Family Name in “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller
What does a name really mean? What does it represent? Does your last name affect how others see you just because of how that name was represented by your ancestors? In many cases, yes. A name can affect your reputation positively or negatively. Many times people can get too caught up in their work or personal situations and don’t put enough time or energy into their kids and helping them develop into productive citizens in order to carry on their family’s legacy. This influence is vital to children, no matter the age. In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller focuses hugely on the importance of the family name, and the importance of strengthening and furthering the legacy tied to that name being passed from generation to generation. In Death of a Salesman, Miller gives a strong emphasis on parenting and the importance of leaving a legacy using several cases of irony, symbolism, and flashbacks throughout the book.
First, Arthur Miller gives a strong emphasis on parenting and the importance of leaving a legacy using many cases of irony. We see a first case of this irony early on in act one when Willy is having a conversation with his sons. While cleaning the car, Willy says to Biff, “No, you finish first. Never leave a job until you’re finished – remember that.” (Miller 28) This quote is a great example of Miller’s use of irony because it shows Willy giving his son advice that he doesn’t even follow himself. Just pages before this line, Willy and Linda have a conversation about Willy finding a new position in New York without traveling. His job as a traveling salesman is not complete, yet he is interested in a new position without finishing his work in progress. This is a distinct contradiction to the advice he gives Biff just pages later. Several more cases of irony are seen throughout the plot when it comes to Willy and the teaching of his sons. Another example is seen in this pair of quotes from Willy: First, Willy says to Biff “And don’t say ‘Gee.’ ‘Gee’ is a boy’s word.
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A man walking in for fifteen thousand dollars does not say ‘Gee!’” (65) Just pages later, Willy contradicts his past advice when he says to Linda “There’s no question, no question at all. Gee, on the way home tonight I’d like to buy some seeds.” (72) This second quote is even more significant because it contains another example of irony. Willy says “On the way home tonight, I’d like to buy some seeds.” (72) In act one, Willy says about Biff “How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand?” (15) In this quote, Willy is critical and judgemental of the idea of farming, yet later on in the plot, he wants to start his own garden and grow his own plants, drastically different than his earlier opinion. As seen by these examples, Arthur Miller gives a strong emphasis on parenting and the importance of leaving a legacy using many cases of irony throughout the plot.
Next, Miller gives a strong emphasis on parenting and the importance of leaving a legacy using symbolism throughout the play. The largest symbol used in Death of a Salesman is the idea of a name. This symbol is brought up numerous times in many different ways. Willy is always explaining to his sons how well known he is and how powerful his name is. In a flashback conversation with Ben, Willy says about Biff, “When he walks into a business office his name will sound out like a bell and all the doors will open to him! I’ve seen it, Ben. I’ve seen it a thousand times! You can’t feel it with your hand like timber, but it’s there.” This quote shows Willy explaining to Ben how powerful Biff can make himself by just developing his name. Willy has seen firsthand how greatly an individual can benefit simply from being well-liked and well-known. Willy’s goal is be well liked and well known, and he wants the same for his sons, because he wants his name and legacy to be represented well. To Willy, the measure of success is your reputation and respect, and that is all tied into a name. This is also seen with the large number of name brands used throughout the play. Well-known and well-respected names like Chevy, Studebaker, and JP Morgan, as well as places like Ebbets’ Field, strengthen Willy’s case of a person’s name being critically important. Another symbol used frequently is the rubber tube found in the house that Willy has prepared in case he decides to take his own life.
The rubber tube represents Willy’s “easy way out”. With so much stress piling up on Willy from managing his marriage and children, to losing his job, to trying to manage his finances, he is becoming more and more depressed as the plot unfolds. The tube can be seen as a symbol on how parenting should not be done. It can be seen as a sign of weakness and quitting, and those are traits that can ruin a legacy and tarnish your name. The car in the story is very similar to the tube, as Willy has tried multiples times to take his own life by crashing it, but has been unsuccessful. One last symbol that continues to appear regularly is the idea of diamonds. This symbol is typically brought up when Willy is in a flashback scene having conversations with his brother Ben. The diamonds represent success, and can be equivalent to money in some respects. The following conversation shows the differing of opinions between Ben and Willy, “BEN: The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy. BEN [with greater force]: One must go in to fetch a diamond out. BEN: Not like an appointment at all. A diamond is rough and hard to the touch. The best thing!” (134) This quote shows that Ben is not like Willy. Ben is interested in material objects like money and judges success on the amount of money that person makes and what they have, while Willy believes success is the value left behind in your name and your legacy. The “jungle” Ben refers to is Alaska, in which he offered to bring Willy, where riches await. Shown in these examples, Arthur Miller gives a strong emphasis on parenting and the importance of leaving a legacy using symbolism with several different impacts.
Finally, Miller uses numerous flashbacks with different characters to show the importance of family influences. Many of these flashbacks include Ben, Willy’s brother. Although Ben is not a parent, his memory is a huge influence on Willy’s actions throughout the story, and cause him to rethink decisions he’s made. This impact is very similar to that of which a parent would have on a child, therefore it can be considered somewhat parenting. The main flashback example is when Willy is remembering Ben’s proposition to come to Alaska with him to get rich. In this flashback, Ben says to will “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.” (134) This quote shows that the work in Alaska might not be as glamorous as Willy’s job in sales, but it is very lucrative and beneficial. For Ben, money is his main focus, and success depends on making money. Instead of going with Ben, Willy decides to raise his family and try to grow their reputation and legacy.
Overall, Willy does not do this very well. After claiming his funeral would be attended by huge numbers of people because he is so well known, it is attended only by his family. This is because most of the people he thinks he knows well and is respected by, he is not. For example, when having a conversation with Howard, Willy flashes back to the times when Howard’s father was his boss. He recalls his strong friendship with his father, and even helping to give Howard his name, and he thinks he has a very strong connection with Howard and that Howard will support him in getting a better position within the company. When Willy says he cannot be traveling anymore, instead of being helped out with a better position by Howard, he is betrayed and fired. He continues to have flashbacks and explains if Howard’s father were still around, he would “own New York by now” and have a much better position. These flashbacks are key scenes in the play because they reveal critical details that are important to understanding why somewhat minor events have a much bigger impact on the overall development of the plot.
In conclusion, In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller gives a strong emphasis on parenting and the importance of leaving a legacy using several cases of irony, symbolism, and flashbacks throughout the book. These literary devices improve the play’s plot and allow the reader to dig much deeper into the meaning of objects or lines that might seem simple at first.