How is sound and setting presented in The Great Gatsby, King Lear, Death of a Salesman

Last Updated: 12 Mar 2023
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Fitzgerald, Shakespeare and Miller explore both setting and sound within their writing to mirror the current thoughts and feelings of the character which then allows the audience to understand and sympathise the characters. It could be argued that through the use of setting and sound, the authors dramatically present the extent to which the protagonists have ‘fallen’ mentally. Likewise, with the combination of both sound and setting, the erotic imagery stimulated presents a mirror image of the intense thoughts and emotions of the characters which then allows for the audience to attach themselves emotionally to the characters.

It could be interpreted that the reason behind the authors focus on both sound and setting was to convey their own individual thoughts and feelings of the society and its morals, through the use of the characters introduced in their texts. The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s modernist novel, explores certain traits that the characters carry through the use of the surrounding setting.

Through the use of prosperous connotations when describing Gatsby’s ‘colossal mansion’ and ‘enormous garden’, Fitzgerald establishes the protagonist to be royal and perhaps even optimistic as the excessiveness of his parties could symbolise his elaborate plans for himself and Daisy. A magical element is conveyed when the guests ‘whisper’ among ‘the golden food’ and ‘the champagne and the stars. ’ The noun ‘golden’ further portrays Gatsby’s supremacy and could be interpreted that all his possessions are excessive in every way.

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The verb ‘whispering’ could be explored as the guests being extremely excited yet curious at the aspect of meeting this mysterious and powerful character, Gatsby. Similarly, Shakespeare’s tragic play King Lear, explores the aristocracy of a King through describing his palace as a place of order and elegance, ‘my fair kingdom, no less in space, validity and pleasure’. The term ‘fair kingdom’ enforces the idea that like Gatsby, King Lear also takes pride in his possessions and wealth and it could be argued that both protagonists share the same characteristic of intense pride towards the superficial and physical items in life.

As both The Great Gatsby and King Lear were written in societies where materialism controlled the citizens, the audience would have interpreted this one-dimensional attitude as traditional and in some senses valuable as it represented wealth and authority. Since The Great Gatsby was written during the domination of the American Dream, it would be fair to say that Gatsby achieved his dream in terms of his financial stability. On the other hand, many critics argued that ‘Gatsby's dream was unattainable because it didn't really exist.

He was in love with a memory…’ In the same way that Gatsby was classified as not having attainted his spiritual dream of gaining the love of Daisy, ‘Willy’ in Death of a Salesman didn’t reach his American Dream financially despite his efforts. Due to both Gatsby’s and Willy’s failure in achieving the dream, it could be argued that they both share the same unsuccessful nature. On the other hand, their efforts of trying to achieve the dream could also embrace their brave nature due to their determination.

All three texts present how the authors convey characteristics through the use of setting and by this, the audience are immediately welcomed to exploring the character on a personal and more individual level. In all three texts, the setting described by the authors mirrors the protagonist’s broken mind set. In Death of a Salesman, Miller portrays the character of Willy Loman as one whose mental health is fractured by his hunger to achieve the American Dream and through the use of setting; Miller heightens the building of dramatic tension as Willy's mental health deteriorates.

From the first stage directions, it is evident that Willy is trapped both physically and mentally as he is surrounded by a, ‘''solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. '' Through the use of the word ‘around’, Miller implies that Willy’s escape is highly unlikely and this increases the sympathy that the audience has for the character of Willy. It could also be interpreted that the word ‘around’ metaphorically symbolises a trap or a cage which completely dehumanises Willy as his freedom is being eliminated from him.

The declarative description of ‘small, fragile’ parallels Willy’s emotional state thus creates the image of Willy being close to destruction. Furthermore, the use of the comma emphasises how much of a struggle it is for him to carry on, helping heighten his mental and physical brittleness. It could be argued that this also foreshadows the idea that if anything else triggers his emotions; his mental state will completely destruct. Ironically, Willy himself believes to be a ‘great man’ who is ‘known’ therefore this juxtaposition between ‘great’ and ‘fragile’ helps heighten the extent of his mental dysfunction.

