One of the main themes in the play Death of a Salesman is the American Dream. The philosophy of the American Dream originated in the early twentieth century when many immigrants came to America in search of economic opportunities and a better life. The protagonist, Willy thinks that to achieve the American Dream, one needs to be likeable and have a good personality. In reality, the keys to success in America are hard work and diligence. Willy however, fails to see this, thus leading him up to fail in his business endeavors.
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The American Dream is characterized by the materialistic and idealistic values of society. To fulfill the American Dream, one has to live a perfect life as a hardworking and successful citizen. Throughout the novel, Willy strives fulfill the American Dream, but he never achieves his goal because he doesn’t understand what is required to do so.
Willy’s American Dream
The ‘American Dream,’ in Willy’s eyes, is the accomplishments and attainments of a successful career. Being the dreamer he is, Willy attempts to make his mark as a salesman because “selling [is] the greatest career a man [can] want” (Act 2). Unfortunately, for Willy, he falls short of his goals at being a success in his career as a salesman. Willy blames the superficiality of the business world. This is seen in his thoughts about Bernard:
“Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you’re going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like agonizes. Because the man, who makes an appearance in the business world, creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” (Act1).
Willy has ingrained his distorted views in his sons as well. His sons are Biff and Happy. Because of these thoughts and views being fed to his sons, this ultimately condemned them to failure as well. Happy complains, ” I mean I can outbox, outrun, and outlift anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those common, pretty sons-of-bitches till I can’t stand it anymore” (Act 1). Happy thinks that just because he is stronger than those who give him orders, he should be the one to give the orders. His father taught him that that was the way to success, and it is obviously failing for Happy. The same goes for Biff. Just because he has the dashing smile, good looks and people like him – that does not mean that he will be a success in the business world. Hard work, persistence and work ethic are what he is lacking which makes him a failure as well. Willy does not see it that way though. He is seeing both of his sons from ‘the clouds.’ He is looking down on them like they are the successes that he has made them out to be in his head. This, unfortunately, does not help them in life. The Loman boys are not the only ones Willy’s views poisons, but also his wife Linda.
American Dream in Miller’s Characterization
Miller has created Willy’s wife Linda in such a way, that it is difficult to confirm whether she is a positive or destructive force upon him. It is hard to understand why she allows this deception to rise to the level that it does. The love Linda holds for Willy is persistent. She sees herself as his protector. Linda allows Willy to laps into his illusions so he can have that feeling of contentment. But in her love for her husband she is ironically can also be seen as his destroyer. Linda in her admiration for Willy also accepts his dream, which turns out fatal. She allows him to kill himself, never letting on that she knows about the attempted suicides. Although Linda was affected by Willy’s illusions of success, Biff was most affected.
The character most harmfully affected by Willy’s pursuit of the “American Dream” is his eldest son Biff. Like his father, they are both impractical. Biff has the consequences of disillusionment to deal with, and Willy the illusions themselves. Still looking for his purpose in life, Biff persists, due to Willy. While still in high school Biff’s future was assured. He was well-liked, but it all came down soon afterwards discovering his father shattered the vision he held of him, “just because he printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn’t mean their going to graduate him”(Act 1). Biff, paralyzed by reality comes to the realization that in fact there is more to life than being well liked and football. Now after searching, Biff comes to terms with exactly who and what he is:
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“… I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw – the sky. I saw the things I love in this world… and I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be…I am not a leader of men… Pop I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you” (Act 2).
Willy also soon finds out that his life was not the perfect life he has conjured up in his head. Willy realizes that in fact he has lived his life in vain. He has come to the conclusion that he has never achieved nor succeeded but remained a shadow of his ambition. It is this sudden insight that urges him into a fantasy, afraid to face the future. It is only through Willy’s failure as a salesman that his innate desire for the outdoors is exposed. At the end of the play, Charley mentions, “… He was a happy man with a batch of cement… so wonderful with his hands… he had the wrong dreams, all wrong” (Act 2). The play emphasizes the path not taken may have been the right one. Willy holds this assumption as the inability to see who and what he is which leads to the tragic ending. (Stanton, 103)
How to Realize ‘American Dream’
Suicide is the answer Willy comes up with. It is the end of a life spent futilely chasing the “American Dream.” (Ferguson, 94) Willy has been unsuccessful in achieving the success he so desperately craves because his perception of the formula for success is fatally flawed. Willy believes that the American dream is only attainable for the popular and attractive few. He does not believe he belongs to this elite group. It is unfortunate that Willy never sees the error of his ways. To the very end he is a firm believer in the ideology that the attractive and well spoken finish first. This is the very thing that destroys him, because he now finds out, in his own mind, he is not on top. Death of a Salesman is an outstanding play that challenges the “American Dream.” We can learn from Willy Loman. We all have the urge to attain our own “American Dreams,” but we must live in reality, work hard, and be persistent in our efforts to attain them. (Scanlan, 233)
In believing that Willy only has his personality and appearance to sell himself, Willy is seen as heroic. Even after he fails as a salesman, Will feels compelled to persist, because a salesman only way of survival is to dream. After Willy’s death, Charley says of Willy that, “he’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they stop smiling back, – that’s an earthquake…. A salesman is got to dream boy. It comes with the territory.” (138). Charley knows that the job of a salesman is hard, and that after much time and failure, his smile and his shoeshine fade. In this play, the American Dream is seen as the antagonist because it leads to Willy’s deterioration, insanity, and destruction. (Jacobson, 255)
The death of Willy at the end of the play is a death caused by the flaws of the American dream, the one that killed Willy is the one that says that some people will work hard all their life and end up with nothing, and this is what happened to Willy. The American dream sucks people in and doesn’t let them leave. It is lose, lose situation. Willy made the American dream his culture, and the American dream made Willy its victim. All of this is proof that living out this ‘American Dream,’ will never be a reality, it will just be an unobtainable fantasy.
