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Willy Loman and His American Dream: Essay on Death of a Salesman


In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, we see a devastating portrait of a man, Willy Loman, consumed by the wrong dream. For him, the “American Dream” is the pursuit of material wealth as “the whole reason for being.” His obsession is to become a great salesman. This obsession comes at a tremendous cost to his family-particularly, his son, Biff. This paper will attempt to show this all-consuming “vision” of Willy Loman’s by examining 3 scenes where he interacts with Howard his neighbor, his son Biff and his “mythical/imaginary” brother Ben. Willy Loman’s name is a pun on the term “Low Man” he is an ordinary American caught in the rapture of the American Dream. Regardless of when exactly the play is set Willy is an early 20th Century average American who aspires for his own, his own house, a car, and other material possession. To obtain these ends he chose the path of the salesman. According to Willy the man he hoped to emulate died in his 80s an immensely successful man and people from three states came to visit his funeral. In his youth he had every right to dream, he was in the process of owning his house, his son biff was a promising football player and because he was still young and vigorous he was doing well as a salesman. as the story begins he thinks all his dreams will still come true. In truth, Biff has been a listless vagabond for years, Happy is a charlatan and towards the end Willy is a fired for being a failure of a salesman.Willy Loman’s pursuit of the “American Dream” is doomed by his inability to connect with reality.

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Summary 1

Willy Loman’s role model is a deceased salesman who died wealthy, loved and helped so many different people. He glorifies the life of a salesman several times, in the beginning of the play, in flashbacks to his early years and even towards the end. He is enthralled by the life of a salesman and the benefits it can bring. This quote is from act two in Howard Wagner’s office.

Quote 1

And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?”

Commentary 1

Willy is citing the life of legendary salesman David Singleman, who according to him, died the noble “death of a salesman”, a death that Willy aspires for. This is a glimpse of both Willy’s psyche and the distorted truth of the “American Dream”. The “American Dream” focuses of accumulating material wealth, being well liked and loved. It idealized the concept of working hard, dutifully paying ones mortgage and other loans to eventually acquire the good things in life. In fact, in a later scene both Willy and his wife Linda sigh in contentment when they learn that they have finally paid off their mortgage and finally own their home. The same home that they have lived in since at least the time Biff and Happy were in high school. The dream is narrow-minded Willy only sees glory Singleman’s death, well liked. He fails to see that Singleman was still working at the ripe age of 84. Willy in his 60s is idealizing a life of still working twenty years later and still being a salesman. But the “American Dream” is blind to this reality, it prefers to see the ideal picture of a happy family owning its own home and the father working dutifully to provide for his children. The reality is that Willy is in his 60s by the time he finally paid off his mortgage, his sons are listless vagabonds and he is such a pathetic salesman that he no longer bothers to go do his normal rounds because he knows he will just be turned away.

Research Quote and Commentary 1

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. (Adams, 1931). Willy Loman seeks an American Dream. We all seek an American Dream. Like him we dream that we will someday do well in whatever field we chose. We believe that if we study hard we will find a good job and will earn enough to get our own house, car and more. The American Dream does not discriminate. We all want a better life and we desire our own means of accomplishing it. We believe that whatever profession we chose we will eventually succeed. Unfortunately for Willy, he failed utterly but it was not his professions fault.

Summary 2

Uncle Ben and Willy share a strange relationship. Ben got rich allegedly finding diamonds in Africa. It is never revealed how he truly amassed his wealth. Suffice to say, if Willy’s imagining of Ben are true, he is rich but never shared his wealthy with Willy.

Quote 2

When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle. And by twenty-one, I walked out. And by God, i was rich!

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Commentary 2

This quote is the best explanation Ben ever gives as to how he became rich. He claims that he was headed to Alaska to find their father but wound up in Africa and got into the diamond business. Assuming Ben and his wealth are real then, at best, he caught a lucky break. It is more likely that Ben is a charlatan who acquired his wealth through the scams that were prevalent in 20th century America. In any case he represents a tantalizing fantasy like David Singleman. Both Ben and David struck it rich and Willy aspires to be big like them.

Research Quote and Commentary 2

The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily.(Adams 1931). Conventionally, the American Dream means the Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness. Yet the truth is ask anyone and they will equate the American Dream with the accumulation of wealth. How can we not considering that those whom we idolize as having achieved the American Dream are or were amazingly rich, people like Bill Gates, John Astor and Donald Trump. This is a flaw that afflicts us as it afflicted Willy. Ben got rich and there is nothing wrong with aspiring to be rich too. Just so long as cost is not our entire lives in blind pursuit.

Summary 3

Willy had every reason to be proud of Biff in High school. He was a successful football player who was going to college on his gridiron merits. A caveat was that the flunked math and had to take remedial classes which he never did and he never finished high school. Instead he gets stuck in a dead end job and eventually uncovers this epiphany.

Quote 3

I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be… when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.

Commentary 3

Biff wants to break free of the accursed “American Dream”. He realized that the dream is actually a nightmare. He is no longer the poster boy of success that his father thinks he is. Instead he is a traumatized man. At a point in his life when he came to grips with the need to take remedial classes he travels to meet his father and inform him of the good news. However, he discovers that Willy is having an affair, trysts-for-stockings. Biff is so devastated by what he saw that he remains listless for years to come; Willy is giving this woman stockings while his mother has to darn her stockings. The horror is made more tragic by the fact that stockings are among the products Willy is selling. Biff at this point comes to the realization that he doesn’t want what Willy and society is shoving down his throat. He has found contentment where Willy, and tragically Happy, will find nothing but the pursuit of non-existent pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Willy later commits suicide successfully to give his family a little money to start over. Prior to this there is a dramatic scene where Biff and Happy promise to reform and finally make something of themselves. In death Willy is visited only by his neighbor and his family. The scene is a poignant contrast to the huge crowds that supposedly saw David Singleman to his final resting place. In this scene we find that Biff is on track to be something in life. Happy on the other hand is doomed to repeat the faults of their father. He defends Willy and promises to succeed where he failed. Willy’s obsession with the “American Dream” is going to continue with Happy.

Research Quote and Commentary 3

A CNN poll found out that more than half of those surveyed, 54 percent, considered the American Dream unachievable (CNN poll 2006). Amidst all the sham, drudgery, and disenchantment in the world it is not surprising that so many people no longer believe the American Dream can be achieved. The old formula of study hard to get a good stable job is no longer so true. Even more so today, many people are jobless and as the recession looms more are likely to find themselves on the streets. Where in the tragic context of today’s moribund economy can hope of the American Dream be found? Beyond the lottery, perhaps the American Dream now subsists only in the hearts of the young and idealistic.

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In Conclusion, Willy Loman’s pursuit of the “American Dream” is doomed by his inability to connect with reality. He insists in seeing an ideal vision of himself and his family and is blind to the fact that the ‘ideal’ no longer exists. Over 60 years old and a failed salesman, he still imagines that he will one day die a celebrity like David Singleman. He imagine Biff will still be a football star decades after the boy dropped out of high school out of frustration for Willy’s womanizing. In the end Willy is nothing more than a dead salesman.

Work Cited

The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Eighth Edition, Michael Meyer.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Hurell, John D. Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A streetcar Named Desire. New York: Scribner.

Sandage, Scott A. Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mexico, Roger Characters and Themes of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Cardullo, Bert Death of a Salesman and Death of a Salesman: The Swollen Legacy of Arthur Miller. Web.

Adams, James Truslow. Epic of America, 1931.

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Rethinking the American Dream. Web

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