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“He’s Planting the Garden!”: The Garden as Unifying Symbol in Death of a Salesman
By Carlos Campo, Community College of Southern Nevada
Critics have carefully traced symbolic elements in Death of a Salesman since its publication over fifty years ago. From Bill Oliver’s pen as phallic symbol to Howard Wagner’s wire recorder as emblem of Willy’s technophobia, these studies have both illuminated and obscured Miller’s drama. While many writers have noted Willy’s desire to “get something in the ground” as an antidote for his “temporary” feelings about himself, few have explored the complexity of the garden as a symbol in the play. The garden is such a dynamic motif, that it emerges as perhaps the most unifying symbolic element in Death of a Salesman.
Miller’s opening stage directions begin with the flute “telling of grass and trees and the horizon” (5). These natural images, Willy’s “green” world, are immediately contrasted with the “towering angular shapes” of Willy’s “grey” world. Willy’s failing garden cannot overcome the apartment houses, which blot out life-giving light: “There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard” (11). Miller deftly develops this green vs. grey dichotomy throughout the drama. The grey world is the ruthless “cut and dried” business world that fires a desperate Willy; it is found in Ben’s brutal treatment of his nephew Biff, who is cautioned to “never fight fair with a stranger” (43). The green world is Willy’s remembrances of “lilac and wisteria; the peonies would come out, and the daffodils” (11). During the Requiem, Charley argues that Willy was part of the grey world, where “there’s no rock bottom to life,” while Biff sees his father in the green world, “making the stoop, finishing the cellar” (132).
Miller emphasizes the difference between the grey and green worlds in his autobiography, Timebends, when he writes of Manny Newman and Lee Balsam, prototypes for Willy Loman. He marvels at “their little wooden homes surrounded by open flatland where tall elms grew” where the grass was “crisscrossed with footpaths that people used instead of the unpaved streets without sidewalks.” They had prolific gardens, and “canned the tomatoes they grew, and their basements smelled hauntingly of earth, unlike Manhattan basements with their taint of cat and rat and urine” (121). Miller’s description sounds much like Willy’s backyard in bygone days, with their “two beautiful elm trees” between which they hung their swing. Those trees were “massacred” by a builder who cut them down, an instrument of the grey world. It is from this grey world that Willy dreams of escaping one day, to a green world: “a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables” (65).
Willy’s inability to raise vegetables is mirrored by his failure to raise his sons effectively. Biff and Hap’s moral turpitude has been well chronicled, and it is clear that Willy is paralyzed by the fear that he has not equipped his boys for the future. He tells Ben, “Sometimes I’m afraid I’m not teaching them the right kind of—Ben, how should I teach them” (46)? Just as nothing grows in the yard, the Lomans are stunted, impotent men. Willy laments that Biff never grew up, while Charley twice asks Willy when he is going to grow up. We are not surprised that the word “boy” is referenced some 82 times in the play; it is part of what Willy mutters in his opening lines, and it is his final reference to Biff.
Perhaps the least examined aspect of the garden in the play is the relationship between Willy’s garden and the Victory Gardens that became so popular in America during both world wars. While many of us know the popular PBS series The Victory Garden, now in its 29th year, we may be unfamiliar with America’s war gardens. The war gardens of World War I emerged from food shortages and consumers’ fears regarding escalating food prices. War garden efforts were so successful that the “National War Garden Community estimated that the people of this country in 1917 produced a crop valued at $350 million in back yards, vacant lots, and the like” (Free). So when Biff is a toddler in Brooklyn, can we safely assume that the Lomans joined the national fervor and planted a Victory Garden? Only Biff makes a passing reference to the war when he speaks of the jobs he’s had since he left “before the war” (16). Biff, of course is speaking of WWII, during which the Victory Garden played an even more significant role.
Once canned foods joined the list of rationed items in March of 1943—just a few years before Biff returns home—the Secretary of Agriculture called for a national effort to create 18 million Victory Gardens. Four million new gardeners answered the call, leading to a buyer’s panic in the seed market (Platenius). Is Willy’s fixation and frustration regarding growing and gardening a reflection of his sense of thwarted duty to his country? Surely audiences in 1949 would have seen the Victory Garden as an ironic backdrop for Willy’s gardening failures. Willy Loman, the forlorn drummer who keeps “ringing up zeros” will find no victory in his life, not with his sons, his wife, his job, or his gardening.
Willy’s garden could certainly have been planted during the Depression as well. Community gardens have been cultivated on vacant lots in New York City since the government initiated Depression era relief gardens (“Community”). The thirties were clearly difficult days for the Lomans, who must have relied on their garden at some point in the past. When Linda says in Act II, “Not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow there any more,” she implies that the garden, like so many things in their lives, was once fruitful but is now barren.
It is fitting that Willy returns to his garden as the play builds to its climax. Willy is desperate to get something in the ground, and is plotting his suicide as he tries to plant in the dark. It’s just like Willy to plant in dark; he’s been lost ever since his father abandoned him as a child. It is in the garden that the family fully realizes the extent of Willy’s fall; his bizarre actions prepare us for his inevitable self-destruction. Willy’s garden is a burial mound for his hopes and dreams, and by having him dig about in the dark earth just minutes before his death Miller shocks both readers and viewers with the power of the garden as symbol. The garden is a shadow of a lost Eden, an ironic “garden of defeat,” a victim of the grey world, as fragile and hopeless as Willy Loman himself.
“Community Gardens: City Farmers of New York.” <www.templace.com/project-pool/one?prj_id=3569>.
Free, Montague. War Gardens. New York: 1918. “Harvest of Freedom: The History of Gardens in America.” <www.mannlib.cornell.edu/about/exhibit/KitchenGardens/hardtimes4.htm>.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1971. All subsequent quotes are from this edition.
—. Timebends, A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Platenius, Hans. Victory Garden Handbook. Ithaca: New York, 1943. “Harvest of Freedom: The History of Gardens in America.” <www.mannlib.cornell.edu/about/exhibit/KitchenGardens/hardtimes4.htm>.
Find some interesting graphic at “Earthly Pursuits,” 2001. Check this excellent site out for more information on Victory Gardens and the history of gardening in America.