Death of a Salesman

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Abandonment and Betrayal Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The American Dream Theme Icon
Fathers and Sons Theme Icon
Nature vs. City Theme Icon
Abandonment and Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Death of a Salesman, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Abandonment and Betrayal Theme Icon

Inspired by his love for his family, Willy ironically abandons them (just as he himself was abandoned by his father when he was three). The tragedy of Willy's death comes about because of his inability to distinguish between his value as an economic resource and his identity as a human being. The Woman, with whom Willy cheats on Linda, is able to feed Willy's salesman ego by "liking" him. He is proud of being able to sell himself to her, and this feeling turns to shame only when he sees that by giving stockings to The Woman rather than Linda, he is sabotaging his role as a provider. He doesn't see that his love, not material items, is the primary thing Linda needs from him.

The link between love and betrayal is present throughout the play: part of Biff's revelation at the play's end is that Willy has betrayed him by encouraging him to settle for nothing less than greatness, thus making the compromises of the real world impossibly difficult. Happy, and even Linda, also betray Willy out of a kind impulse to not shake him out of his illusions, which forces Willy's fragile mind to deal alone with the growing discrepancy between his dreams and his life.

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Abandonment and Betrayal ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Abandonment and Betrayal appears in each act of Death of a Salesman. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Abandonment and Betrayal Quotes in Death of a Salesman

Below you will find the important quotes in Death of a Salesman related to the theme of Abandonment and Betrayal.
Act 1 Quotes
I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, arrives home to his wife Linda. She is surprised to see him back so soon, and he explains that he couldn't make it to his destination. He was distracted and kept pulling his car over at the side of the road. She asks him what's wrong and, avoiding the truth, he tells her: "I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts." 

Here, we begin to see the slow unraveling of Willy Loman; a man with an unrealistic view of the American Dream. He measures the worth of his own life in the amount of money he has, yet we will come to learn that he will never attain what he dreams of. Death Of A Salesman is Arthurs Miller's commentary on that American Dream and how it can break people. In the 1940s and 50s a blue collar job, like a salesman was what people aspired for. They believed that work meant wealth. Yet Willy Loman feels a sense of purposelessness that he can't define. He doesn't understand that the ideal of the American Dream has betrayed him—it is the unrewarding nature of his job and his constant idealism of what it means to be wealthy that leaves him directionless. 


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Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy asks Linda about how his two sons, Happy and Biff, are doing. Linda tells him that they are getting along and that she loves watching them shave together. We learn here that they are grown men. Willy comments on Linda's remarks with this quote. 

Once again, Willy has distilled one of the darkest aspects of the American Dream. Like many, he has worked his entire life to provide for his family, so much so that he has missed out on most of his children's' lives. As he traveled, his sons became men. After this moment he tells Linda, that "some people accomplish" things, suggesting that the time he has lost with his children was pointless. He hasn't accomplished anything, quite possibly because he is searching in the wrong places. This quote also foreshadows the ending of the play, when Willy's death indeed pays off the house—but he isn't alive to live in it.

Linda: Willy, darling, you're the handsomest man in the world—

Willy: Oh, no, Linda.

Linda: To me you are. The handsomest.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Linda Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy and Linda go over his earnings for the week and realize that they still will have some trouble paying the bills. Willy tells Linda that he doesn't feel respected by other people, and part of the reason for this is his weight. Willy overheard a client calling him a "walrus." He is embarrassed by his own body, so Linda replies with reinforcement, telling him that he is handsome. Here we see how loyal Linda is to Willy. Her love for him transcends success or finance. She loves Willy for Willy. Willy, on the other hand, is not so loyal to Linda—in fact, he has betrayed her with another woman. Willy's concern for his weight also reveals the idea that as a salesman he must ultimately sell himself. 

