Literary works including novels, short stories, narratives, plays and poems provide the reader with lenses through which he/she can see and understand deeply various cultural, social and political aspects of the society, which seem critical to his/her individual and collective well-being. Literary scholars use various literary devices such as literary motifs, an identifiable rule of thumb, allegory, imagery, symbols, a structure or a convention amongst others in order to bring out themes of their writings vividly (Shmoop 66).
Arthur Miller’s 1949 play titled “Death of a Salesman” qualifies as a fascinating must-read masterpiece and a perfect reflection of the late 1940’s life circumstances of the main protagonist Willy Loman and his family (Shmoop 3). Its subject centers on the diminishing days of a failing sales clerk. Although many literary devices are evident in the play, this paper narrows down to the use of symbolism, as brought forth in the play.
Use of symbolism is common in virtually all forms of literary works. Death of a Salesman has a good share of symbols, which the playwright uses to communicate the themes of his great work creatively. First, Lomans’ home where the play takes place is symbolic. According to Shmoop, Lomans’ landscape where the play seems restricted is narrow symbolizing both mental and physical limitations of the characters (66).
The author contrasts the largely narrow setting of the play with the hugeness of Africa, Alaska, and American West. On the other hand, distant places signify the possibility of something better, freedom and escape (Shmoop 66). For example, Willy Loman’s obsession with faraway lands shows that he prefers a very different livelihood than the one he has now.
In fact, even though Willy himself refers New York City as a land of opportunity and success, his admiration of his brother’s ventures and expeditions in distant lands shows that he is not convinced of his claims (Shmoop 66). Furthermore, Ben, Biff and Happy constantly insists that the Lomans better fit into the physical and hard kinds of work, claims backed by their failure as salespersons.
The seeds that Willy intends to buy and plant are also symbolic. Apparently, Willy seems perpetually troubled by feelings of inadequacy and confusion (Shmoop 66). He appears certainly worried that just like his father before him, he may prove unable to provide for his sons, let alone raising them well and differently from the way that his father brought him up. Therefore, when he talks of nothing planted lamenting that he does not have anything in the ground; it stands out that he only talks about his sons and their future (Shmoop 66).
Willy seems concerned about leaving a legacy after he dies. For that reason, through planting seeds that he constantly insists on buying, he hopes to plant something that will grow and feed his family and others and remain when he dies (Shmoop 66). Interestingly, his planting of seeds also means to make up for his failure as a sales representative. Actually, Willy is better fitting to work with his own hands, to labor, and to farm just like Biff his son.
The stockings, which appear in various episodes in Death of a Salesman, are no more than symbolic. They signify a reminder of the woman Willy with whom he had an affair. This seems to anger him because the affair further prevents him from providing for his family well (Shmoop 66).
Consequently, Willy shouts at his wife Linda because of patching up her stockings in his sight since they easily remind him about the affair. Biff’s anger because of his father’s affair remains also directed into the stockings. Supposedly, they qualify as the cause of his anger.
Diamonds in the Death of a Salesman symbolize tangible wealth. They made Ben rich. Contrary to Willy’s sales work for which he has nothing concrete to show, the diamonds symbolize wholesome, pure material success. The reader sees them as a get-rich-quick short cut that is a solution to all of Lomans’ problems and worries (Shmoop 67).
When Willy considered committing suicide, he perceived himself travelling into the dark jungle to procure diamonds for his son. In fact, at one point in his suicidal thoughts he hears Ben telling him that the place referred to as Jungle in the play even though it is dark is full of diamonds (Shmoop 67).
Tennis Racket in the play which Willy sees when he was talking with Bernard in Charley’s office symbolizes Bernard’s success and Biff’s failure (Shmoop 66).. While in high school, Biff took part in sports while Bernard was a mere spectator, yet he is the one owns the tennis racket contrary to Biff’s and Happy’s hopes that they would make a fortune from selling sports equipment in future.
Based on the expositions made in the paper, it suffices to declare symbolism one of the apparent literary devices used in the Death of a Salesman. They have enabled the playwright to put across his message creatively. They also have assisted the readers to see beyond the text thereby understanding the times and society that the then Lomans lived in.
Shmoop, Tim. Death of a Salesman: Shmoop Literature Guide. Sunnyvale, CA: Shmoop University Inc., 2010.