Death of a Salesman: Discuss the importance of dreams in the play
In Death of a Salesman, there are several types of dreams that are evident. These are the hopes and ambitions of the characters, daydreams fantasies and memories and national and cultural dreams, such as the American Dream. Dreams are a very important part of the play. They motivate the characters into their actions and explain their behaviour both in the past and the ‘real time’ that the play is set in. The dreams also affect the way that the whole play is structured.
The play is set in the time after the American Dream had started to fade. This is important, because Americans no longer believed in it. Willy found it hard to accept that his sons didn’t believe in what he had believed all his life. The American Dream affected all Americans when Willy Loman was younger, and even though Willy fell foul of the system, he was very much affected by it when he was a young man, and it is still with him.
The American Dream was an ideal, which showed the longings of people who wanted to break new ground in a developing country, to earn and save their money and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and to work for themselves.
The important factors of the American Dream, were having the best of everything, being successful and popular, having money to spend, and the ideal of rural living close to nature, as well as owning your own business. Consumerism was very much linked to this. Advertising was being used for the very first time, on billboards, radio and even television. Mass production enabled wider availability, and salesmen were being used less and less as people bought on credit at nation-wide stores.
Some people managed to be successful within this society. Others suffered from increased pressure to succeed and a feeling of inadequacy and disappointment if they were not earning enough and are therefore were unable to buy the best of everything. Capitalist society also led to people being laid off when they were no longer financially useful, as happens to Willy in the play. These are all very important ideas in Death of a Salesman. Willy suffers from the new society and gets angry when the fridge breaks repeatedly and he cannot afford to simply replace it. To Willy it is important that he has the best of everything and it is very important that he is successful and popular and he refers to this several times during the play.
“He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.”
Willy not only wants to be the best, he wants to be respected. His language tells us that he does not think very highly of the person that he is talking about. He is quite condescending. The recurrence of consumer goods in the play, such as the car and fridge, tell us that these things are of great importance to Willy, because they are part of his social standing. However, these things are not so important to Linda. She is more concerned about Willy and her sons. Material objects do not matter to her, she is too worried about Willy’s happiness.
All the male characters in the play are affected by the American Dream and feel the pressure to succeed. Willy and Happy, particularly, strive towards something that would not necessarily ever make them happy in life. Biff questions the American Dream and seems to rebel against it. He wants a simple life, because he has seen what the American Dream has done to Willy and he has never settled into anything, because of this. He doesn’t want to end up like Willy. Biff defies the American Dream in this way, because he doesn’t want the objects that make up the lifestyle. The way of life around America generally, was very materialistic. People had to be seen to own everything.
Each member of the Loman family has different hopes and ambitions, which have changed from the past into the present. Willy has a lot of hopes and ambitions, most of which are unrealistic and are in his imagination. He always had big plans for himself, and in one of his memories, we see him tell Happy and Biff his main ambition in life.
“Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home anymore.”
Willy is reassuring himself of his dream and that one day it will come true, rather than the boys. He talks of the future, and the use of the word “someday” instantly makes us feel that this is a dream. Willy wants to be the best and often expresses this in one of his dreams.
“Bigger than Uncle Charley.”
Charley seems to be the one person that Willy wants to beat and he is very competitive towards him. Towards the end of the play, Willy is still trying to reassure himself that he is the best.
“I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman.”
Willy still desperately wants to succeed and gain the respect of Biff. He uses an everyday phrase, and tries to reassure himself that he is not simply an everyday phrase or person. He is however, beginning to give up hope and it is sinking in that he is nothing special.
Biff has very different dreams to Willy, because he is trying to break the mould that Willy has created for him. Biff did try to do what Willy wanted him to in the beginning, but he loses respect for Willy and his dreams change.
“I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up.”
Biff did this for Willy’s sake, to prove himself to Willy. Biff talks in past tense, because he is no longer trying to build himself up, to prove himself to Willy. Biff feels now, that because he hasn’t done what was expected of him, he has wasted his life.
“I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back
here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.”
