The American Dream In Death Of A Salesman, Fences, And The Joy Luck Club
Although many believe the American Dream to be as central to our society as baseball, apple pie, and rock and roll music, these symbols do not actually provide the freedoms and opportunities that nurture this dream. These symbols merely present an illusion; an idealistic but unrealistic version of American society that the media reinforces. Willy in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Troy in August Wilson’s Fences, and Suyuan and June in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club all have a myopic focus on pursuing dreams of grandeur and success; however, this pursuit becomes fatal when those involved lose sight of who or what is truly important.
In Arthur Miller’s novel Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman — a man who is perhaps the epitome of a tragic character — becomes obsessed with something that he cannot and should not attain. Willy’s delusion results in part from the fact that he remains stuck in the past. Although he was a good salesman many years ago, it now appears that “people don’t seem to take to me [Willy]… I don’t know the reason for it, people just seem to pass me by”. Despite being aware of his lack of success, Willy refuses to accept the fact that he can’t do anything to change it. He has only one idea of success, and he thinks that there is only one way to achieve it. This causes Willy to spiral deeper and deeper into delusion, for he begins to chase the ideal of the American Dream rather than the reality. In order for the reader to see the extent to which Willy’s beliefs are problematic, Miller uses the characters of Ben and Charlie to juxtapose Willy and his idea of success. Ben, Willy’s brother, combines elements of the traditional American Dream that Willy clings to and modern technology to achieve his wealth. His ability to adapt to changing times enables him to be successful in the new industrial America. Additionally, Ben’s understanding that it is useless to reject modern requirements for success is reflected when he tells Biff to “never fight fair with a stranger. You’ll never get out of the jungle that way”. Willy is never able to understand and implement this advice. He desperately clings to the idea that working hard will make him successful, regardless of the situation. Charlie, another person who becomes successful in this modern world, also contrasts Willie and his methods of achieving the American Dream. Charlie’s character symbolizes reason and logic — concepts Willy Loman frequently rejects. Charlie offers to help Willy many times throughout the play, but Willy’s pride and irrational need to be the best prevents him from taking his advice or job offer. Towards the end of the play, Willy’s desire to continue chasing his delusional dream results in him ignoring the dream he is already living and the love of his family which he does not have to earn. His problematic focus on providing his family with what he thinks they want results in him ignoring their actual needs. By sacrificing himself at the end of the play to give his family his life insurance money, he reduces himself to exactly what he thinks he is; a monetary value. His suicide serves as a tragic example of how the American Dream can be destructive, flawed, and ultimately fatal.
Although one might be tempted to compare Troy to Willy Loman — seeing as they are both cheating, angry, and arrogant dead-beats — one must note the differences in their life circumstances that lead them to go astray. While Willy Loman, a white man of privilege, starts at the top of the social ladder, Troy starts at the bottom. August Wilson’s Fences explores the notion of the “American Dream” from the perspective of those who have been denied their rightful place in a democratic society. Wilson portrays Troy as a victim of a system that is inherently designed to keep him at the bottom of society and away from opportunities afforded to affluent American citizens. As Troy himself would say, he started out “with two strikes against (him)”. Because Troy was kicked out of home at a young age, he did his best to find work. His best evidently was not enough, for he regularly stole and got put in jail for 15 years in punishment of his crimes. In this time he learned how to play baseball and found that he had a natural talent for it, so on his release he pursued a career in the Black leagues. Troy’s limited success in his baseball career — mainly because of his race — mirrors his life. While he got to “first base” by having a loving wife and kids, he was never able to hit a home run. Troy continues to try to advance forward, saying “I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought … well, goddamn it … go on for it!”. While Troy views running for “second base” as advancing forwards, stealing second on a bad play — i.e. Having an affair — ends up preventing him from ever being able to get to home base. By making a bad decision he ends up losing everything, and his family falls apart. Like Willy, he was unable to be happy with what he had, and played into the American ideal that anything is possible, regardless of circumstance. And like Willy, Troy ends up losing everything.
Suyuan from The Joy Luck Club is a firm believer that “you could be anything you wanted to be in America”. Just like Willy and Troy, Suyuan buys into the illusion that achievement will lead to acceptance and success, which is central to the American Dream. After seeing her very close friend’s daughter become a chess prodigy, she becomes focused on making her daughter June a piano prodigy, despite her lack of talent. She obsesses over beating her friend Lindo, and in the process she both alienates her daughter by making her feel like she was reduced to her successes or failures, and loses her grip on reality and what success could reasonably mean for June. Suyuan hasn’t realized another dark side of the American Dream: June’s opportunities for success are more limited because she is Asian American. Suyuan tries to make June into “an Asian Shirley Temple”, which ultimately proves impossible. By trying to force her daughter to be someone that she is not and look like someone else, she plays into the illusion of the American Dream, while at the same time diminishing her daughter’s self-worth and permanently damaging their relationship.
Troy from Fences, Willy from Death of a Salesman, and Suyuan and June from The Joy Luck Club all demonstrate that the American Dream is just that; while the idea of the American Dream is noble, in reality the system which it is based makes it elusive and unattainable for most people. When these people lose sight of what is truly important in life — family, rather than material wealth or success — this pursuit of the American Dream ruins lives.
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