Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Arthur Miller

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Alaska, Africa, American West

Death of a Salesman takes place primarily within the confined landscape of the Lomans’ home. This narrow, and increasingly narrowing setting is contrasted with the vastness of the American West, Alaska, and Africa. If the Lomans’ home symbolizes restriction, both physical and mental, distant locations symbolize escape, freedom, and the possibility of something better. While Willy insists New York is a land of opportunity and abundant success, his idolization of his brother Ben’s adventures and forays into faraway lands shows that he is really not so convinced. Furthermore, Biff, Happy, and Ben repeatedly suggest that the Lomans are better suited to physical, hands-on kinds of work, an assertion supported by their failure as salesmen. Willy’s obsession with distant lands further proves that he might prefer a very different livelihood than the one he has.

Seeds

The seeds that Willy insists on buying and planting are an important symbol in the play. Willy is frequently troubled by feelings of confusion and inadequacy. He’s uncertain about how to raise his sons and worries that, like his own father, he will be unable to provide for them. When Willy says, "Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground" we have a feeling he’s really talking about his sons and their future. Willy is additionally preoccupied with being well known and leaving a legacy when he dies. All of these feelings come to a head in Willy’s seed planting. Through planting seeds, Willy wants grow something that will thrive, provide for others and remain after his own death. The MOST interesting part is that he chooses planting to make up for being a failed salesman – he’s actually better suited to working with his hands, to agriculture, to labor, just like his son Biff.

Stockings

Stockings appear in a number of contexts in Death of a Salesman. Willy gives stockings to the woman he has an affair with, and repeatedly yells at Linda for mending her stockings in front of him (they seem to be a reminder of his affair and how he’s not providing for his family). Biff’s anger at his father’s affair gets similarly channeled into the stockings; ostensibly, they are the reason for his anger.

Tennis Racket

The tennis racket Willy observes when he chats with Bernard in Charley’s office is a symbol of Bernard’s success and Biff’s failure. While athletic Biff and Happy hoped to make a fortune selling sports equipment, it is Bernard, who in high school stood on the sidelines while Biff played sports, that now owns the tennis racket.

Diamonds and the Jungle

The diamonds that made Ben rich are a symbol of concrete wealth in Death of a Salesman. Unlike sales in which Willy has nothing tangible to show for his work, the diamonds represent pure, unadulterated material achievement. The diamonds are also seen as a "get-rich-quick" scheme that is the solution to all troubles. When Willy is considering killing himself, he hears Ben telling him that, "the jungle is dark but full of diamonds." The jungle here is a risk (physically and, more interestingly, morally), which has the potential to yield wealth. In deciding to commit suicide, Willy perceives himself going into the dark jungle to get diamonds for his son.