Explore the ways in which Miller uses symbolism to emphasise the tragedy in Death of a Salesman.
Ben Grantham Ms Pritchard
S Peters Collegiate School 20962 Candidate Number: 6055
Explore the ways in which Miller uses symbolism to emphasise the tragedy in Death of a Salesman.
A symbol is defined as ‘an object or action that represents an idea, function or process,’ essentially anything which ‘stands for’ something else. When viewed in relation to the Aristotelian model of tragedy in Poetics, Miller’s rich use of symbolism in Death of a Salesman contradicts a key premise within Aristotle’s tragedian theory, labelling the tragic hero’s hamartia as the cause for their downfall. Miller uses symbols to explore the motifs of success, freedom and failure, as well as to help shape our view of his characters. Throughout the play Miller emphasises the strength of these symbols through the way they affect the Loman family and in particular Willy, whose obsession with the American Dream – and all that it encompasses – brings him to his tragic end. We may consider Willy to posses the tragic flaw of hubris, which will only assist the interplay of the material and figurative symbols Miller creates to entrap Willy within his beliefs, leaving him unable to escape.
Inherent throughout the play is Miller’s heavy use of symbols to convey meanings such as hope, struggle and self-worth. Significantly, symbolism assists the tragic imagery as a crucial element of Miller’s stagecraft. Miller elaborately constructs the perfect conditions for Willy’s downfall in several key ways including his use of music, the motif of dreams and symbolic props. His first method is the recurring element of music applied through his stage directions. The melancholy ‘melody heard, played upon the flute’ starting from Act 1 resonates with the atmosphere and is Miller’s structuralism technique of oscillating to and from Willy’s reflection of the past. The natural element of this symbol alludes to his father's influence as a flute-maker, and its use during Willy’s introspection could suggest an alternate, more successful life pursuing in craftsmanship instead of being a salesman under the impression of becoming ‘well-liked.’ It acts as the transition between imagination and reality, setting the scene as we witness the bold symbol of Willy’s unfortunate circumstance. Furthermore, the flute symbolises Willy’s faint connection with the natural world, clearly illustrated by the stage directions as he enters Scene 1:
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‘The flute plays on. He hears but is not aware of it’
By not being ‘aware,’ one may consider this ‘melody’ to be a calling which Willy attempts to mentally suppress. Additionally, Miller introduces his tragic hero with an afflicted perception the moment he is presented to the audience. Structurally, Miller develops this further as Willy gives us an account of his journey home, stating ‘I almost forgot I was driving.’ This disregard for his surroundings and safety illustrates just how easily his physical and mental stability can be compromised. Alternatively, one may associate Willy’s captivation by the ‘thick’ trees and ‘warm’ sun with the almost hallucinogenic connotations of nature, or what he may be describing as ‘such strange thoughts’, with the road possibly symbolise Willy’s suspension between responsibilities and his sense of nirvana, a road he confronts ‘every week of my life.’
The use of nature is significant to the settings created by Miller. As the curtain rises and reveals the Loman house, he ensures that ‘We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides.’ The way they enclose the setting directs our attention to the ‘fragile-seeming’ house and emphasises Willy as the ‘Low-man’ intended by his name. One may interpret this as a pathetic fallacy, alluding to their sense of isolation and vulnerability, the former of which being a traditional trait of the tragic hero. However, the way Miller isolates the entire Loman family reflects the way the American dream was an influence to many people’s lives and is not merely a unique flaw in Willy. The setting created by Miller corresponds with Aristotle’s unity of place, stating that ‘a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography.’ This appropriately fits within the Aristotelian model as it focuses less on the power of external conflicts, but rather the intrinsic and non-progressive world view Willy is unable to escape from. This peripheral is sharply contrasted by Miller’s references to the ‘jungle’ through Ben, who despite being dead before the play begins, remains a big influence to Willy and his search for capitalism. The jungle’s symbolic connotations of ‘wild freedom’ and ‘liberty’ epitomises all that opposes the American dream. One could also argue that they represent the opportunities Willy rejected due to his hubris, his uncompromising faith in the American dream. Rollyson explores this idea and states ‘Willy is only as solid as the society in which he tries to sell himself,’ and everything from his view of America as ‘the greatest country in the world’ to his idolisation of ‘David Singleman’ suggests that the American dream is something he is deeply ‘sold’ into.