Equivalently, Fitzgerald explores Gatsby’s mental deterioration through the use of exploring the theme of loneliness, ‘trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, towards that lost voice across the room. ’ This creates irony as the character of Gatsby is known for the extravagant events he hosts therefore physically he is always kept company. The rule of three emphasises the extremity to which he has been broken mentally as he is imagining a ‘lost voice. ’ The ‘lost voice’ could also metaphorically symbolise the idea that Gatsby has been left soulless as all that remains of him is his physically body.

On the other hand, the ‘lost voice’ could also represent Gatsby’s mind telling him to give up on chasing Daisy as he is deluded in believing that he can recreate the past, hence the adjectives of ‘struggling, unhappily’. Opposed to both The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman, King Lear immediately informs the audience that he’s ‘not in my perfect mind’ which therefore comes as no surprise when the atmosphere is described as chaotic, ‘as though he’d burst heaven… the string of life began to crack.’

The onomatopoeic sounds of ‘crack’ and ‘burst’ symbolise Lear’s sanity expiring as his mind now becomes a catastrophe which Edgar refers to as ‘reason in madness’. Furthermore, the angelic imagery of ‘heaven’ contrasted with the vulgar sound of ‘burst’ creates a juxtaposition that could symbolise his sanity being on the virtue of defeat. All three texts exploit the tragic yet honest mind-set that the characters hold and this enables the audience to empathise with those characters as to some extent their mental self-destruction could be classed as relatable.

Despite all the characters being of different social status’ and backgrounds, they all have one thing in common; their insanity. This implies that regardless of your significance in society, you are the conduct of your own down fall and this is seen through the character of Lear as he became broken due to his hunger for status, Willy for his longing of being wealthy and attaining the American Dream and lastly, Gatsby for fooling himself into believing that he was able to retain Daisy’s love through a materialism approach.

Many would argue that within all three texts, the weather enforced pathetic fallacy which allowed the audience to have an insight to the characters emotions and thoughts. In the Era that King Lear was written, writers and poets put a lot of emphasis on the natural world therefore it comes as no surprise when Shakespeare conveys nature as an uncontrollable elemental force consisting of ‘cataracts and hurricanes’, ‘sulphurous fire’ and ‘all-shaking thunder. ’ The sibilance in this instance has been affected by the linguistic technique of hyperbole which then emphasises the anger that Lear was feeling.

A C Bradley states ‘’the storm in ‘King Lear’ coincides with the storm in the human affairs and also with the storm which is present in the heart and soul of ‘King Lear. ’’ Through the emphasis of a ‘heavy’ and ‘black wind’ storm that a ‘cub-drawn bear would couch, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf kept their fur dry’, Shakespeare portrays that this storm isn’t ordinary and could severely damage even the most powerful ‘kings of the jungle’. The dark and gothic imagery of the storm could mirror Lear’s empty soul as his one love, his daughter, was killed.

Furthermore, the storm could be interpreted as the symbol of madness within Lear’s heart and head however it could also imply his anger towards society and all those who had betrayed him. Ironically enough, towards the ending of the play, Shakespeare included more severe weather conditions in contrast to the beginning. Perhaps this indicates that now Lear is neither no longer in reign nor an ideal product of society, he has developed emotions like the rest of the citizens.

On the other hand, it could be interpreted that because he has become an ordinary man, he is feeling anger towards the situation and those around him. Adverse to King Lear, The Great Gatsby doesn’t refer to weather as much however when it is mentioned, ‘there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea’’, it directly correlates with the mood and atmosphere of that current moment. The description of ‘foamy clouds’ presents child-like and innocent imagery which could mirror how naïve his love for Daisy makes him.

On the other hand, ‘foamy’ could too present unsteadiness as the structure of this gas-like substance is rather weak. Furthermore, through the use of the colour ‘pink’, Fitzgerald portrays Gatsby’s romantic lust towards Daisy and the colour ‘golden’ could convey the idea of his love towards her as being precious and is worthy of treasuring. This could be interpreted as emphasising the depth to which Gatsby’s heart is set on Daisy however at the same time, it could imply Gatsby’s high ego as he believes she should be grateful of his efforts to try and secure her heart.

Conversely Miller uses the same technique of colour imagery within weather to parallel Willy’s thoughts and feelings, ‘’the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. ’’ The colour ‘orange’ holds many connotations, one of which is the expression of happiness. This completely differences to the emotion of ‘anger’ which could convey Willy’s emotional volatility. Many would argue that through this contrast, Fitzgerald foreshadows the character of Willy as one who is rather unpredictable, thus his suicide could affect the audience emotionally due to its randomness.

