Death of a Salesman Act 1, Part 1: Summary and Analysis
by Arthur Miller

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Act 1, Part 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Willy Loman: Linda’s husband, Biff and Happy’s father; the “salesman” of the play’s title

Linda: wife of Willy, mother of Biff and Happy

Biff: elder son of Willy and Linda

Happy: younger son of Willy and Linda, often simply called Hap

Part 1 covers the author’s pre-play description of the set, as well as the opening action until Linda says, “Be careful on the stairs, dear!”

Even before the characters appear on stage, the audience sees the set design. Miller’s description of the set is important as it establishes the tone of the play. The set shows both the inside and outside of Willy Loman’s humble house in New York City; the time is present day, which was 1949 when Death of a Salesman first opened. A “fragile-seeming” house, it is hedged in, surrounded by recently erected apartment buildings. Blue light falls on the house, giving it “an air of the dream,” while “an angry glow of orange” colors the edges of the set.

The kitchen occupies center stage, flanked by a bedroom at a raised level on the right. Behind and above the kitchen is another bedroom, and a doorway draped with a curtain leads out from the back of the kitchen to an unseen living room. The setting is completely or, in places, partially transparent. Miller tells the reader that when the characters are in the present, the actors will respect the “walls” of the house and enter only through doors; in the scenes from the past, however, the actors will enter or exit by walking through the transparent walls.

Flute music reminiscent of “grass and trees and the horizon” plays as “the Salesman,” Willy Loman, enters the house at night time. A tired-looking man in his sixties, Willy has returned home early from a business sales trip he began that morning. His wife Linda wonders why Willy has returned unexpectedly, and Willy responds that while driving he had begun daydreaming and almost had an accident. Willy is frightened at his own loss of control, but also disappointed that he, his company’s “New England man,” will not make his business meeting in Portland, Maine, tomorrow. “I could sell them!” he tells Linda. Willy is convinced, and Linda agrees, that after years as a loyal traveling salesman he should be rewarded with a non-traveling position at the company office in New York; we do not learn what Willy sells, although we see his sample cases.

Willy and Linda’s 34-year-old son Biff has returned to visit his parents, but when Linda brings up the fact that Biff and their other son (Happy) went on a date earlier that evening, Willy begins finding fault with Biff. Willy and Biff have been at odds with each other for a long time. Willy cannot understand why Biff, since high school, has needed to “find himself” by working menial odd jobs, the latest being a job as a farmhand out West. Willy questions how, with such “personal attractiveness,” Biff has gotten lost “in the greatest country in the world.” Willy’s mood, however, quickly changes. Convinced that “Biff is a lazy bum,” Willy then remembers how proud he was of Biff’s popularity in high school and says, “There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.”

Reassured that Biff will find a successful career, Willy begins expressing his frustration with how their house and suburban neighborhood have suffered the encroachment of people and large buildings from the city. Willy finally heads down to the kitchen from the bedroom to make a sandwich. Adding to his existing confusion is his realization that moments ago he thought that today he had driven a different, older car than the one he actually drove. Lying in their bedroom above the kitchen, Biff and Happy do not hear their parents discussing Biff but do begin listening shortly before Willy goes to the kitchen.

The set design of Death of a Salesman was innovative when the play was first produced in 1949, since it allowed Miller’s characters to move between present and...

(The entire section is 1,104 words.)