Biff feels that he has wasted his life when he goes home, because Willy makes him feel this way, whereas, in reality, Biff hasn’t been able to settle down.
Happy happily accepted the role that Willy created for him, because he was never very ambitious, and it suited him. Happy has been quite successful, and has many of the things he always wanted. However, he has found that not everything is as good as it seems when you don’t have it.
“But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment,
a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit,
Happy has got what he wanted, but he realises that once you have everything you want it’s not the same, and if you don’t have some one to love, you get lonely. He realises that people are what matters, not objects, yet at the end, he moves away from this again. Happy swears, because he is trying to convey to Biff his point. Happy follows the American Dream and often thinks of him and Biff having a company of their own.
“The Loman Brothers, heh? … That’s what I dream about Biff.”
Happy wants his own business, as did Willy, but he wants it with Biff. He asks Biff a question, because he wants Biff to reassure him that his dream is the right dream.
Linda Loman is a simple character, and is, above all else, loyal to Willy and his hopes and ideas. She desires only to be happy with what she has, and she wants Willy, Biff and Happy to be prosperous, content and pleased with what they have achieved. She has never fully understood Willy or her sons, and their desire for freedom away from the city bemuses her. She would like to be free from financial worry, and sees her life in the city, not anywhere else. Linda’s role is to portray the typical American woman. She is faithful to her husband and stays at home to look after the family. She fits in with the American dream, which is shown in the play.
The hopes and ambitions of the characters are not all very realistic. Linda is the realist in the family, and agrees with Willy to keep him happy. The characters all live their lives around their hopes and ambitions. They treat others as if they should have the same hopes and ambitions as them. Some of the dreams of the characters are very important to them, and this is because these dreams are the only way that they can escape their reality. They are unhappy, but these dreams make them happy.
Biff significantly changes his dreams and ambitions over time. When he was young, he wanted to be like Willy and respected Willy a great deal. When Biff learns that he has flunked at school, he goes to see Willy, who is away on a business trip, and finds him with a young lady. This destroys Biff’s image of Willy as his mentor and loving father. Biff never recovers from this, and afterwards, rebels against Willy and all that he has been in Biff’s life.
The other characters do not change their dreams as significantly. Happy realises that he is stuck in a dead end job, but he cannot escape, and does not wish to do so, because he is comfortable where he is. Linda still has her dreams although she no longer strives to achieve them, because she has realised that her sons now lead their own lives. Willy still wants to be the best, and finds it very hard to accept that he is growing too old for his job.
At the end of the play, Willy commits suicide, and at his funeral, Biff says
“He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.”
Biff assumes that Willy had the wrong dreams, whereas, Willy had the right intentions, he merely aimed too high. Biff is convinced that his dreams are the right way of life, and that Willy was selfish and living under an illusion. Biff uses the word “wrong,” which leads us into believing that Willy’s dreams were in fact wrong, although we know that Willy was just a victim of the American Dream.
Dreams have a big impact on the structure of the play, as we see Willy’s dreams and memories acted out before us as if they were flashbacks in a film, they are indeed flashbacks in Willy’s life. Willy is sixty, and as he gets older, he remembers parts of his life in these flashbacks. He is reminiscing back to the past, wishing that he was still there. These flashbacks are cleverly used to explain ‘present’ events, such as why Biff no longer respects Willy.
The play centres on Willy’s dreams and fantasies. They are a very important aspect of the play, and because of this, we are warned when one is coming, because the play can be very difficult to understand without these warnings. All of the action takes place in Willy’s house and yard and in various parts he visits New York and Boston. There are only two acts and no scenes. Scenes are usually used to distinguish between dreams and reality, whereas in Death of a Salesman, Miller did not want this distinction. Whenever the action is in the present, the actors take note of the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through it’s door. But, in scenes of the past, these boundaries are broken, and the characters enter or leave by stepping ‘through’ a wall on the forestage.
When Willy is about to have a dream or fantasy, we are made aware of this, when a flute plays a melody. This is an ironic reference to Willy’s father, who played the flute and travelled the country, with his family in his wagon, selling flutes he made on the way. The light dims on the stage, and the dreams are accompanied by appropriate music, to help the audience to discover what frame of mind the dream is in. When Willy is with the woman, “raw, sensuous music” is playing in the background, to set the scene.