The technique of pathetic fallacy attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects of nature. This helps the audience to explore the protagonist’s sincere feelings and thoughts which further establishes a more personal relationship between the audience and characters. Another literary device used to reflect feelings and emotions of the characters is each author’s use of sound, both musical and vocal. Fitzgerald and Miller focus more on the musical sounds produced by instruments whereas Shakespeare explores the technique of sound through vocals.

In Death of a Salesman and King Lear, both authors present the idea that as nature evolves; people tend to forget about the tragic deaths of the protagonists which present their true feelings and thoughts of the protagonists themselves. Fitzgerald embraces the character of Nick as the narrator to explore other characters feelings such as Daisy, Wilson and Jordan Baker etc. This is presented when he states, ‘I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden’ right after the death of Gatsby.

This declarative sentence could be interpreted as a metaphor of people being the ‘music and laughter’ and as life progresses; they tend to become more ‘faint’ as they move on. It could be argued that this quote mirrors the disrespect other characters had towards Gatsby as they only used him for his glamorous parties. However due to this sound being heard in the ‘garden’ which presents nature, it could also be interpreted that mourning wasn’t very natural/common in the 1920’s thus the characters weren’t actually disrespecting Gatsby.

The nature imagery combined with the ‘faint’ laughter creates a very mellow yet pleasant atmosphere as though the characters are accepting his death and positively reminisce of the past. Similarly, in Death of a Salesman, Miller presented ‘a melody heard, played upon a flute, it is small and fine, telling of grass and trees in the horizon’. Like Fitzgerald, Miller uses nature imagery of ‘grass and trees’ alongside the sound of the ‘flute’ to explore the setting being rather calming and pure.

Furthermore, this is an anaphoric reference as at the end of the play Miller uses stage directions to explore ‘only the music of the flute is left on the darkening stage as over the house the hard towers of the apartment buildings rise into sharp focus. ’ The same melody of the flute could symbolize the fact that Willy is still the same failure as he was in the beginning. However, the contrast between the nature imagery and the ‘hard towers…apartment buildings’ could parallel Willy’s superficial nature and the idea that through the duration of the play he was only brought deeper into the American Dream.

Perhaps through this quote, Miller portrays his own opinion on the American Dream and the character of Willy as being idiotic in a sense that it can only lead to destruction as the American Dream would never be achievable for anyone. In contrast to this, Shakespeare uses the technique of sound; however he explores it focusing mainly on the vocal aspect to it. King Lear is a gothic tragedy and this is shown through the tone Shakespeare enforces. The powerful language of Lear cursing alongside with the ‘loud’ and ‘demanding’ dynamics of his tone, further explores the extent of rage that he is feeling towards what seems to be the world.

Frequently throughout the play, Shakespeare uses onomatopoeic sounds such as ‘clattering’ to further heighten the mad atmosphere as well as the emotions the protagonist is feeling. The sound of ‘clattering’ has some connotations to the game of dominoes as it would be heard when an item tips over. This sound could metaphorically mirror Lear’s deterioration both mentally as well as physically and the idea that he is aware of this cyclical cycle of negative events.

It could also be argued that this sound of ‘clattering’ foreshadows how rapidly everything will clatter downhill for the King himself. As a critic stated ‘’Lear’s final cry of grief that his daughter will never breathe again, ‘’never, never, never, never, never,’’ is the bleakest line of iambic pentameter ever written. ’’ The use of sound is explored very effectively by Shakespeare, Miller and Fitzgerald as it heightens the dramatic atmosphere, foreshadows upcoming events and reconnoiters the feelings and emotions felt by both characters in the text and the authors themselves.

To conclude, all three authors embrace the techniques of sound and setting to allow the audience to explore the characters feelings and thoughts which help build a relationship between the two. It could also be argued that the authors themselves portray their own individual thoughts on the society they wrote about and the characters. Both techniques also heightened the tension within texts and allowed for aesthetic pleasure for the reader. Shakespeare, Miller and Fitzgerald used setting and sound very effectively throughout their texts as it created a realistic atmosphere within their work which allowed the audience to relate to.

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How is sound and setting presented in The Great Gatsby, King Lear, Death of a Salesman. (2016, Sep 01). Retrieved from

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