The tragic play Death of a Salesman, by American playwright Arthur Miller, involves the use of many different symbols and motifs to help justify different ideas and messages. It is these symbols and motifs that are used to reveal the characters' true personalities, and that also help further develop them throughout the course of the play. Motifs and symbols greatly contribute to the development of thematic ideas, and their delivery to the reader or audience. The seeds that Willy purchases, the diamonds that are constantly referred to, as well as the fountain pen that Biff stole are all significant in conveying three of Miller's major ideas in this play. The seeds help represent Willy's desperation to prove that his hard work is worth something, to the rest of his family. The diamonds symbolize wealth, which is what Willy seeks but cannot get, and also risk. Finally the fountain pen plays a key role in Biff's attempt to find his inner self and what he wants to do in life.
Each of these symbols and motifs has a unique meaning to the reader.
From the beginning of the play, Linda and Willy are well aware that nothing will ever grow in their backyard because of the apartments that have recently been built around their house. "The grass don't grow any more, you can't raise a carrot in the backyard." (Willy, p. 12) However, towards the closing stages of the piece, Willy asks Stanley, a waiter at the restaurant his sons took him to, where he could buy seeds. After having bought them, Willy returns to his home and begins planting the seeds in his backyard, even though he would never get anything out of doing this. Willy is desperately trying to prove that all of the hard work he has done in his life has had some significance to his family and his career, yet it has not. Effort and commitment will not always bring success upon a person; the act of planting the seeds helps bring out this statement. Willy is working to grow something with the seeds, just as how he worked hard as a salesman to make his way up the ladder in old man Wagner's company, and how he put all his heart into raising Biff to follow the dream he had set out for him. However, the seeds being planted will never grow, and nothing will ever be cultivated; just as how after 34 years spent in the Wagner firm, Willy's career is disgracefully ended when he is fired by company boss Howard, never having accomplished anything great. Willy also depends on his son Biff and has high hopes for him, only to see him grow up to be a big disappointment. The seeds help emphasize the fact that all of Willy's attempts to live out the American Dream, of starting off with nothing and becoming prosperous due to dedication and hard work, are in vain.
In the play, diamonds greatly symbolize and enforce the message that to attain success and obtain wealth, one must work hard but also take chances. Willy's father abandoned his sons when they were still very young, and moved to Alaska. Later on, Willy's brother, Ben, decided to join his father in the snowy North but instead ended up in Africa, where he discovered diamond mines in the jungle and became exceedingly rich. "William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!" (Ben, p.40-41) Ben took risks in his life; he took a gamble by deciding to go rejoin with his father, and took another one when he chose to search the African jungle for four years of his life. These brave moves paid off well for Ben, and had Willy seized the opportunity to take on the same journey as his brother, he would find himself in the same comfortable position. However, due to some convincing coming from Linda, and his own lack of risk-taking, Willy decides to stay in New York and work as a salesman. Similar to the seeds, diamonds bring out Willy's hopes of becoming rich and living the American Dream, and how all of his attempts to make his hopes a reality result in failure. Willy is no lazy man, yet he never takes any chances, too afraid to jeopardize the little bit that he has built up for himself. This is a major factor behind his downfall in terms of maintaining a stable life for not only his family, but also himself.
The third and final symbolic element in Death of a Salesman that influences a thematic idea or statement is the fountain pen, which Biff stole from Bill Oliver's office. It contributes to Arthur Miller's idea that before setting any major goals in life at an attempt to achieve success, one must first find himself and discover the passion to which he can devote his life to. Biff was never fully sure of what he wanted to do in life; he loved outdoor work and desired to own a ranch, yet a part of him was dedicated to fulfilling his father's wish of him becoming an outstanding salesman. He was constantly going out to the West to work, and coming back to New York, not knowing what exactly he wanted. It is not until he made the gutsy move of snatching Oliver's pen that things took a drastic change for him. On his way out of the building, where he was planning on meeting the businessman, he looked up at the sky and realised what he truly wanted to accomplish in life. "I saw the things that I love in this worldÃ¢ÂÂ¦And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this forÃ¢ÂÂ¦all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!" (Biff, p.105) Biff takes the fountain pen as an attempt to cling onto any last hope of him becoming a salesman, but after looking outside as he was going down the stairs of the building, he realises that he has no reason to steal it and attach himself to the business world, and that his real desire is to be working and living out in the open West.
The motifs and symbols used in Death of a Salesman are numerous and there are three in particular that Arthur Miller relates to his thematic ideas exceptionally well. Something as simple as plant seeds informs readers that it takes more than just hard work to fulfill your dreams and accomplish your goals; the American Dream is nothing but a fantasy, its purpose: to create a glimmer of hope in the average, working class individual. In the play, the diamonds relate to Willy's brother Ben and how he made his fortune in the jungle in Africa. They highlight the idea that in order to become successful in life, it takes more than just hard work; sometimes it is necessary to take risks. The fountain pen represents self-discovery, and how in order for one to know his objectives in life, he must find out what he is fond of and where he belongs in the world. Arthur Miller uses these three symbols and motifs as tools to create and display three crucial life lessons to his audience.