Death of a Salesman


Story Symbols and Themes

In Death of a Salesman, Miller explores a number of different themes, motifs, and symbols that make the story of Willy Loman accessible to a wide audience. In many ways, Willy is every man, as he struggles for something unattainable without every really understanding that it is unattainable.

Themes are the central topics or messages that the author is trying to convey.

The American Dream

The American Dream is the fundamental theme of Death of a Salesman. Willy believes in his version of the American Dream without reservation. Interestingly enough, that version of the American Dream is that a nice, personable, attractive person will find success and material wealth. While the traditional American Dream emphasized the importance of hard work and innovation, it morphed sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s to suggest that all people could attain a middle-class existence in America if they could simply get enough people to like them. Moreover, Willy has a very interesting idea of what it means to be liked, which has nothing to do with respect. For example, he shows disdain for Bernard’s intelligence, though it is that intelligence that helps Bernard gain exactly the type of success that eludes Willy throughout the novel.

The fact that Willy is unable to achieve the American Dream despite his lifelong emphasis and concentration on his own likeability causes Willy significant cognitive dissonance. He is simply unable to understand why he has not been successful, which leads him into a significant depression. In many ways, Willy’s failure to achieve the American Dream is symbolic of the problems with the dream itself: As socioeconomic classes became more established, it became increasingly difficult for people to achieve wealth and success simply by working; instead, innovation and/or exceptionally hard work were required. However, rather than inspiring people to do things differently, this change led to a festering resentment among many people in the lower middle class due to a feeling that they had...

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