The American Dream is a major ideal based on the ideas of liberty and equality of opportunity. It promises the possibility of success and happiness to everyone who works hard to achieve them. However, the American Dream is often presented in art as an impossible or corrupted ideal that causes more suffering to the people striving to reach it than it does benefit. Three American plays demonstrate this: Trifles by Susan Glaspell, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.
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In Trifles, a corruption of the American Dream is shown in a small farming town. The Wrights seemed content to an outside observer, embracing their country life, and one of the heroines describes Mr. Wright as a “good man” (Glaspell 21). However, the viewers quickly realize that he became selfish and abusive to his wife, who “used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster” (Glaspell 15). The play’s author shows that beneath the bright façade of the American farming family lies a run-down house, quiet oppression, and abuse.
Death of a Salesman
The life of Death of a Salesman’s main character, Willy Loman, can be characterized by the pursuit of the American Dream. Willy’s idea of success was always connected to wealth, competitiveness, and being well-liked. As a salesman, he has achieved modest success, but he has always been jealous of his neighbor Charlie’s more successful business. However, his pursuit of wealth and staunch belief in the American Dream does not make him happy. Instead, they make it impossible for him to face reality or try doing something he enjoys, ultimately leading to his suicide.
After his death, his son highlights the tragedy of the situation and decries following this ideal blindly by claiming “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong” (Miller 111). His death is especially ironic since his wife finally finished paying the family’s debts and loans afterward. In the end, the only member of the Loman family who appears to be happy is Biff, who faces reality and rejects the American Dream in favor of a simpler life.
Happy, who is more financially successful and closer to realizing Willy’s ideal, openly states that he is lonely and “can’t enjoy [the results of his work] once it’s finished” (Miller 12). The American Dream is shown as unreachable in this play, making it impossible for people to enjoy the life they have while pursuing it.
A Raisin in the Sun
A Raisin in the Sun shows an African American family’s perspectives on the American Dream in the wake of receiving a large sum of money. For Walter, who had previously seen a risky business investment succeed, it is an idealized view of opening a business with his friends and getting rich with little effort. This view comes into serious conflict with those of his wife, who values hard work, and his sister, who aims to achieve social mobility by getting an education. Eventually, Walter’s dream fails as one of his friends with whom he was planning on investing leaves with his and his sister’s money.
However, later, he realizes his error and refuses another large sum offered to him for the family’s new house in a white neighborhood. He chooses an opportunity to work and improve his life and the community around him over money: “we will try to be good neighbors … we don’t want your money” (Hansberry 585). Ultimately, moving into this new house shows the hopeful side of the American Dream — although the future is uncertain, it promises success and a better life for them.
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The plays, Trifles, Death of a Salesman, and A Raisin in the Sun, examine and critique the American Dream as an ideal. Together, they show shallowness as its main flaw: whether it is the focus on keeping up appearances, the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of happiness, or the hope of a lucky gamble. Ultimately, it is hard work that is required for success, and the liberty to be an individual and follow one’s ideals that make people happy.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles: A Play in One Act. 1916. University of Virginia Library. Web.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. 1959. Arizona Actors Academy. Web.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. Penguin, 1998.