Three Activities Exploring Symbolism in "Death of a Salesman"

By Peter Boysen

This is a look at the four major symbols in Arthur Miller's play. Afterward, there are some activities to help students understand the way the symbols work in the story.

Significance of the Symbols

This is a quick look at the four primary Death of a Salesman symbols.

Seeds. Willy spends time outside at night planting them, in a harebrained attempt to grow the food that he can't afford for his family, since he's not doing much at all in the way of earning a commission. Planting the seeds is labor that can pay off for him directly, in a way that driving around and having the new representatives of his former customers laughing at him cannot. Seeds represent his feeling of failure as far as leaving a legacy for his children, as well as his failure to raise young men who would turn out to be a success -- particularly in the case of Biff.

Stockings. Willy's always asking Linda what kind of shape her stockings are in. If she has ratty stockings, to him that means that he is a poor provider, because he can't afford to keep her in new ones. Also, when Biff catches Willy in his affair, in the hotel room in Boston, he accuses him of taking his mother's stockings and giving them to his lover. And so stockings also take on a symbol of this unfaithfulness: by giving Linda new stockings, Willy assuages his guilt for the affair.

Diamonds. Willy's brother Ben made unbelievable wealth for himself in the diamond market in Alaska. For Willy, diamonds represent the kind of riches that you can hold in your hand, as opposed to commissions that you have to wait to get when they come in. Willy's final journey comes when he sees his brother Ben again, now a ghost, urging him to come into the "jungle" -- in the play, Willy's trip into the jungle is a suicidal car accident that provides for his family in a way he could not -- with the insurance payoff.

The Rubber Hose. Linda and Biff keep finding this lying around. Willy has been trying to sniff gas out of the furnace in yet another way to end his own life. Willy's family knows this without acknowledging the possibility -- this generation was not the generation of psychoanalysis.


Here are several activities that will help your students understand the significance of these Death of a Salesman symbols.

1. You'll need a small styrofoam cup and an acorn for each student, as well as some topsoil. Go ahead and add the topsoil to the cups and distribute them, and then hand out the acorn separately. Then, ask your students to label the cup with the name of a family member who has taught them an important life lesson. Then, have the students push the seeds into the topsoil. Then, have the students write a letter to that family member, describing how that life lesson has been an important "seed" in their development.

2. Everyone important to young Willy Loman abandoned him -- his father, and his older brother Ben. Ask your students to think about why the tangible (stockings, diamonds, and so on) becomes so important to him.

3. The rubber hose is, in some ways, Willy's call for help. Why do you think that Biff and Linda never stage an intervention with him? What would you have done in their stead? You can have your students write about what they would do -- or even stage what that intervention would have been like.

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