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Structure, Themes, and Motifs in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman


At first glance, Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman appears to be a simple story of the tragic life of an ordinary man. Through a few flashbacks, it would seem that his whole dreary life is told and that is about it. However, this can not be the case, as we know that Arthur Miller is one of the greatest playwrights alive. After reading the play for the fourth or maybe fifth time, I became fully aware of the intricate structure, many themes, and different motifs that Miller used to make this play a classic.

In the case of this work, the title would just about sum it up. It is about a salesman, Willy Loman, who is quite ordinary and very unsuccessful. In the end, to no ones surprise he kills himself. The play takes place in the span of three days (including the funeral) and revolves around the return of Willy's two sons who are grown up. He has worked for decades traveling all over New England selling goods for a firm and seems to think that because he is well liked (which really isn't all that true), he is successful. He wishes that his sons too could be like him while they know that they will never be decent businessmen. This is a source of major conflict between the brothers, Biff and Hap, and Willy. Linda, Willy's wife, is very naive and thinks that her husband is just an innocent confused old man and faithfully loves him. She can not stand to see her sons argue against their father even thought they often are right.

Through flashbacks and events in the play, it is apparent that Willy, at least subconsciously, believes his life has been terrible. He wishes he could have been as great as Uncle Ben, who made his fortunes in the African diamond mines and not on the rice patty. Willy was having an affair with another woman in Boston and Biff found out about it after his last year in high school. Incidentally, this event probably led to Biff's failure to complete math in summer school, which led to him not graduating high school. Willy tried numerous times to commit suicide with his car and the gas furnace. In the end, the salesman became convinced that he was worth more dead than alive and finally succeeded at something, killing himself with his car.

By far the most important feature of this play is its flashbacks. They provide the viewer with crucial information that helps make sense of the disorder at the Loman household. They enabled Miller to make the action take place within three days as opposed to many years. This ingenious method makes the play much more interesting while not sacrificing any important information. By the end, the audience is able to fully comprehend what factors have brought the Loman's to the breaking point.

The largest theme in the play is the ever-present conflict of reality vs. illusion. Of the four, Willy has the hardest time distinguishing between the two. Often, it seems he drifts back into time and relives certain defining moments in his life. This problem, of course, brought about his down fall. The illusion that he was well liked and that he was successful killed him when he saw the truth.

Another theme that is present is man's general tendency to resist change. Willy has trouble in the modern era. This is evident in his troubles with the refrigerator and when he realizes there was a radio in the car that could be played as he was traveling. It seems he "is constantly in a race with the junkyard." Death of a Salesman can easily be a social commentary. Willy was obviously attempting to live his American Dream and he wished his sons would follow on the same path. However, Willy failed. After working all of his adult life, the machinery of Democracy and Free Enterprise spit him out like a spent "piece of fruit."

Several motifs of reoccurring elements of the story appear in the play. The largest would have to be the garden that Willy is always talking about. In Act One, he mentions that "The grass don't grow anymore, you can't raise a carrot in the back yard." His final act in life is planting a garden in the middle of the night with a flashlight in the backyard. Perhaps he does this as an attempt to leave a legacy after he realizes that he actually wasn't "well liked" and a successful salesman.

Other motifs would be the diamonds along with the jungle and the moon and the stars. Diamonds and the jungle always come up when Willy is having his imaginary conversations with Uncle Ben. These two things are more than likely symbolic for success and life. Ben is always talking about "going into the jungle and fetching out a diamond." Last but not least, Willy often stares out into the night sky and comments on the beauty of the moon and the stars.

Upon further reading, it became apparent how intricate and detailed Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller really was. The presence of many universal themes and common motifs would certainly lead many to read or see this wonderful play over and over again.

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