Living in a society where each person can achieve success and respect regardless of their origin, gender, or race was a general idea of the American Dream at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the American Dream is slowly fading and becoming more of an illusion after the Depression of the 1930s (Miller, 1998). Death of a Salesman is a play centered around the Lomans family where each member has their understanding of happiness and how to achieve it. Throughout the story, the American Dream is haunting the family by promising a better future but at the same time ruining their current lives.
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Death of Salesman: Overview
Death of Salesman tells the story of Willy Loman and his family struggling to achieve a better life. Willy is sixty-three years old traveling salesman in Wagner Company where he had been working for the past thirty-six years. However, as one of Willy’s sons describes him “he’s not hot-shot selling man” (Miller, 1998). After all those years of working at the same place, he did not achieve much at his job and his salary even went down.
Linda Loman, Willy’s spouse, is an ordinary housewife. She spends her days cleaning and cooking, keeping accounts, and darning her stockings. Despite her children being absent, the refrigerator, the fan belt, and the washing machine constantly breaking, she seems to be happy with her husband. It is apparent that Linda loves and respects Willy more than anyone else and is ready to protect him no matter what.
Their youngest son Harold, which everyone calls Happy, is thirty-two years old. He is ambitious and loves spending time with different, often already taken, women. Despite working as “one of the two assistants to the assistant buyer”, Happy is an extremely high opinion of himself (Miller, 1998). He rents an apartment by himself and does not seem to have a sense of responsibility in his life.
The last member of the family is Biff Loman, a thirty-four-year-old man, unmarried and unemployed. As a teenager, he was popular at school as a promising football player, yet he failed to get into college and could not find a steady job. His father used to be extremely proud of him and his brother used to look up to him, but as a grown man Biff did not meet the family’s expectations.
Willy Loman’s American Dream
As the story begins, Willy Loman is shown to be dissatisfied with his life and either imagining a better future or dreaming about his past and what he could have done differently. He is captivated by earning more money, being a successful businessman, and doing something “big”. He represents the generation where the main question is what they “might place in the physical world” (Cowen, 2017). Even when he is about to get something, Willy cannot be satisfied with it. He spent twenty-five years of his life paying the mortgage for the house, and when it is almost over, instead of being happy, he does not seem pleased.
Willy believes that there is a certain way of how people should behave to achieve what they want. In his opinion, a good man must not just be liked by other people but be “well-liked” and that “personality always wins the day” (Miller, 1998). But Willy himself neither has a good personality nor is he a good man. He lies to Biff’s old schoolmate that his son is “doing very big things” for the sake of his pride (Miller, 1998). He has a loving and caring wife but constantly argues with her and has an affair with another woman. Willy does not seem to work hard enough to achieve success, instead he pays more attention to people’s opinions of him.
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Biff Loman’s Journey to the American Dream
When he was a teenager, Biff Loman was loved both by his peers and family. Willy idolized his oldest son and was sure that he will achieve great things. When Biff was failing math at school, Willy encouraged him that the opinion of his classmates is more important than getting his grades up. Willy told Biff to cheat on an exam by copying someone else’s answers. When Biff “borrowed” a new ball from his coach, Willy praised him and said, “if somebody else took that ball there would be an uproar” (Miller, 1998). Willy raised Biff as a self-loving and lazy person preparing him to achieve the American Dream.
At the end of high school, Biff failed to get into college, found out that his father is having an affair, and got kicked out of the house. Because of his upbringing, Biff was sure that he will be successful in life but later learned that he cannot do anything. He had “twenty or thirty different kinds of jobs” but never could settle down (Miller, 1998). Only in his thirties, Biff realizes that his father taught him wrong, that to achieve something he must make an actual effort and not depend on someone else’s opinion.
What the American Dream May Come
Willy Loman’s representation of the American Dream was based on the idea that he can achieve anything if he is loved by other people. He believed that if people “start big”, they “end big” and could never be satisfied with what he already had (Miller, 1998). Throughout the story, he either dreams of his past or imagines what his life could have been as he hallucinates his brother Ben calling him to go to Alaska. His mind constantly coming to the past “explains his situation by showing its underlying causes in the past choices” (Bayouli & Sammali, 2019). He cannot concentrate on one thing, has mood swings, and constantly talks to himself. Willy is so consumed by the imaginary perfect life that he becomes lost in the present, lost in his mind, and multiple times attempts to end his life. Eventually, one of those attempts will be the last thing that Willy succeeded at, but later Linda notices that nobody, besides the family, came to his funeral.
The Future of the American Dream
At Willy Loman’s funeral, his sons discuss why he decided to end his life, and Biff states that his father “had all wrong dreams” (Miller, 1998). For the first time in his life, Biff knows who he is and what he wants to do. However, Happy maintains Willy’s point of view and decides to live the way his father did. He continues seeing different women and says that he is just waiting for the merchandise manager at his job to die, so Happy could take his place. Happy represents “the brutal effects of the capitalistic system on the human beings” and does not see anything wrong in constantly wanting more (Al Qassab & Torghabeh, 2017). Just like his father, Happy prefers to live in a dream instead of choosing to try to be happy now.
Death of a Salesman shows that chasing a dream with no awareness of what truly matters or without taking responsibility for your decisions will not bring happiness into anybody’s life. The story indicates the importance of knowing who you are and not depending on someone else’s expectations. There cannot be a perfect future if the person is not contented with the present and keeps running away into dreams.
Al Qassab, H., & Torghabeh, R. (2017). Anti-capitalism in Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. In 2nd International Conference on Literature and Linguistics.
Bayouli, T., & Sammali, I. (2019). Tragedy and social drama in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. AWEJ for Translation & Literary Studies, 3 (2), 37-48.
Cowen, T. (2017). The complacent class: The self-defeating quest for the American Dream. St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Miller, A. (1998). Death of a salesman. Penguin Books.