In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, what does Willy's father symbolize?

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lcassidy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", Willy describes his father as being a very successful salesman.  In fact, Willy mentions that when his father died, for his funeral, people came from everywhere.  He was such a well-liked and successful salesman that his business contacts filled the funeral parlour.  However, Willy who thought he was also as well-liked and who also assumed he was a successful business man has an empty funeral parlour.  When he is planning his suicide, he thinks that people will come from everywhere, just as they had with his father.  The reality, however, demonstrates that Willy had no friends and was disillusioned his entire life. 

washingtonirving | Student

This is in fact incorrect. The man you refer to is Dave Singleman-a salesman acquaintance of Willy's who he blindly emulates for having so many sales 'correspondences' which Willy takes to mean friends. Willy has little memory of his actual father, except the flute song that he hears in lucid moments and Ben's assurance that he was a travelling salesman who sold flutes. The significance of Willy's father therefore are threefold:

a) He symbolises Willy's longing to escape, travel and live a simple life e.g. selling flutes-and his inability to understand this desire. He considers his father to have been successful despite him only ever having sold simple instruments.

b) He symbolises Willy's core self-doubt because he was abandoned as a child. He so needs a father figure to guide him on the right path and yet can remember nothing but loneliness. Perhaps this is why he abandons his own sons.

c) He symbolises the great 'secret' of sales which Willy longs for, and is in fact imaginary. He presumes his father must have had it, and is tortured by its being just out of his reach. In fact, he just needs to have more work discipline.

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Death of a Salesman

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