Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” is, to me, all about the dangers of defining happiness in terms of financial success. Charley sums up this idea when he says, “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell” (97). For this reason, I plan to use it as a starting point for my speech with high school students currently reading the play. It is the perfect lead-in for my argument that the play is all about the importance of examining the real implications of the American Dream in today’s consumer culture.
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For many people, perhaps especially today’s high school students, the American Dream takes shape in the things that you own. If you don’t own the right things, you can’t possibly fit within a particular social group. One of the major items required is home ownership. Early in the play, Willy observes to his wife “Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it” (4). This statement reveals the emptiness Willy has found in the accomplishment of providing his family with a home of their own as his sons prepare to leave again. As Linda tries to soothe him, he reminds her “some people accomplish something” (4) indicating that simply owning a home and raising a family isn’t enough to give him the sense of satisfaction he’d thought he’d have at this point in his life. Throughout the play, Willy reveals his impression of successful people lies in the degree to which he can impress others rather than anything tangible or helpful for society.
Throughout the play, it can be seen where Willy’s wife or children have attempted to assure him that his importance to them has little or nothing to do with his ability to impress others or his level of financial success. All they want to do is spend time with him. The boys are seen, in Willy’s flashbacks, to constantly beg him to take them with him on his sales trips while Linda continuously works to reassure him and support him in everything that he does. “He’s the dearest man in the world to me, and I won’t have anyone making him feel unwanted and low and blue” (38), Linda tells Biff in adulthood. However, Willy is unable to share any kind of meaningful relationship with any of his family members because he is so fixated on the idea that he has to be at a certain point financially before he can consider himself worthy of their affection.
Willy’s belief that his family would receive a $20,000 life insurance benefit following his suicide is the only answer he can discover to finally achieve his financial goals for his family after he realizes he can no longer work. Only after he solves this dilemma can he begin to understand that his family, particularly Biff, had really loved him all along simply because he was Willy. Because these are the final moments of his life, though, Willy is never able to directly benefit from this new appreciation of his life just as his death by suicide automatically voided the life insurance policy, thus leaving his family in greater debt than they had been before. Thus, at no point was he ever actually able to attain the human dream of togetherness and happiness, the dream of enjoying a retirement home with a loving family crowded around. This is an important message for today’s teenagers to understand – that happiness is the end goal, not a bank balance.