Explore the ways in which Miller uses symbolism to emphasise the tragedy in Death of a Salesman.

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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 ...

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