I want you to know, on the train, in the mountains, in the valleys, wherever you go, that you cut down your life for spite!''

Symbols

The symbols that appear in Death of a Salesman add a deeper context to the play and highlight many of the play's themes.

Willy Loman is a dreamer, and he plants seeds in his backyard, hoping to provide for his family. The seeds represent potential, much like Willy's appointments. Both represent Willy's attempts to provide, yet neither the seeds Willy plants nor the appointments with the buyers are guaranteed to yield anything of value.

Willy mentions the refrigerator, a material possession that appears built to self-destruct by the time the owner finishes paying for it. Willy resents the refrigerator, which has required a belt replacement already. Linda also mentions the revolving credit monthly payments for the vacuum cleaner and washing machine. Willy is in over his head, and the monthly payments make it appear that the Lomans will never be ''free and clear.'' These symbols of materialism fail to satisfy, and they actually create additional problems as the Lomans struggle to make the payments.

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