The flashbacks that we see clarify what is happening in ‘real time.’ Without them, we would be unsure of what is happening. The effect of seeing them is that instead of wondering what is going to happen next, we begin to wonder what has happened in the past to make the Loman family like they are. We particularly wonder this before we find out that Biff caught Willy with the woman. Before we see this flashback, we are very uncertain of what caused Biff to lose all respect for Willy, although we have an idea from conversations near the beginning of the play.
Linda: “It seems there’s a woman…” (she takes a breath as)
Biff: (sharply but contained) “What woman?”
Linda: (simultaneously) “… and this woman…”
Biff is evidently very worried about Linda finding out about something, although at this stage, we are unsure what it is yet.
Willy is getting older, and he really doesn’t want to. As he gets older, he reminisces back to the past, wishing it was still then. Willy’s flashbacks reveal to us how the character’s relationships with each other have changed over time. We therefore see them differently in ‘real time,’ because we see things that they have done, and it changes our perception of them. When we find out that Willy slept with a woman when he was on a business trip in Boston, we change our view of him. Before, we viewed him as lonely, getting old, and reminiscing about the old times. When we found out that he slept with the woman, we just see a man who is desperate to be successful, although he is too old to ever be successful. He slept with the woman to boost his sales, because he cannot accept that he will never be successful.
Willy brought up his sons to believe that they were the best and that they could have anything that they ever wanted. Willy’s flashbacks mainly show the boys when they were younger, because Willy knew that they both respected him and looked up to him as their mentor in life. Biff and Happy are both very confident because Willy brought them up to believe in themselves.
When Biff steals a football, in one of Willy’s dreams, Willy automatically jumps to his defence. Because of this attitude, Biff and Happy strive to be the best they can in life and are delusional about how successful they are to please Willy, although all of them know that they are misleading each other. In ‘real time,’ Biff is trying to tell Willy that he went to jail when he was away for three months. Biff gets very angry, because he has realised that they cannot accept the truth, and he no longer wants to live his life as a lie.
When we do see events that happened in the past, we have to bear in mind that we see them as Willy remembers them. Willy is getting quite old, and has been delusional for his life. Willy never saw events very accurately, because he always wants the best for himself and his sons. He distorts events and often exaggerates or completely invents them. In Willy’s first dream, everything seems to be ‘perfect’ because Willy wants to think that his sons respected him and missed him when he went on business trips. He also recalls that he felt guilty, when he saw Linda mending stockings, because he cannot give her new ones, but he gave the woman that he slept with new ones. In Willy’s second dream, he is recollecting when Biff discovered him with the woman. He remembers this properly, because it was an awful thing to happen to him. He was shocked and distressed, which helped him to remember events correctly.
Willy often remembers things as he would have liked them to happen. He wants to be the best, respected and successful. This is reflected in his dreams, because he remembers things as he wishes they had happened. Willy is still being delusional about his life, because he cannot accept the truth. Willy has trouble accepting that he wasn’t successful and does not have the chance to ever be successful, because he is too old, and his career is over.
Dreams are important in the play for many different reasons. The dreams in the play convey different ideas about the characters. We see the characters in ‘real time’ and can only truly understand them when we see past events. We see how the American Dream affects the characters, how their hopes and ambitions affect them and how past events affect them through flashbacks. Miller is trying to make a point that we live in a society that encourages us to have dreams that are well beyond our means, and are unachievable, rather than realistic dreams.
All of the characters in the play have been affected by their dreams and the dreams of others. Without dreams, human life would be awful, because we all need something to aim for, but our aims need to be realistic. Arthur Miller has effectively shown how our dreams can get out of hand, and do the people around us, as well as ourselves, more damage than good. The American Dream affected one generation a lot, until it was seen by the next generation that it was merely an ideal. Arthur Miller’s father immigrated to America, and soon found that the land of opportunity was not all it seemed.
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