Through Miller’s use of a non-linear narrative, the audience gains a greater understanding of the way symbols are established and the development of the setting in which they manifest. Willy’s recollection of the past makes us aware that the apartment buildings replaced their natural surroundings, most notably the ‘two beautiful elm trees,’ the presences of which echo through the repeated appearance of leaves around their home. The construction of the apartment buildings has rendered their neighbourhood lifeless, and Willy’s statement ‘The grass don’t grow any more’ may reflect on the state of poverty throughout the United States, induced by the Wall Street crash. He adds that ‘they massacred the neighbourhood,’ with the lexical choice ‘massacred’ highlighting the ruthlessness of the industrialisation which compromised their way of life. The ambiguity of ‘they’ may echo Willy’s lack of perception over who is truly responsible for the desolate state of their economy, represented by both Willy’s failure as a salesman and their home environment, isolated, unable to flourish.
At this point, the audience should understand the power of these symbols, which are shown to have direct influence over Willy’s life by compromising his mental stability. Willy’s ‘two large sample cases’ symbolise his wasted efforts attempting to fulfil the role of a successful provider. Their physical weight acts as a pathetic fallacy to represent Willy’s emotional heaviness and an appeal to the audience’s sympathy. Linda’s first words express her anxiety of him potentially smashing the car, symbolising mobility. The irony is that no matter how far he drives to work, he doesn’t seem to get anywhere or achieve anything beyond his mundane routine. Miller immediately contrasts this real symbol in their present timeframe with a mentally-constructed symbol from Willy’s past, exposed to us through Willy’s inner thoughts:
‘That funny? I coulda sworn I was driving that Chevvy today.’
This juxtaposition of past and present tenses helps create the feeling of disorientation which we would expect Willy to experience. The Chevrolet symbolises status and success, even described by Willy as ‘the greatest car ever built’ only for him to later contradict himself by asserting that ‘they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car!’ We may identify Willy’s tragic flaw as his willingness to base his very existence on material goods. Miller’s extensive use of such symbols reflects the obsessive nature of Willy and this effective literary technique acts as a vehicle to draw our attention to the flawed society of 20th-century America, totally preoccupied with the relentless pursuit of the tragic American dream. It is at the end of Act 2 when we discover that the car, a symbol of progression and modernity, becomes no more than an instrument for Willy’s suicidal downfall.
Throughout Willy’s internal conflict, Linda remains a symbol of emotional security, whose unconditional love sees past his lack of success. Her pivotal speech ‘Willy Loman never made a lot of money… So attention must be paid!’ mirrors the Chorus of Greek tragedy, acting as an interlude during which the audience reflects on the progression of the play. Linguistically, her repetitive use of negatives ‘not’ and ’never’ emphasise his lack of achievement and simplicity as a character. She is heavily conscious of the tragic fate Willy is heading toward, and her devotion to him is shown as she mends her stockings. Structurally, this is placed immediately after Willy’s scene with The Women whom is treated with new stockings. Miller juxtaposes Willy’s infidelity with the shame he feels being unable to provide successfully – shown as he acts ‘angrily’ at the sight of them.
The motifs of hope and dreams symbolise the search for the unobtainable, a fundamental flaw in Willy’s characterisation. With the working title The Inside of His Head, Miller originally intended to make the setting itself a physics manifestation of Willy’s internal mental state, with the stage layout resembling the shape of a head. One could argue that Miller’s use of ‘imaginary walls-lines’ – which characters walk through instead of the doors as to indicate a recollection of Willy’s past – would show a comprised mental structure within Willy’s psyche.
Although these externalities largely influence Willy’s behaviour, we must also consider him as symbolic, as he represents the struggling everyman whose belief in the flawed American dream is slowly killing him. Miller’s use of symbols within Death of a Salesman allows us to witness exactly how Willy, a tragic character bounded by ‘his temper, massive dreams and little cruelties,’ becomes progressively more influenced by both his thoughts and surrounding environment. By stimulating our senses and heightening dramatic tension, it is a quintessential device used to enhance the audience’s understanding and sense of sympathy toward this tragic character so mentally distorted by this ideal, without which there would be no tragedy to interpret. As a play famously described as ‘a time bomb expertly placed under the edifice of Americanism,’ Miller makes a great effort to illustrate his beliefs of the American Dream as a corrupt ethos by showing its tragic effect on the common American man.
-Arthur Miller: Introduction to Collected Plays (Volume 1) (ISBN: 0670135976)
- Louis Broussard: ‘American Dream, Contemporary Allegory,’ 1966 (ISBN: 0806105364)