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Stockings of Disloyalty
Arthur Miller’s dramatic play, Death of a Salesman, examines the final days of the life of a sixty-three-year-old traveling salesman, Willy Loman. Willy puts his hope into his oldest son Biff who wastes his chances after his high school stardom. Linda, Willy’s wife, denies his suicidal behavior while their youngest son, Happy, pretends to believe in the family fib of his father’s success. Ultimately, refusing all support from family and friends, Willy Loman takes his own life. Death of a Salesman employs the metaphor of stockings to represent both Willy’s lack of success as a salesman and his disloyalty towards his wife.
Willy Loman begins selling at a young age. Susan Abbotson, an Assistant Professor of Dramatic Literature at Rhode Island College, asserts that “Dave Singleman, an old-time salesman… inspired Willy as a younger man, to go into sales” (Abbotson). While reminiscing about the past experiences of the salesmen, Willy remembers Dave Singleman as having “drummed merchandise in thirty-one states… at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want… when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral” (Miller 1591). Willy describes selling as “the greatest career a man could want” in part by his exposure to a successful businessman like Dave Singleman. Willy solely sees the positives which come with the old seller’s life instead of a holistic approach, therefore a career in sales becomes based on raised expectations. With Willy’s aspirations set, next comes his vision of success in his new career. Willy gives Biff advice of “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know, and I go right through” when discussing high marks in school versus personality (Miller 1561). In actuality, as showcased by The Woman’s speech, “I’ll put you right through to the buyers,” Willy does not have the recognition which allows him to be a successful businessman (Miller 1564). Willy relies on The Woman to sell his products and to pick himself back up when feeling down. The image of a successful salesman, instilled in Biff back in high school became blurry as Willy lost his self-confidence as seen by his dialogue to Linda when he said, “I’m fat. I’m very – foolish to look at Linda… they do laugh at me. I know that” (Miller 1563). On top of the lost confidence, Willy never opened up his own selling business he always told Biff and Happy about while they were kids but instead has to borrow money in place of his salary from his neighbor Charley to pay the bills every week. The slow deterioration from the high aspirations set by Dave Singleman, to the value of success in Willy’s life to the eventual fall off of salary and the constant loans needed to be taken out showcase the failure Willy made of himself in the selling business.
Willy buys his mistress, The Woman, new stockings but Linda, his wife, instead mends her old ones. Willy lacks money management skills: illustrated by the exchange between himself and Linda where he first says, “I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston,” but then after Linda does some figuring, he then says, “Well no – it came to – roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip” (Miller 1562). This weekly sales trip did not earn Willy enough money to pay the weekly bills so his weak finances come with little to no disposable income. Brenda Murphy, a Professor Emeritus of modern drama at the University of Connecticut, states that even with “all of the tricks that Willy has learned in a lifetime of selling, including seducing the buyer’s secretary and bribing her with stockings, Willy is barely able to eke out a living for his family” (Murphy) A double-edged sword exists between The Woman and Linda because Linda mends her stockings but Willy buys “two boxes of size nine sheers for [The Woman]” (Miller 1617). The stockings can be seen as an investment into Willy’s sales career because The Woman will get him to the buyers which will earn him the salary needed to live. The stockings, or the gifts given to The Woman in general, are an upfront charge to a hopefully prosperous sale so they garner higher value to Willy, who wants to become a successful salesman, than stockings given as gifts to his wife back at home. Willy, first stuck in the loop of gifts for sales because of his loneliness away from home, cannot escape the cycle of wrongdoing. The gift of stockings represents a key part of the puzzle in which Willy finds success as a salesman whereas stockings at home are another piece of clothing.
The symbol of stockings becomes pivotal in the scene where Biff discovers the extra-marital affair between The Woman and Willy. Following Biff’s discovery of the affair and the interaction in the door of the hotel room, Biff says, “You – you gave her Mama’s stockings!” (Miller 1618). According to literary critic Thomas Porter, “Biff sees the affair as a betrayal of Linda, the family and the home. The image of the husband and father is broken when Willy gives The Woman ‘Mama’s Stockings’” (Porter). The discovery of the affair contains reference to the stockings Willy gave to The Woman and therefore the stockings become a flashback to the time where Willy cheated on his wife. Brian Parker describes these flashbacks as a “mental relapse” which can be triggered by an object’s symbolism. Specifically, “certain things always “trigger” this kind of mental relapse in Willy because they are so associated with his guilt: silk stockings,” says Parker (Parker). When Willy sees Linda mending the stockings, he recalls his adultery when he says, “I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out!” in an attempt to rid the object associated with the pain he caused the family (Miller 1565). The stockings represent, to Willy, the extra-marital relationship he had with The Woman and the pain and hardship he put his family through.
The representation or the symbolism of the stockings serves as an important metaphor because the one object encompasses the entire story: the failure of the salesman, the affair with The Woman, and the ultimate death of Willy Loman.
The stockings representation, a rather common object, become an object which haunts Willy in his life. The greater meaning behind the stockings symbol makes it persuasive object to Willy’s character. To him, the stockings represent his adulterous life choices and the fact that he did not become a successful salesman as he hoped for earlier in life. Symbols illustrate relationships between individuals and the interactions to the world around them. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the stockings correspond with Willy’s lack of success as a salesman and his unfaithfulness towards his wife which both ultimately lead to him taking his own life.
- Abbotson, Susan C. W. “Death of a Salesman.” Critical Companion to Arthur Miller, Facts On File, 2007. History Research Center, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=&itemid=&articleId=12773. Accessed 2 May 2019.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Perrine’s Literature Structure, Sound, and Sense. 8th ed. edited by Arp, Thomas and Johnson, Greg. Thomas Wadsworth, 2001, pp. 1545-1630.
- Murphy, Brenda. “‘Personality Wins the Day’: Death of a Salesman and Popular Sales Advice Literature.” Arthur Miller, New Edition, Chelsea House, 2007. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=96440&itemid=WE54&articleId=47029. Accessed 9 May 2019.
- Parker, Brian. “Point of View in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller, Original Edition, Chelsea House, 2018. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=96440&itemid=WE54&articleId=532083. Accessed 9 May 2019.
- Porter, Thomas E. “Acres of Diamonds: Death of a Salesman.” Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller, New Edition, Chelsea House, 2014. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=96440&itemid=WE54&articleId=359908. Accessed 9 May 2019.
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