The Expressionistic Devices in Death of a Salesman
From the opening flute notes to their final reprise, Miller's musical themes express the competing influences in Willy Loman's mind. Once established, the themes need only be sounded to evoke certain time frames, emotions, and values. The first sounds of the drama, the flute notes "small and fine," represent the grass, trees, and horizon - objects of Willy's (and Biff's) longing that are tellingly absent from the overshadowed home on which the curtain rises. This melody plays on as Willy makes his first appearance, although, as Miller tells us, "[h]e hears but is not aware of it" (12). Through this music we are thus given our first sense of Willy's estrangement not only from nature itself but from his own deepest nature.
As Act I unfolds, the flute is linked to Willy's father, who, we are told, made flutes and sold them during the family's early wanderings. The father's theme, "a high, rollicking tune," is differentiated from the small and fine melody of the natural landscape (49). This distinction is fitting, for the father is a salesman as well as an explorer; he embodies the conflicting values that are destroying his son's life.
The father's tune shares a family likeness with Ben's "idyllic" (133) music. This false theme, like Ben himself, is associated finally with death. Ben's theme is first sounded, after all, only after Willy expresses his exhaustion (44). It is heard again after Willy is fired in Act II. This time the music precedes Ben's entrance. It is heard in the distance, then closer, just as Willy's thoughts of suicide, once repressed, now come closer at the loss of his job. And Willy's first words to Ben when he finally appears are the ambiguous "how did you do it?" (84). When Ben's idyllic melody plays for the third and final time it is in "accents of dread" (133), for Ben reinforces Willy's wrongheaded thought of suicide to bankroll Biff.
The father's and Ben's themes, representing selling (out) and abandonment, are thus in opposition to the small and fine theme of nature that begins and ends the play. A whistling motif elaborates this essential conflict. Whistling is often done by those contentedly at work. It frequently also accompanies outdoor activities. A whistler in an office would be a distraction. Biff Loman likes to whistle, thus reinforcing his ties to nature rather than to the business environment. But Happy seeks to stifle Biff's true voice:
HAPPY . . . Bob Harrison said you were tops, and then you go and do some damn fool thing like whistling whole songs in the elevator like a comedian.
BIFF, against Happy. So what? I like to whistle sometimes.
HAPPY. You don t raise a guy to a responsible job who whistles in elevator! (60)
This conversation reverberates ironically when Howard Wagner plays Willy a recording of his daughter whistling Roll out the Barrel" just before Willy asks for an advance and a New York job (77). Whistling, presumably, is all right if you are the boss or the boss's daughter, but not if you are an employee. The barrel will not be rolled out for Willy or Biff Loman.
Willy's conflicting desires to work in sales and to do outdoor, independent work are complicated by another longing, that of sexual desire, which is expressed through the "raw, sensuous music" that accompanies The Woman's appearances on stage (116, 37). It is this music of sexual desire, I suggest, that "insinuates itself" as the first leaves cover the house in Act 1.5 It is heard just before Willy - reliving a past conversation - offers this ironic warning to Biff: "Just wanna be careful with those girls, Biff, that's all. Don't make any promises. No promises of any kind" (27).
This raw theme of sexual desire contrasts with Linda Loman's theme: the maternal hum of a soft lullaby that becomes a "desperate but monotonous" hum at the end of Act I (69). Linda's monotonous drone, in turn, contrasts with the "gay and bright" music, the boys' theme, which opens Act II. This theme is associated with the "great times" (127) Willy remembers with his sons - before his adultery is discovered. Like the high, rollicking theme of Willy's father and like Ben's idyllic melody, this gay and bright music is ultimately associated with the false dream of materialistic success. The boys theme is first heard when Willy tells Ben that he and the boys will get rich in Brooklyn (87). It sounds again when Willy implores Ben, "[H]ow