Death of a Salesman: Conflict

The beginning of any play is vital to the storyline, as it gives an audience or reader initial opinions on the characters’ personalities; it also gives information on the setting and atmosphere surrounding the play.
‘Death of a Salesman’ begins with very precisely detailed stage directions. Dramatic conflict is immediately suggested by the melody ‘played upon a flute’ which suggests softness, dreaminess creates an almost romantic atmosphere, and this dreaminess created in sound is in contrast with the ‘towering, angular shapes’ representing suburban New York City. There is also a very noticeable contrast between countryside and cityscape involved in the music, as the music is ‘telling of grass and trees’ while there is an ‘angry glow of orange’ on the stage. This contrast in the visual aspects of the play emphasizes any conflict between characters during the play.
The house is presented as ‘small and fragile-seeming’, dwarfed by a wall of apartment blocks which contribute to the trapped and somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere created before there is any dialogue in the play.

The initial word of the play, spoken by Linda, the wife of Willy, is said with trepidation, therefore Linda is expecting there to be a problem, and this is the first sign on conflict within speech. Willy reassures her, however Linda still appears to be anxious and is expecting there to be something wrong – ‘did something happen?’. Linda seems to be very hesitant with her speech and she tends to speak ‘carefully’ and ‘delicately’ as if she is afraid of what her husband, Willy, is going to say to her. Willy makes a reference to a time before the area in which he lives has changed, and when there were ‘two beautiful elm trees’ – this suggests that Willy has not fully adapted to the way his area has changed, this also emphasizes the contrast between the natural countryside and the cityscape.
At this point; Miller establishes Willy as a troubled and fairly misguided man, it appears that Willy is a dreamer at heart, and wants to be successfully, however it appears that Willy is mainly unsuccessful, and it could be argued that Willy may have lost his enthusiasm and had some of his dreams tainted by the fact that he is now in his sixties. Linda, in contrast, displays much less intensity than Willy; she is quite dependable and extremely kind, attempting to smooth out conflicts that Willy might have encountered. Linda has a similar dream for an idealized past, but has learned to forget about her longings. The fact that these two central characters have an entirely different outlook on life is an indication of future conflict between the two of them.
Another large conflict is between Willy and one of his sons, Biff. Conflict between these two characters before Biff appears on stage. Willy seems to think that Biff is a ‘lazy bum’ – this could be due to Willy seeing himself as hard-working and has criticized Biff – Willy asked ‘if he was making any money’ which was seen as criticism in Linda’s eyes. The mention of this criticism seems to have brought tension in speech between Linda and Willy – Willy becomes ‘angered’ due to Biff’s inability to live up to his father’s expectations.
There is a major conflict between dreams and reality, which are juxtaposed against each other throughout the play, and are introduced at the beginning – Willy is at the bottom of the hierarchy in a capitalistic world. He owns nothing, and he makes nothing, so he has no sense of achievement. Robbed of this, he develops the theory that if a person is fairly popular and has a fair deal of personal attractiveness, then all doors will automatically be opened for them. Willy built his life around these dreams. These illusions replace reality in Willy’s mind. He tells lies to his family about how well liked he is in all of his towns, and how ‘vital’ he is to New England – ‘I’m the New England man’.
In my opinion, the reason behind the conflict between Willy and his family is his outlook on life as a whole, particularly his inability to confront life with genuine integrity and faith in himself, all faith and self confidence he may appear to have is false, and his lies could arguably haunt him, this is because he has the wrong perspective on the way he should be living his life and has a certain longing for things to very different, he has grown to be very unhappy within himself, and about what his lifestyle (his home, his area) has become.
The beginning of ‘Death of a Salesman’, therefore, is a play in which we see a number of central and significant themes being developed immediately with the help of Arthur Miller’s use of techniques such as setting and symbolism. These themes include inadequacy and lacking awareness of reality. The exploration of the theme of failure within a successful society is something which has relevance for those who believed in ‘The American Dream’.

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