Death of a Salesman is a 1949 chef-d’oeuvre stage play by Arthur Miller, which addresses various issues that were affecting American society at the time. Specifically, the theme of the American dream features prominently in this play. According to Mgamis, historian James Truslow Adams coined the idea of the American dream to mean the pursuit “of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world” (p. 69). At the time when Miller wrote this play, Americans were eager to renew their lives and establish a promising future especially after the ravaging effects of World War II. However, this quest for betterment, albeit positive in nature, had many loopholes and negative impacts on people’s lives. In the play, Miller uses the protagonist, Willy Loman, and other characters to explore both the positive and negative effects of the American dream. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the theme of the American dream in the play, Death of a Salesman, together with the usage of irony in the same context.
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The American dream is multifaceted with both positive and negative effects on citizens’ lives and wellbeing. On the one hand, some people are willing to work hard and exploit the available opportunities to become successful, especially in terms of wealth accumulation. This is the positive side of the American dream – the idea that a person could become highly successful as long as he or she is willing to pay the cost through diligence. Mgamis argues that American society “celebrated people who, with nothing but pluck and ingenuity, created financial empires that towered over the national imagination” (p. 69). This was, and still is, the beauty of the most coveted American dream. On the other hand, another group of individuals mistakenly assumes that by virtue of being Americans living in the country, they have the inherent right of becoming successful, even without working hard. This delusional thinking has seen many Americans fail to exploit their full potential because they live under the illusion that they are wired for success. Willy Loman, the protagonist in Death of a Salesman, is such one character representing the delusional side of this dream.
According to Willy, anyone living in America and has good looks, charisma, and a certain level of likeability, he or she is guaranteed success. Consequently, he does not put in the required hard work and strategic execution of goals to become successful. On the contrary, he only dreams of success, and he tells his children, “Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home anymore” (Miller, p. 18). Willy’s idea of success lies somewhere in the future, and thus he does not even acknowledge any other form of progress from a pragmatic perspective. Despite the fact that Charley is quite successful, Willy believes that he will be more prosperous because “Charley is not – liked. He’s liked, but he’s not – well-liked” (Miller, p. 18). Willy’s misconstrued understanding of success under the illusion is so deeply rooted that he does not seem to appreciate the underlying absurdity. Even though he is poor and struggling when offered a job by Charley, he retorts, “I got a job, I told you that. What the hell are you offering me a job for?” (Miller, p. 29). This assertion is ironic in itself.
The irony lies in the fact that Willy borrows Charley money, while at the same time insisting that he does not need a job because he is good-looking, charismatic, and likable, and thus within no time, he will be successful. Miller also uses irony to criticize the distorted idea of the American dream. For instance, while Willy is convinced that what is needed for success in America is a set of certain attributes, such as likeability, charisma, and good looks, he knows that he lacks the same. He admits, “I’m fat. I’m very – foolish to look at, Linda…they do laugh at me” (Miller, p. 24). It is ironic that Willy does not have the very attributes that he claims are associated with success. In other words, he dreams of becoming prosperous using what he does not possess.
Similarly, after realizing the absurdity of his dreams, Willy contemplates suicide as the only way his children and wife could get access to an insurance claim of $20,000. Ironically, while he understands that if the company finds out that he committed suicide it might not compensate the family, he thinks it is the only way out of his failure (Centola, p. 32). Ben reminds him, “You don’t want to make a fool of yourself. They might not honor the policy” (Miller, p. 100). However, Willy is adamantly delusional and he posits, “How can they dare refuse? Didn’t I work like a coolie to meet every premium on the nose? And now they don’t pay off? Impossible” (Miller, p. 100). The author uses this irony to highlight the futility of thinking that the American dream is an automatic ticket to success for all Americans residing in the country. Many people, just like Willy who knows that the insurance company might not pay after his death, are aware that success requires dedication and strategic execution of plans, but they fancy the idea of becoming prosperous out of nothing.
However, some individuals, such as Ben, are pragmatic about the American dream, and thus they work hard to attain success and material wealth. Ben tells Willy’s sons, “Boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich” (Miller, p. 34). In other words, Ben understands and acknowledges the place of hard work and taking calculated risks in order to realize his dreams. He is not simply a wishful thinker – he acts on his dreams, which is the underlying concept of the American dream. Miller uses the contrasting ideas of Willy and Ben concerning success to educate the audience about the need to be realistic when pursuing the ever-elusive American dream.
In Death of a Salesman, Miller presents a strong case against the illusion of the American dream that many Americans were obsessed with in the post-World War II era. While almost everyone was optimistic about a better future, very few were willing to work hard to realize their dreams. Willy’s idea of success under the American dream based on good looks, charisma, and likeability was relatable to many Americans at the time. Ironically, while these people knew what was needed to achieve success, they chose to remain delusional, like Willy. Miller was critical to the idea of the American dream as portrayed in the play, Death of a Salesman.
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- Centola, Steven. “Family Values in “Death of a Salesman”.” CLA Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 1993, pp. 29-41.
- Mgamis, Majid Salem. “Death of a Salesman: Critique of the American Dream.” International Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017, pp. 69-71.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books, 1998.