The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich! The world is an oyster, but you don't crack it open on a mattress!
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Ben Loman
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Willy discusses his jealousy for his brother Ben's fortune. Ben came from nothing, but discovered a diamond mine in Africa and got rich. When Willy tells Happy this, Happy wonders how Ben did it. Willy replies with this quote. He tells Happy that dreams are acquired through perseverance, but also great luck. This moment once again plays on the idealized versus realized "American Dream." Adventuring to Africa and making a fortune overnight is Willy's idea of what the American dream should be. But Willy actually lives Arthur Miller's reality of the American dream: a blue-collar, middle-class working man who feels aimless and hasn't achieved any sense of fulfillment or happiness for all his striving. 

Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way.
Related Characters: Ben Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Alone in his kitchen, Willy daydreams about his brother Ben. On stage, Ben will appear through the walls of the house, and Ben then discusses Willy and his father. He describes his father to Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy. Ben then play fights with Biff and pulls out an umbrella and nearly hits him in the eye. He tells Biff this piece of advice.

Willy has constantly lived in the shadow of his brother Ben, who made a fortune virtually overnight. Willy has had to work his entire life and thus has a skewed sense of what the real American Dream is. He sees it as wealth and monetary success, because of the success of his brother (which was actually based entirely on luck). Furthermore, like Biff and Happy, Willy looks up to his brother. Yet this moment reveals Ben as a cruel person—who knows how many people he has hurt or taken advantage of in order to achieve his "success." Once again, Willy has a warped sense of what is important in life. 

I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper... But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.
Related Characters: Linda Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Biff, Happy, and Linda are watching Willy unravel. He is talking to himself, and growing erratic and aggressive. Biff makes the mistake of calling his father crazy. Here, in Linda's iconic speech, she explains that her husband is going through a horrible time in his life. No matter his flaws, he is a human being and deserves to be taken care of—deserves the attention and appreciation that he constantly seeks. Unlike the other characters in the play, Linda sees Willy as a hero—his accomplishments are great because of his humanity, even though they may seem small or even pathetic to others. Linda feels as though her sons have betrayed Willy by accusing him of being unhinged or not taking his state of mind seriously. She later reveals that Willy has made several attempts to kill himself—offering a more concrete and urgent reason for why "attention must be paid" to Willy.

Act 2 Quotes
Willy: Your father came to me the day you were born and asked me what I thought of the name of Howard, may he rest in peace.

Howard: I appreciate that, Willy, but there just is no spot here for you.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Howard Wagner (speaker)
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy goes to meet Howard Wagner, the son of the owner of the company he works for. Encouraged by Linda to find a job that will keep him in New York, and always one for a business deal or "sale," Willy comes into the meeting optimistic. He asks Howard to keep him in New York on a lower salary, and in this moment, Howard refuses. Although only 36 years old, Howard acts patronizingly towards Willy here. He is a much younger man, but like so many others in Willy's life, doesn't respect him. Willy brings up how he helped Howard's father choose his name as a baby.

Although Willy idealizes these kinds of connections, and assumes that being likable and loyal is the ultimate recipe for success, here that idea is shot down. Willy's connection to Howard's father fits in with Willy's ideas of how business works, but to Howard—who, we presume, is more concerned with profit than indulging in nostalgia—this just isn't that important. Thus the very things that Willy counted on here abandon and betray him.

Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

After arguing about whether or not Charley should give Willy a loan, Charley finally caves. He throws money on the table and Willy tells him that after all of the bills and expenses, he is probably worth more dead than alive. Here, Willy verbally communicates the idea that he has been suggesting throughout the play; self worth is measured in wealth. Without wealth in life, he is likely worth more dead (as he would be able to give his family life insurance money). In his mind, it is worth more for him to be dead than it is to live the aimless and mediocre life he is living. He also refers to the city landscape here, revealing another moment where the city and countryside are used to compare different qualities and priorities in life. This skewed sense of self-worth and the meaning of life foreshadows what will ultimately become of Willy Loman. 

