The Rubber Pipe
The rubber pipe is a dark and morbid symbol in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman. Literally, the rubber pipe is the implement the main character Willy Loman keeps hidden in his basement for his suicide attempts. At the most fundamental level, then, the rubber pipe symbolizes Willy's quiet determination to eliminate himself in the midst of what has turned out to be an unfulfilling and superficial life. The text is ambiguous about how many times Willy has attempted suicide in this manner (by attaching the rubber pipe to the gas line and inhaling), but the presence of the rubber pipe is nonetheless a reminder that Willy is on the verge of suicide. As the play progresses, we learn that Willy's suicidal impulses are in part propelled by his desire for his family to receive a substantial life insurance payout upon his death. The sad reality for Willy Loman is that he is worth more dead than alive.
The rubber pipe makes its first appearance in the play when Linda Loman (Willy's wife) speaks of finding it in the basement to her son, Biff Loman. Frightened that Willy will discover that she knows about his suicide attempts, Linda paradoxically hides the pipe when Willy is away on business and then puts it back in the basement when Willy returns. What's interesting about Linda's behavior is that it demonstrates her fear of taking away Willy's agency, even when suicide is involved. In a way, Linda's actions transform the rubber pipe into a symbol of her own suspension of disbelief when it comes to her husband; in other words, Linda's replacement of the rubber pipe indicates her morbid participation in Willy's delusional vision that his suicide (and the subsequent insurance payout) will restore the family's ability to fulfill the American dream.
Antique magazine showing a garden hose, much like the rubber pipe in Miller's play
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Theme: Suicide as Agency
Although it's morbid to consider how different methods of suicide reveal varying degrees of agency, Willy's failed attempts with the rubber pipe are indicative of a sense of passivity in his characterization, especially since the gas must be passively inhaled in order to be effective. Ironically, Willy can barely afford to pay the gas bill. In this way, the rubber pipe becomes the symbol of Willy's general inadequacy as a professional. At the end, the rubber pipe is not Willy's means of suicide. His suicide (which precedes the play's final Requiem section) is a car crash, an act that resonates with Willy's career as a salesman who traveled his region by car.
Resonance with Other Symbols
The rubber pipe is certainly a distinctive symbol in Death of a Salesman, but it also shares similarities with other prominent symbols in the play, such as the flute and silk stockings. Superficially, there are parallels between these images: they are physically tubular, have hollow cores, and they are all associated predominantly with Willy. In Miller's play, the silk stockings are generally thought to represent Willy's infidelity, and the flute represents Willy's divergence from the antiauthoritarian path of his father (his father carved, sold, and played wooden flutes).
Indeed, the physical features of the flute and the rubber pipe make these two symbols remarkably connected. Whereas the rubber pipe is a means toward inhaling death, the flute requires the player to exhale life into the instrument in order to create music. Since Willy's father carved and sold the flutes himself, the image of the flute becomes a symbol of a human's livelihood. The rubber pipe, however, is only a harbinger of death.
Let's take a couple of moments to recap what we learned about the rubber pipe prop in Death of a Salesman. Put simply, the rubber pipe is perhaps one of the darkest symbols in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, since the image itself forces readers and audience members to confront Willy's suicidal impulses. In sum, the rubber pipe symbolizes Willy's quiet determination to eliminate himself in the midst of what has turned out to be an unfulfilling and superficial life. The rubber pipe, as well as the title of the play, are also indicators as to how the play will end. With a title like Death of a Salesman, we know that Willy Loman is in the midst of a downward spiral. The rubber pipe acts as a reminder that the downward spiral must finish eventually, and that the results will be fatal.
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Rubber Pipe in Death of a Salesman
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