'Death of a Salesman' Themes and Symbols

The shortcomings of the American dream and family relationships

The main themes and symbols of Death of a Salesman include family relationships and, at large, the shortcomings of the American dream and all of its consequences, namely the financial well-being that can afford people certain luxuries. 

The American Dream

The American dream, which assumes that anyone can achieve financial success and material comfort, lies at the heart of Death of a Salesman. We learn that various secondary characters attain this ideal: Ben goes off into the wilderness of Alaska and Africa and, as luck has it, discovers a diamond mine; Howard Wagner inherits his dream through his father's company; the nerdier Bernard, mocked by Willy for his attitude, becomes a successful lawyer through hard work. 

Willy Loman has a simplistic view of the American dream. He thinks that any man who is manly, good looking, charismatic, and well-liked is both deserving of success and will naturally achieve it. The life trajectory of his brother Ben influenced him in that regard. Those standards, however, are impossible, and, over the course of his lifetime, Willy and his sons fall short of it. Willy buys into his distorted philosophy so thoroughly that he neglects what is actually good in his life, such as the love of his family, in order to pursue an ideal of success that—he hopes—will bring his family security. Willy's arc demonstrates how the American dream and its aspirational nature, which might be quite commendable per se, turns individuals into commodities that are only measured by their financial worth. In fact, even his demise at the end of the play is tied to the American dream: he ends his life so that he can, at least, give his family the money of his life insurance policy.

Family Relationships

Family relationships are what makes Death of a Salesman a universal play. In fact, when the play was produced in China in 1983, the actors had no trouble understanding the themes of the play—the relationship between a father and his sons or between husband and wife, or two brothers of different dispositions, were very intelligible to Chinese audiences and performers.

The central conflict of the play concerns Willy and his elder son Biff, who showed great promise as a young athlete and ladies' man while in high school. His adulthood, however was marked by thievery and lack of direction. Willy's younger son, Happy, has a more defined and secure career path, but he is a shallow character.

The twisted beliefs Willy instilled in his sons, namely luck over hard work and likability over expertise, led them to disappoint both him and themselves as adults. By presenting them with the dream of grand, easy success, he overwhelmed his sons, and this is true both of Biff and Happy, who produce nothing substantial.

Willy, at 63, is still working, trying to plant seeds in the middle of the night, in order to give his family sustenance. Biff realizes, at the play's climax, that only by escaping from the dream that Willy has instilled in him will father and son be free to pursue fulfilling lives. Happy never realizes this, and at the end of the play he vows to continue in his father's footsteps, pursuing an American dream that will leave him empty and alone.

Willy's role as a provider in regards to Linda is equally fraught. While he is enthralled by the Woman in Boston because she “liked” him, which stoked his twisted ideal of successful business man, when he gives stockings to her instead of Linda, he is overcome with shame. Still, he fails to realize that what his wife wants is love and not financial security

Symbols

Stockings

In Death of a Salesman, stockings represent the covering-up of imperfection, and Willy’s (failed) attempt to be a successful businessman and thus, a provider. Both Linda Loman and the Woman in Boston are seen holding them. In the play, Willy reprimands Linda for mending her stockings, implicitly suggesting that he intends to buy her new ones. This reprimand takes on new significance when we learn that Willy, in the past, bought new stockings as a gift to The Woman when they meet for secret trysts in Boston. On the one hand, the silk stockings that Linda Loman mends are an indicator of the strained financial circumstances of the Loman family, on the other, they serve Willy as a reminder of his affair.

The Jungle

In Death of a Salesman, the jungle represents the antithesis of the middle-class life that Willy Loman had strived to achieve. While Willy’s life is predictable and risk-averse, the jungle, which is praised mainly by the character of Ben, Willy’s brother, is full of darkness and dangers, but, if conquered, it leads to higher rewards than any average salesman-life could.