I even believed myself that I'd been a salesman for him! And he gave me one look and - I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Bill Oliver
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Biff returns from trying to meet with his former boss, Bill Oliver. He waited all day in his office and when Bill came out, he didn't even recognize Biff. He looked at him and walked away, and Biff couldn't find the courage to speak to Bill. This causes Biff to wonder why he even thought he could become a salesman in the first place. Biff is in the same dangerous, self-destructive cycle as his father. Parallel to Willy's moment with Howard, Biff has been abandoned by someone he had an idealized view of. In his fantasy, he imagined Bill Oliver as his friend and business associate, loving his ideas—but similar to his father, Biff's dreams have warped his expectations of reality. Bill does not care about him, and Biff will never be what he truly wants to be. 

She's nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.

You - you gave her Mama's stockings!
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman (speaker), Linda Loman, The Woman
Related Symbols: Stockings
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
While Biff tries to confess about his meeting with Bill Oliver to his father, Willy sinks into another memory. He goes back to the day he found out Biff flunked math. After failing his course, Biff took a train to visit Willy in Boston, and he found him with another woman in his hotel room. Willy tried to hide his mistress in the bathroom, but eventually she comes out, asking Willy for her stockings that he promised her: Linda's stockings. Biff is heartbroken at his father's infidelity. Once again, the stockings are used as a symbol of betrayal. They are the image that Biff and Willy carry with them, a emblem of that night. After that moment, Biff tells Willy that he won't be retaking math or going to college. Throughout the play Willy has been blaming math as the reason why Biff hasn't been successful, when in reality it was this shattering moment of disillusionment. The man that Biff had always looked up to is now a fraud. This forever warps Biff's idea of the "American Dream"; something he once defined as the dream of his father's. He now sees that it is all a sham, and is left directionless in life. 
I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Related Symbols: Seeds
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy's fantasy about his affair dissolves and he finds himself in the bathroom of the restaurant he was in with his sons. When he returns to the table he sees that his sons are gone—they've paid the check and he is alone. Willy asks his server, Stanley where he can find some seeds to plant. Stanley tells him to go to a hardware store nearby. Willy exits.

Seeds here become a symbol of Willy's desire to die and leave something, no matter how small, behind him. He has nothing to care for anymore. His sons don't respect him, he has just had a vivid memory of his betrayal of his wife, he has lost his job, and he has lost his own sense of self worth. Miller also brings up the idea of nature versus city once again. If the city represents the clouded, capitalistic American Dream, coming back to nature, to the simple planting and reaping of seeds, represents the idea of finding truth and connection. Additionally, unlike Willy, seeds are planted—they are rooted to the ground, and do not travel or move. Willy is desperate for roots and desperate for growth, and he sees death and the planting of seeds as the only way to accomplish this. 

The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.
Related Characters: Ben Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

After what seems to have been a revelatory moment with his family, Willy sinks back into his delusions, hearing the voice of his dead brother Ben telling him that "The jungle is dark but full of diamonds." Unbeknownst to his family, Willy turns and listens to this voice. In his delusional state, Ben tells Willy that with money, Biff will be magnificent one day. Ben urges Willy to not give up on his dreams, and to instead return to the "jungle." In a moment alone, Willy agrees. He chooses to abandon his family for the ultimate search of wealth; his life insurance policy. That night, he takes his car and kills himself. His American Dream has been realized, and he has at last reached the dark "jungle" of both death and money.

Requiem Quotes
I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home.
Related Characters: Linda Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Everyone has left the funeral, and Linda stands alone over Willy's grave. In this private moment, she speaks to her deceased husband, telling him that she can't cry. She feels like he is on just another trip, and is bound to come home. She has been abandoned by him, but also cannot yet accept the reality of his death. Linda then tells Willy that she made the final payment on their house—but there is no one there to live in it now. The irony of the American dream is made clear here. Linda was only able to pay for the house, a goal Willy was aiming to achieve, with the insurance money collected after Willy's death. His American Dream has been realized, but he isn't there to see it—it's just empty money, without life and meaning behind it.