Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104
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 past, the real and the imaginary, without cumbersome set changes. Moreover, the set design helps Miller suggest the way the characters, especially Willy, live in the past as much as the present.
The blue light around the set, indicating “an air of the dream,” corresponds to Willy’s self-confidence (“I could sell them!”) in the face of what are intimidating, depressing circumstances. Simultaneously, “an air of the dream” might refer to all the characters’ anxious, dazed sense of being lost. The large apartment buildings are crowding Willy and Linda, beating down on them the same way many unrewarding years as a traveling salesman have weighed on Willy. Willy’s optimism in his ability to sell and later in Biff’s eventual success reveals a salesman’s belief that the present is never as bad as it seems and that the future will always be even better. For many people, that optimism also connotes an enthusiasm for self-improvement associated with the American dream. What place “personal attractiveness” like Biff’s has in the American dream, though, is debatable. The upward mobility of the American dream has usually been identified with hard work, not personality, but – at least to someone like Willy – sometimes honest effort has not seemed as important as who you know or who likes you.
When Willy becomes angry with Biff, then quickly regains confidence in him, the reader must begin to wonder whether Willy isn’t merely exhausted but prone to fooling himself. Is Willy really a good salesman? Is Biff a bum or not? Is success measured only by a lucrative career? Although Linda consoles Willy, the reader must also wonder if she suspects him of self-deception. Miller’s notes at the beginning of the play describe Linda as follows:
...she more than loves [Willy], she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings which she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end.
The description and Linda’s sympathetic behavior cast her as a faithful wife. Her traditional role reflects the conservatism of American culture at the time, as well as the difficult life she has shared with Willy.
As the play progresses, the reader should question whether any characters are more truthful or honestly perceptive than other characters. Look for the ways in which exaggerations and untruths are mixed with more accurate observations until recognizing “reality” becomes a very confusing matter.
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