Needles to say that the American Dream fails for many individuals, it is not the American system’s fault; instead, it is due to a lack of hard work and dedication from the pursuers. The American system offers an opportunity to all people to live their American Dream; some might actually blame the system for their troubles when actually it is their own fault. (Helterman, 103) there is no quick or easy way through life, as achieving your goals involves countless time of hard work and dedication to reaching your dreams. The system is mostly understood by unfortunate people born into hard lives and they seem to truly understand how the system works and succeeds through hard work. We can learn from Willy Loman that we all have the urge to attain our own American Dreams, but we must live in reality, work hard, and be persistent in our efforts to attain them. So, Miller is one of the playwrights who show American Dream is just an ideology that people can pursue and do its requirements, it is not an magician that enables the ones who have blind faith to become rich and successful.
The American Dream as an important theme in the play also explains all of the male members of the Loman family’s pressure to succeed. All the Loman men desperately strive to achieve success in areas which would never make them totally happy. Willy Loman shows a need to have excellence in all aspects of his life. This desperation is shown in his constant over-exaggeration of his and his son’s achievements and skills. Willy is constantly contradicting himself throughout “Death of a Salesman”. For example, during one of Willy’s frequent flashbacks he returns home to his eager wife and talks of his ‘five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston’, he later contradicts himself when questioned repeatedly about his sales. In the end he admits his actual ‘two hundred gross on the whole trip’. Willy exaggerates his figures in this particular part of the play to fulfill his self given role as a successful salesman. (Lawrence, 548)
Loman Family’s Hopes and Dreams
The hopes and dreams of the members in the Loman family are all generally similar. Male members of the Loman family wish to become successful in their jobs and live a comfortable lifestyle. In the present time of Death of a Salesman, Biff and Happy share a dream of going into business together as ‘The Loman brothers’. They believe that they will be able to create a ‘million dollar’ business and their money worries will have disappeared. Willy’s dreams are for himself to earn two hundred dollars a week, repay his mortgage and see his sons become successful salesmen. He is again disillusioning himself. Biff is going to try and get some money from Bill Oliver but already Willy is boating of Biff’s working on a very big deal’. At the end of the play, Biff says that Willy ‘had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong’. This statement implies that Biff thought his father had chosen a career that was very unsuited to him. It entails that Willy had set his self-expectations too high and would have only been able to be a mediocre salesman his whole life. In the play, Happy, like his father is also disillusioned by the life they pretended to lead instead of the harsh reality that they actually exist in. (Shockley, 50)
Dreams are important in the play as they seem to be the world that Willy Loman is now living in. His life has become so unbearable for him. Miller is trying to say that a society which solely bases itself on hopes and ambitions that are beyond the reach of the vast majority of its members is using them. He is trying to say that the American Dream is a way of getting the lower members of society to work hard their entire life, striving for a dream that is promised to them but always seems to be just out of their reach. Miller is saying that the dream can eventually take over lives and destroy the grasp of reality that those who has envisaged the dream once had.
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman: “The Norton introduction to literature Ed J Paul Hunter Alison Booth, Kelly Mays. 8th Ed New York: Norton, 2002.
Ferguson, Alfred R. “The Tragedy of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman.” Thought 53 (1998): 81-98.
Helterman, Jeffrey. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists Part 2: K-Z. Ed. John Mac Nicholas, Volume 7. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1991. 86-111
Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American Literature 47 (1995): 247-58.
Lawrence, Stephen A. “The Right Dream in Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” College English 25 (2001): 547-49.
Scanlan, Tom. “Reactions I: Family and Society in Arthur Miller.” Family, Drama, and American Dreams. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 126-35.
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Shockley John S. “Death of a Salesman and American Leadership: Life Imitates Art.” Journal of American Culture 17 (Summer 1994): 49-56.
Stanton Kay. “Women and the American Dream of Death of a Salesman.” In Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama. Ed. June Schlueter. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989. p103.