In Death of a Salesman, there are recurring themes or motifs that unify the play and blend together in the last act to give a paradoxical or ironic comment on the drama. The first dominant motif is the false importance placed on personal attractiveness and popularity. To the protagonist Willy Loman, being handsome and well liked is all-important. Willy naively believes that if a person is attractive and popular, the entire world opens up for him, guaranteeing success and answering the American Dream. Willy sees the personification of this in the salesman, David Singleman, whom he describes in the play as the man who has obtained the American Dream through being a salesman.
Unfortunately, Willy confers his philosophies about attractiveness and popularity to his sons. As a result, the handsome Biff, a star football player in high school, feels like he can get by in life on his looks and personality. He finds out, however, that these traits do not bring the American Dream to him; he flunks math and cannot go to college, starts stealing, and amounts to nothing in life. Happy is also deluded; he encourages Biff in his illusions, telling him he should be able to borrow any amount of money from Bill Oliver because Biff is "so well liked." Additionally, Happy tries to make himself well liked, especially by surrounding himself with women, but he finds his existence to be very empty and lonely.
The final touch of pathos in the play centers on the being liked motif. Willy has imagined that his funeral will be well attended, just like the one for Singleman. As he plans his suicide, he pictures customers and fellow salesmen from all over New England coming to his burial; the image pleases Willy, for he feels it will cause his sons to feel respect from their dead father. In truth, no one outside of family attends the funeral, except for Charley. It is a sad statement on a sad life.
The theft motif is also developed in the play; it is Miller’s sad comment on the degeneration of American middle class values. Willy constantly turns his head on or actually encourages theft by his sons, especially Biff. When Biff steals a football from the locker room, Willy excuses the behavior and even says the coach will "probably congratulate you on your initiative." When Biff admits that he fails math, in spite of cheating on the exam, Willy has no comment on the cheating, which he a theft of knowledge. In fact, at one point in his flashbacks, Willy actually sends Biff and Happy out to steal lumber to prove their fearlessness to Ben. Willy also steals his sons’ dignity. He fills them with so many lies and so much hot air, that neither boy can recognize the truth or take orders from anyone.
Miller also develops the image of being "all used up" throughout the play; it becomes the most pathetic concept of the drama. Early in the play, Willy captures the essence of this image when he talks about his house. He tells Linda, “Work a life time to pay off a house. You finally own it and there's nobody to live in it." The play ends with an echo of the same thought; Linda tells a dead Willy that she has just made the last mortgage payment on the house, but there is no longer anyone to live in it.
The same thought of being used up recurs throughout the play. Willy says of his refrigerator that it "consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them they are used up." Here, Willy is voicing a recognition of a central aspect of consumer capitalism; products that last forever are not good for the economy. They must break down so companies can supply newer and better models. Willy’s desire to own something that is still in operation is very poignant: "Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it is broken. I just finished paying for the car and it's on its last leg." Like the products that surround him, Willy is also used up and broken. The Wagner Company has sucked the life out of him and then fired him, discarding him like a useless piece of orange rind.
Part of Willy's desperation comes from his sense of being boxed in, especially in the city. He romanticizes life in the country and tries to get something to grow in his own back yard. In the first scene, Willy comments that he feels boxed in by bricks and complains that he cannot get anything to grow. He then remembers the time when the Biff and Happy were young and there was lilac and wisteria growing in the yard. The flowers, therefore, symbolize real life and good times. Now that life is closing in on Willy, he desperately wants something to grow, to plant something that has life, but his attempts are futile, both in his efforts in the back yard and in his efforts with his sons. Ironically, Willy fully boxes himself in (in a coffin), hoping to give his sons an opportunity with his life insurance money.
Miller also subtly connects the failure of the American Dream with the dysfunctional structure of the American family. Miller clearly points out the alienation of the individual within the family, indicating an even larger alienation of the individual in the world. There is little communication or happiness portrayed in the Loman family. Linda accepts her miserable situation. She is forced to stand by her husband, who has grown too old and too exhausted to cope with the job of a travelling salesman or support the family. Because of the times, Linda has no option to work for a living herself. She is entirely dependent on her husband to bring home money to pay the bills. She was also indispensable to him in this pursuit. She built up his inflated idea of himself so he could have the courage to make sales every day. Unfortunately, there were never enough sales or never enough money to pay all the bills.
In spite of Linda’s loyalty and devotion to Willy, he succumbs to the temptations of the road; he has at least one extramarital affair, which his son Biff discovers. He sees through the falseness of Willy’s existence and calls him a liar and a fake. Unfortunately, Willy has given him no foundation other than illusions on which to build his life. As a result, Biff tries to make it on his attractiveness and personality. When these fail him, he resorts to stealing, even being put in jail. When he tries to tell Willy about the failures in his life, Willy ignores him. Instead, he decides to commit suicide, hoping that the money he leaves behind will make Biff a success in life. The Loman family is obviously built on false values that distort the American Dream and lead to an existence that is totally dysfunctional.
The tragedy of Willy Loman is not just the tragedy of a single individual.
Miller implies that Willy’s distorted illusions and values are all too
frequently those forced upon people in a capitalist society, especially
in America. It is Linda who points out the tragic predicament of Willy
Loman: "he is not the finest character that ever lived. But he is
human being and a terrible thing is happening to him." Willy is a
thoroughly human character whose limitations and errors are combined with
a noble parental passion and a heroic effort to maintain his self-esteem
and dreams in the midst of a competitive capitalist society.
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