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Death of a Salesman | Study Guide

Arthur Miller

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Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University explains the symbols in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.

Death of a Salesman | Symbols


Miller uses symbolism throughout the play to support central themes. Symbols support the visual nature of the work, which is intended to be viewed and experienced rather than read.

Distant Lands

Distant geographical locations represent freedom and possibility in contrast to the confinement and death of New York City. In several of Willy's memories, his brother Ben appears and asks him to accompany him to Alaska, a wide-open land of opportunity. In the end, Ben ends up in Africa, another wild and mysterious location, and becomes rich in the diamond mines there by the age of 21. At the beginning of the play, Biff returns from enjoyable work on a farm in the West to try to make a more substantial and traditional living in New York, all the while longing to return to the West to start a ranch. All three distant locations symbolize the possibility of escape and independence.


Silk stockings become a symbol of Willy Loman's betrayal and deception. Both Willy's wife and his lover discuss stockings. To be economical, Linda Loman spends time repairing her damaged stockings, a fact that annoys her husband because it emphasizes his failure to provide his family with luxuries. Willy Loman gives new stockings to the woman with whom he is having an affair in Boston. When Biff Loman discovers his father's affair, he shouts, "You—you gave her Mama's stockings!"—a further sign of Willy's betrayal of his family.

Miller's choice of stockings is significant in that during World War II, the materials used to make stockings—silk, nylon, and rayon—were rationed for the war effort. This essential component of a woman's wardrobe was hard to get. This historical context emphasizes Willy's efforts to give The Woman, but not his wife, something rare and valuable and hard to come by. In this way, Willy's gift and The Woman's praise of Willy are more helpful to Willy in maintaining his delusions of success than the vision of his wife mending her torn stockings.


The seeds symbolize Willy Loman's longing for nature, something he cannot get in his city dwelling. His desire to plant seeds reveals a healthy need to nurture growth, but it is not well planned or executed. He fails at raising his sons, and he is trapped in a world in which he is unfruitful. When he exclaims that he needs to get seeds, his wife reminds him that there is not enough light to plant a garden. Yet near the end of the play, Willy, in a delusional state, is out in the backyard planting seeds, a last effort to create something fruitful with his life.


The play begins and ends with the melody of a flute, and music reappears many times throughout the story. Willy's father, who deserted Willy as a child, was a flute maker and salesman. The instrument, which is "small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon" symbolizes the past for Willy—a connection to nature as well as his sense of abandonment and longing for a deep connection with family. The flute also serves as a signal to the audience that Willy's memories are near and that the past is about to overtake the present.

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