Death of a Salesman Symbolism
Have you ever heard the expression diamonds are a girl’s bestfriend? I don’t know if I’m a really a diamond person myself, maybe a fake diamond person. But in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, diamonds may very well be his best friend. That's what we’re going to talk about today, diamonds as a symbol. We’re going to talk about two other symbols as well; seeds and silk stockings. So what does this all mean? You’re going to have to stick around for that.
So have you been thinking about diamonds and what they represent? Let’s talk about the symbols that they are in Death of a Salesman. Diamonds in my opinion are really here representing financial success. Now remember, symbols as a part of literary analysis, there is some opinion involved here. And it’s up to you to make your opinion credible, to back it up with different examples, quotations, stuff like. So let’s look at some things that can back up this idea that diamonds represent financial success.
Here is an excerpt from the play. We have Ben talking he said, “Instead of Alaska, I ended up in Africa...principally diamond mines...Why boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty one I walked out. And by God, I was rich.”
Willy, he is talking to his sons here said, “You see what I was talking about? The greatest things can happen!” Ben got his success through diamonds. It’s this amazing story of walking into the jungle in three years or fours years later. Walking out with all this money and success, thanks to the diamonds. And this is really the kind of thing that Willy wants very badly. In fact, after this little flashback, we go right into a scene in which Willy is asking Linda about some diamonds that he had once.
He said, “Whatever happened to that diamond watch fob? Remember? When Ben came from Africa that time? Didn’t he give me a watch fob with a diamond in it?” And Linda reminds him, “You pawned it dear. Twelve, thirteen years ago. For Biff’s correspondence course,” And what’s really important here, is this diamond, this financial success that it seems like Willy did have for a little while. It’s not something he earned, it’s a present that he got from Ben. Willy’s big struggle is to attain the diamond, the financial success. And he’s not really able to do it on his own.
The next mention of diamonds comes in Act II when we hear about Willy’s plan for suicide. He’s again talking to the imaginary, invisible Ben, and he says, “Oh, Ben, that’s the whole beauty of it! I can see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand!” Now this is really significant because this diamond that he’s touching it’s the closest he has ever been, he thinks, to a financial success. He has the plan of suicide, he knows it’s going to get his family all this money. And it’s really like so close he can almost touch it at this point. This is the first time in his life its been this close to him.
Near the end of the play, Ben kind of picks up on this idea. But again remember, Ben is Willy. He’s kind of another side of him right now. Ben says, “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy...One must go in to fetch a diamond out...A diamond is rough and hard to the touch...it's dark there, but full of diamonds.” So I kind of see the jungle here, the dark thing that he’s encouraging Willy to go towards is suicide. And the diamond again, it’s this financial success. It’s this pay-off the insurance policy. And again it’s really important, remember, this is really Willy talking, even though it says Ben. It’s a part of his. He’s kind of talking himself into this whole idea, that he is going to go through with it; he’s going to commit suicide. Because he is willing to pay the ultimate price to get his diamond.
The second of our three symbols that we’re going to discuss, are seeds. Now seeds in the story really represent hope. Seeds are mostly mentioned by Willy, he really Wants to grow a garden in their Brooklyn home. And you know I used to live in Brooklyn, there is a great park in the middle of it, but not a lot of people have successful gardening going on there. Let’s look at this quotation.
Willy says, “The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard...remember those two beautiful elm trees out there?... More and more I think of those days, Linda. This time of the year it was lilac and wisteria. And then the peonies would come out, and the daffodils. What a fragrance in this room!" So at that point he’s looking back on a less hopeless time. There was the idea not only that these seeds were going to grow, but were going to flourish into amazing plants. And there is just this idea of hope and happiness and this fragrance in the hous.
The next mention comes in Act II. There is also a hopeful mood in the house at this point, because Biff has gone off in his suit to meet with Mr. Oliver, and everybody thinks this is it. This is how their family’s luck is going to change. Willy says, “Gee on the way home tonight I’d like to buy some seeds.” Linda is kind of laughing and she said, “That’d be wonderful. But not enough sun gets back there. Nothing will grow any more. And Willy is kind of like whatever, he says, “You wait kid, before it’s all over, we’re going to get a little place out in the country and I’ll raise some vegetables.” So not only do we have this idea that the seeds are going to grow, but that they're going to get a place in the country, and raise some vegetables. So their hope is like, if you think about it like their hope is the seeds in a cup. The cup is running over at this point. They’re imagining this amazing great things.
The next time we hear about seeds it’s not really that hopeful any more. It’s at the point where Willy is alone at the restaurant, his two sons have abandoned him; he’s been fired that day. He asks the waiter, Stanley where the closest seed store is. Stanley gives him directions but then says that it's kind of late and Willy, he might not have luck there. It might be closed already.
Willy says, “Oh I better hurry. I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds right away. Nothing’s planted, I don’t have a thing in the ground.” Now for using the symbol of seeds as hope, he’s kind of running out of things to be hopeful about at this point. He’s lost his job, he’s not feeling really warmly towards his sons at this point. So he thinks, "I don’t have anything going right now. These seeds are my hope, I need to get this financial success. I've got to do something quickly to change that."
The very last scene that we see seeds in, it’s really kind of tragic and it grabs my heart a little bit. When the boys come home late that night, they talk to Linda in the house. Willy is outside, in the their backyard, by himself. He is talking to himself and by the light of the moon, he’s planning his garden in the backyard. “Carrots...quarter inch apart. Rows...one foot rows...What a proposition it is...the woman has suffered. You understand me? A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something...Remember, it’s a twenty-thousand-dollar guarantee.”
