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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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How are Willy's outlook and emotions conveyed to the audience through the set design of Death of a Salesman?

Death of a Salesman’s set design conveys Willy’s outlook and emotions to the reader and audience through lighting, physical spaces, and props. He feels frustrated and attacked by a cold and hostile world; similarly, an “angry glow of orange” surrounds the benevolent sky-blue light that illuminates Willy’s home. Towering buildings encroach on his small and vulnerable house. The house’s sparse interior contains props that recall Willy’s past history and current feelings and thoughts.

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The set design in Death of a Salesman reflects and conveys Willy’s outlook and emotions. Feeling frustrated, angry, and vulnerable, Willy looks to the future with despair and muted hope. Before meeting the Loman family, the reader and audience see his home with

towering, angular shapes behind it. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. As more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home.

As a formerly successful salesman who no longer makes any sales, Willy is demoralized by not only his present failures, but also his condescending, impersonal treatment by the company’s new (to him) management. The outer modern world is hostile to his inner world (e.g. his home and thoughts), which is stuck in the past. Today, up-and-coming younger salesmen surpass Willy like the “towering, angular” and “solid” block of taller apartment buildings encroaching on his diminished, “fragile-seeming house.”

Feeling overpowered, Willy maintains a complex outlook that is both desperate and delusionally hopeful. The set’s lighting reveals this ambivalence. On the one hand, Willy believes he is being disparaged and humiliated by Howard Wagner, the son of the Wagner Company’s founder with whom Willy shared a relationship of mutual respect and loyalty. The surrounding “angry glow of orange” represents this new world of business. On the other hand, Willy knows—but will not admit—that he has become obsolescent, yet he optimistically pitches himself to Howard for a sales position in here town (i.e. no longer on the road). The benevolent sky-blue light shining only on Willy’s house hints at the sadly unrealistic and delicate hopes he holds and tells his family. Miller describes the set’s atmosphere as having an “air of the dream [that] clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.”

The furnishings inside Willy’s home are functional and sparse, reflecting frugality and a downturn in fortune. The set consists of a kitchen with a table, three chairs, and a refrigerator. The draped entrance at the back of the kitchen leads to a concealed living room. Like the physical set, Willy’s psyche hides unseen spaces, like flashbacks to his affair and imaginary conversations with his late brother, Ben. The set also has a master bedroom with a bedframe, a chair, and a silver athletic trophy on a shelf. The bed recalls his mistress in the hotel. The trophies reflect not only Willy’s proud, nostalgic feelings for Biff’s past football glory, but also his unrealistic, flawed hopes for Biff’s supposed future success in sales. The boys’ room is cramped with two beds under a dormer window; similarly, Biff feels trapped by Willy’s domineering ambitions for him.

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