Discuss the importance of setting in relation to theme in Death of a Salesman

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The play Death of a Salesman exposes the dissonance between main character Willy Loman and the changing world around him. There is a dissonance because Willy has remain mentally encapsulated within specific moments during his life when he was given the opportunity to make important choices that could have forever changed his destiny. Yet, his lack of action during these moments resulted in total stagnation during a time when the city, as well as the world, continues to move forward in full throttle.

The different settings, all within the historical context of the financial prosperity brought upon the end of WWII, take place between Willy's home in Brooklyn, and his travels from New York to Boston. Given that the theme of the play involves the never-ending search for the American Dream, it makes sense that Willy is in a never-ending struggle to chase the dream from state to state and back.

In a dramatic irony, Willy's chase of the American Dream is also embodied in his car trips which, as we find out, are actually a waste of time. Moreover, it is through these very trips that he finds a way out; to kill himself by crashing the car where he travels in search of his own American dream.

The setting is also important because Willy indicates that, when he first bought his home, there was land to be had and an ample space for Willy's family to grow. Years later, the home is almost paid for but the growing concrete jungle of city engulfs it to the point of Willy having to grow his seeds in a very small space. In fact, this very small space is also significant as a setting, because this is when Willy finally comes to realize his life and says:

Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.

This phrase symbolizes Willy's worthless and wasted life: the fact that he chased Dave Singleman's American Dream of being a well-liked and successful traveling salesman ended up in Willy completely failing to discover what could have been his own dream. Even at his age, he has failed to become well-grounded, and he has failed to make anything productive out of his life. Therefore, the settings in the play tell the story of how Willy, stubborn and clueless, insisted on chasing after waterfalls and never changing his erroneous ways.

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Death of a Salesman

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