So at this point, you can probably tell he’s talking to Ben again, and this twenty thousand dollar guarantee is the life insurance policy. And it’s his last hope, and it’s no coincidence that this is when he’s actually talking his seeds and he’s planting them into the ground. He’s put everything into this. This is his last ditch effort. It’s literally his last hope. That’s kind of intense and it’s a little bit of a downer but if you stick with me we’ve got one symbol left. Then we’ll be finished, all this great interesting symbols that you can take to school and impress your classmates with.
The final symbol that we’re going to talk about today is stockings. And in Death of a Salesman, they are silk stockings. We’ve got some different ideas here about what they might represent. I’ve actually got two different ideas that I have. Remember, as long as you back them up, you can have as many ideas as you want too. These are going to go together though eventually so, stick with me.
So my idea is first of all that stockings can represent Linda’s blind faith in her husband, in her marriage. Stockings also represent Willy’s guilt. They’re a symbol that every time they come up, he feels horrible, and we’re going to find out why.
The first time that stocking show up, in the story, is with the woman, that’s his mistress. And we see that he has made a present of stockings to her she says, “ You kill and thanks for the stockings. I love a lot of stockings.” Now it’s kind of important to remember that stockings back then were not like stocking nowadays, you can run out to the store and buy some. Stockings back then were more of a kind of luxury item. So he gave them to his mistress as a gift.
Now let’s contrast this with stockings as they apply to Linda. Willy says when they’re at home, “What’s that? Linda responds, “Just mending my stockings. They’re so expensive.” Willy freaks out, he gets angry, he takes them away from her. He says “I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!” Linda takes the stockings and she puts them in her pocket.
Now this is significant on a couple of different levels really. First of all, we see Willy’s reaction. Remember when I said that the stockings symbolise guilt. He’s freaking out and he’s angry because of that guilty. We know from the last example that he’s given stockings to his mistress, however his wife at home is mending hers and is talking about how expensive they’re. It’s really sad and kind of tragic. It’s also interesting to see here that Linda doesn’t do what he says to do. He wants her to throw them away, she just kinds of puts them in her pocket. She’s not following his instructions, she’s just kind of resigned to this is what it is. She needs stockings, so she’s going to mend hers. She knows that they don’t have the money to go buy a new pair. It’s almost symbolises she’s pretty much resigned to this relationship. She is going to make due with Willy, just as she makes due with her stockings that needs to be mended.
Now this kind of scene is echoed again later on. Willy is leaving and Linda leans over. She kisses him, and a silk stocking is seen hanging from her hand, Willy notices it. He says, “Will you stop mending stockings? At least while I’m in the house. It makes me nervous. I can’t tell you. Please.” Linda hides the stocking in her hand as she follows him across the forestage in front of the house.
Again, like holy significant batman, it’s pretty amazing. He’s freaking out again, here is his guilt again. Again he says don’t do it, again she just sticks it her pocket. So we see the guilt, we see her blind faith in her husband that she is content. It’s going to be okay, she is going to use the stockings it’s no big deal. It’s also significant I think that she follows him across the forestage in front of the house. That’s how that little vignette ends she is following, it’s that blind faith thing again. She’s kind of trodding after her husband like the obedient wife that she is.
Now, this is probably the most significant quote involving stockings in the whole play. Maybe this one or the next one, but they work together. Now this is the final kind of rendezvous between the woman and Willy. This is when Biff comes to the door and sees the woman with his dad. The woman is like being pushed out the door and Willy is making all kind of excuses. The woman says, “Where is my stockings? You promised me stockings, Willy!" And Willy is like, “I have no stockings here!” The woman said, “You had two boxes of size nine sheers for me, and I want them!” Willy says, “Here for God’s sake, will you get out of here!”
So we’ve got, it’s a little bit of a testy situation, he’s trying to cover for the fact that he’s having an affair. He tells Biff that this is just some woman and basically it’s his guilt rising up to the surface. And he can’t just push it away any more like he kept asking Linda to put away the other stockings.
Now here is the killer. Biff at this point, after the woman has left, says, “You- you gave her Mama’s stockings!” Like how heart breaking is that? “Don’t touch me you liar!..You fake! You phony little fake!” At this point, Biff is seeing his dad for what he really is, and everything is really coming together. By saying that the stockings belong to Linda, we're taking those two ideas that I had at the beginning for the symbol, and really marrying them together. Linda’s faith and her obedience and then Willy’s guilt, put together in this one little quotation, where we see how unfair it is and really what these stockings represent.
In case you were busy trying to see Russia from your backyard, while you should have been listening to my lesson on symbolism, here is the gist of what you missed. The first thing we talked about were diamonds. Are diamonds really Willy Loman’s best friend? Well they do represent something really important, financial success. Remember this is what Willy wants more than anything else.
The second thing we talked about as a symbol, were seeds, and how they represent hope in this story.
The third thing we addressed was the idea of silk stockings. Now this symbol kind of does double duty, it represents Linda’s blind faith in her husband, but it also represents his guilt. Remember, he is having an affair. That’s not to say that these are the only three symbols in Death of a Salesman. There’s tons more. Check out the bonus materials and try to think about some other things that are work in this play. I’m not going to give you all the answers go do a little bit of work yourself.