Literary Devices in Death of a Salesman

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  • 0:00 Purpose of Literary Devices
  • 0:22 Literary Devices Used…
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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.

This lesson focuses on literary devices in 'Death of a Salesman' by Arthur Miller. These devices add texture and interest to the play, and they help the audience understand the significant ideas in how Miller presents in the tragic story of Willy Loman.

Purpose of Literary Devices

Literary devices are often used to create an additional layer of meaning in a story, play, or poem. These devices can add depth to the piece, or reveal information that lies beyond the literal meaning of the text. Arthur Miller uses several literary devices in his well-known play Death of a Salesman.

Literary Devices Used in the Play

Willy Loman is the play's protagonist, or main character. This play is a tragedy, or a work that depicts that downfall of the protagonist. Typically, a tragic hero is usually a person of some status who falls from his or her noble position over the course of the story. Willy Loman, however, is more of an anti-hero because he does not possess the social status traditionally associated with a hero in literature.

Many of the play's events are depicted in flashbacks. Miller uses flashbacks to reveal events that occurred before the current time of the play. For example, one scene in Death of a Salesman depicts Biff and Happy, Willy's sons, in high school. At the current time of the play, however, the two are in their thirties.

Death of a Salesman also contains several instances of foreshadowing, a literary device that provides hints or clues about events that will occur in the future. The flute music that is associated with Willy Loman is one example: It hints at a revelation that occurs later in the play. Willy's father, who abandons his family at a young age, was a flute salesman.

Willy's wife Linda speaks of Willy having several automobile accidents the previous year. Linda tells Biff and Happy that the insurance inspector has spoken to a witness who says that Willy intentionally drove into a bridge. 'She says he came to that little bridge, and then deliberately smashed into the railing, and it was only the shallowness of the water that saved him,' Linda says. This incident foreshadows Willy's suicide at the end of the play.

The play's dominant theme, or main idea, is that Willy's distorted idea of the American Dream brings about his demise. The American Dream presents success as something attainable to everyone who is willing to work for it with dogged determination. Willy Loman, however, believes that success is the result of being affable. He passes this notion along to his sons, as well. Willy and his sons are contrasted with their neighbors, Charley and Bernard, who are able to achieve success through hard work.

The play also addresses the theme of betrayal. For example, Willy's father betrays his family when he leaves them to seek his fortune elsewhere. Later in the play, Willy betrays his wife with a woman at a Boston hotel. Arthur Miller uses symbolism to develop the themes in the play. Symbols represent emotions or ideas beyond an object's literal meaning.

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