In Death of Salesman, there are recurring themes or motifs that unify the play and blend together in the last act to give a paradoxical or ironic comment on the drama. The first dominant motif is the false importance placed on personal attractiveness and popularity. To the protagonist Willy Loman, being handsome and well liked is all-important. Willy naively believes that if a person is attractive and popular, the entire world opens up for him, guaranteeing success and answering the American Dream. Willy sees the personification of this in the salesman, David Singleman, whom he describes in the play as the man who has obtained the American Dream through being a salesman.
Unfortunately, Willy confers his philosophies about attractiveness and popularity to his sons. As a result, the handsome Biff, a star football player in high school, feels like he can get by in life on his looks and personality. He finds out, however, that these traits do not bring the American Dream to him; he flunks math and cannot go to college, starts stealing, and amounts to nothing in life. Happy is also deluded; he encourages Biff in his illusions, telling him he should be able to borrow any amount of money from Bill Oliver because Biff is "so well liked." Additionally, Happy tries to make himself well liked, especially by surrounding himself with women, but he finds his existence to be very empty and lonely.
The final touch of pathos in the play centers on the being liked motif. Willy has imagined that his funeral will be well attended, just like the one for Singleman. As he plans his suicide, he pictures customers and fellow salesmen from all over New England coming to his burial; the image pleases Willy, for he feels it will cause his sons to feel respect from their dead father. In truth, no one outside of family attends the funeral, except for Charley.
It is a sad statement on a sad life.
The theft motif is also developed in the play; it is Miller's sad comment on the degeneration of American middle class values. Willy constantly turns his head on or actually encourages theft by his sons, especially Biff. When Biff steals a football from the locker room, Willy excuses the behavior and even says the coach will "probably congratulate you on your initiative." When Biff admits that he fails math, in spite of cheating on the exam, Willy has no comment on the cheating, which he a theft of knowledge. In fact, at one point in his flashbacks, Willy actually sends Biff and Happy out to steal lumber to prove their fearlessness to Ben. Willy also steals his sons' dignity. He fills them with so many lies and so much hot air, that neither boy can recognize the truth or take orders from anyone.
The tragedy of Willy Loman is not just the tragedy of a single individual. Miller implies that Willy's distorted illusions and values are all too frequently those forced upon people in a capitalist society, especially in America. It is Linda who points out the tragic predicament of Willy Loman: "he is not the finest character that ever lived. But he is human being and a terrible thing is happening to him." Willy is a thoroughly human character whose limitations and errors are combined with a noble parental passion and a heroic effort to maintain his self-esteem and dreams in the midst of a competitive capitalist society.