Fetters of the Dream: Disruption and Achievement in the Play
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a story about the futility of self-deception, but it also examines the definition of “success” in post-WWII America and the danger of suppressing one’s own inclinations to meet the expectations of others. Willy Loman’s dismal failure results from delusions and a false sense of entitlement, but those are symptoms of a deeper problem: his desperate attempt to be something he’s not. His collapse is balanced by Biff’s self-awakening, which questions the strict definitions of success that led to Willy’s downfall. In the end, it might be Biff who is the most important character, the only one capable of change. In Biff’s willingness to face himself and pursue an alternative to the conventional American Dream, we see the freedom and self-fulfillment that people obsessed with social status can rarely achieve.
In post-WWII America, people were buying the advertiser’s claims that everyone deserved a new car, fancy appliances, and a big house with a white picket fence. The definition of success was being whittled down into a rigid set of parameters. To Willy Loman and his ilk, success wore a business suit and carried a briefcase. Owning a nicer car or house or refrigerator than the neighbors was of paramount importance. Willy embraces these material goals, believing that good looks, luck, and charisma are all it takes to “end with diamonds” (160). Like many contemporary Americans, he lives beyond his means in order to project an illusion of success. Wealth and upward mobility, or at least the appearance of them, are what he is conditioned to pursue.
Despite Willy’s grandiose claims, there’s a sense that he doesn’t belong in the business world: he confesses that “people don’t seem to take to me” (116), that people laugh at him, that he talks too much or makes too many jokes. Running beneath all of this are hints of Willy’s talent for working with his hands. He puts up a ceiling, installs plumbing, builds a porch and garage and extra bathroom. As Charley comments after the funeral, “he was a happy man with a batch of cement” (206). Biff probably summarizes the situation correctly when he proclaims, “we don’t belong in this nuthouse of a city. We should be mixing cement on some open plain, or — or carpenters. A carpenter is allowed to whistle!” (138). Unfortunately, working with his hands doesn’t fit Willy’s vision of success. He tells Biff that even his grandfather was better than a carpenter. Willy is so trapped in his desire to impress others, to achieve social status and be “well-liked,” that he has suppressed his own natural inclinations and forced himself into a mold that doesn’t quite fit. He beats his head against the door of corporate America, scorning the idea of working on a farm, but a glimpse of some inner contradiction is had when he promises Linda, “we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens…” (148). After Willy’s funeral, Biff says quietly, “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made” (106).
Biff’s epiphany, near the end of the play, comments strongly on one-size-fits-all notions of the American Dream. After trying to squeeze himself into his father’s (and America’s) definition of briefcase-carrying success, Biff finally admits that he “don’t fit in business” (138), that he’s “just what I am, that’s all” (201), that the sky and “the work and the food and the time to sit and smoke” (201) are what he loves. He realizes that “all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!” (201). He is happiest working as a ranch hand; accepting this fact gives him peace. Perhaps Willy would have found the same peace if he’d traded his suit and shoeshine for a job that utilized his real talents.
Ultimately, Death of a Salesman exposes the pitfalls of conforming to someone else’s definition of success. Willy tries so hard to be something he’s not that he can no longer face — or even see — himself. He totters through a world of lies, permanently lost behind a façade. Biff, however, breaks through the deceptions and restraints to find happiness waiting. His enlightenment forces the audience to contemplate alternative paths to happiness and see that wealth accumulation is not the only marker of success. It gives permission to the Biffs of this world to be Biffs and not Bernards and, most importantly, not to regret it.
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