The American Dream in Death of a Salesman
In Arthur Millers “Death of a Salesman” the life of an average man of the mid nineteen forties is played out on stage. The play tells the story of Willy Loman and his family. Willy, like so many other men, just wants to be successful and raise two successful sons. He wants to live the so called “American dream” that was so important during this time period. The success of a man and his family was how he was judged, if he and his sons were successful then he must be a great man.
The seduction of the American dream is what Willy lives for, and dies for. As Arthur Miller shows in this play, the power of the American dream is enough to drive a man crazy, and even end his life. The setting of this play tells a lot about how the American dream is being represented. Everyone always wants the big house with the white picket fence and a garden in the back.
The Loman family used to have all of this when the boys, Biff and Happy, were growing up with the big city as just lights in the distance.
As Terry Thompson of Georgia Southern University explains; “Critics have long emphasized the importance of the main setting in Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman, explaining how the small home of Willy and Linda Loman-once situated on the green fringes of suburbia and blessed with shade trees, a backyard garden and plenty of open space for two rambunctious sons- has become palisaded by ruthless urban sprawl” (244) the once happy country home of the Lomans has been suffocated by urbanization.
Willy is disgusted by this growing city, saying “the way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows. Windows and bricks” (Miller 1872). Willy Loman once lived the so called American Dream, but it is being taken away from him. Willy wants the American dream, but is not willing to work hard for it. Willy Loman expects everything to come easy to him and his sons. In high school, his son Biff was the football star and both of his sons were “well liked” and they all think that this will carry them through the rest of their lives.
As Thompson puts it; “like eternal sophomores, they continue to believe that the greater world will embrace them, will proclaim them, simply because they are superficially charming, are occasionally witty, and can bluster and brag with the best of them” (247) he points out the flaws in the Loman boys thinking, because the success, or lack thereof, has been revealed in the play. in the first act, Biff, the oldest son, realizes this; “Maybe that’s my trouble. I’m like a boy.
I’m not married, I’m not in business, I just – I’m like a boy” (Miller 1875) this at least hows the maturity of Biff who can realize his own flaws, unlike his father. Willy never fully accepts the fact that he and his sons are not as successful as they wished and though themselves to be. Willy still lives in a fantasy world and refuses to accept that his life is crumbling around him. Willy is notorious for talking to himself and his dead brother, Ben, and daydreaming of the past. Willy daydreams about his brother constantly, because he envies him, he wants to be as successful and important as Ben was.
As Thomas Porter says in his article; “In Benjamin Loman, the struggling and insecure salesman sees the embodiment of the mystery of success, the Eleusinian rite knows only to initiates” (porter 30). Willy’s older brother Ben was a very successful man who walked into the jungle at 17 and walked out at 21 and “by god was I rich” (Miller 1888). Willy always compared himself to his older brother and was never fully satisfied because he was never like him.
Willy had the opportunity to go with Ben when he went to Africa but he didn’t, because he was already married with kids and had a job as a traveling salesman, so he didn’t want to leave all of that behind. After his brother came back rich Willy was never fully happy because he though he missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime and ever being rich and powerful like his brother. Willy wanted his sons to grow up to be successful and happy just as he had always wished to. His oldest son Biff was the star of his high school football team and the younger son Happy was always very well-liked by the others.
Willy always expressed to his sons the importance to be well liked and physically attractive, because that’s what he thought would get them far in life; “I thank Almighty god you’re both built like Adonises. Because a man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead” (Miller 1881). The neighbor boy, Bernard is a great example of how Willy’s theory is proved wrong. Bernard in school was liked, but not well liked, and he focused on his school work unlike Happy and Biff, who failed math causing him to not graduate.
Bernard became the most successful man in the play. This shows that Willy’s way of reaching his dream, the American dream, was unrealistic and unsuccessful, as was the rest of his life. Willy Loman has many false conceptions and beliefs of what success even is. A man cannot be successful if he does not even know what the goal is. As Irving Jacobson said in his article Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman; “Loman wants success, but the meaning of that need extends beyond the accumulation of wealth, security, goods, and status” (247).
What Willy Loman does not realize is that to be successful he also needs his family to find him successful. Willy needs his sons to look up to him and admire him, which they do when they were younger, but Willy ruins this for himself. Jacobson argues that “what Willy Loman wants, and what success means in Death of a Salesman is intimately related to his own sense of family” (248) what Jacobson is saying with this statement is that Willy needs to base his life goals less on the material sense of the word “success” and more on the family side.
Willy obviously does not understand this because he ruins his family values by what he does with other women when he is gone for business, which biff later finds out. To achieve the American dream you must work hard and not doing anything that would get in the way of achievement. Willy has a major flaw in this play which he manages to keep a secret until his son Biff accidentally finds out. Part of the American dream is to be happily married, which Willy seems to be. But Willy ruins this happiness for himself by having affairs with younger women when he is traveling on business.
He keeps this secret from the family until one day Biff comes to his hotel room to tell him about his failing grade in math. Willy has a woman in his room at the time and when Biff sees her, all of his admiration for his father disappears. Willy tries to convince Biff that she was just visiting him and nothing happened, but Biff knows better. Willy ruins his image of the perfect father and husband that he created by doing this. Willy not only does not work hard enough to achieve the dream, but he does things that land him even farther away from it.
Not only is Willy driven crazy by the seduction of the dream during his lifetime, but he lets it end his life also. Willy Loman is a traveling salesman so he is on the road a lot and has had several “accidents” where he has wrecked the car. His wife Linda later found a rubber hose that was attached to a gas pipe that had not been there before. Linda started to wonder if all of these car wrecks were accidents or not and she got her answer when a woman told her that she once saw Willy drive off the edge of a bridge, he didn’t lose control, but just drove off and the shallowness of the water was the only thing that saved him.
Willy was trying in several ways to take his own life. The power of the American dream slipping through his fingers and realizing he was no longer living it was too much for Willy to handle. Enough so to where he was willing to end his life to escape the disappointment he felt towards himself and his sons. The seduction of living this so called dream was obviously too strong for Willy to resist. As the play went on Willy got worse and worse and acted stranger all the time. The scene in the restaurant where Willy reminisced on his affair and Biff catching was what made Willy realize that the dream was gone.
He did not want to accept that Biff did not get the money he had asked for from Bill Oliver, because it meant that he was not as well liked and successful as Willy had hoped he would be. In Willy’s flashback he remembered yelling at Biff to obey his orders and to believe that the woman was just a client, but Biff refused to do either. Willy had always had all the power over his sons and his wife but he was not seeing it slip away. Biff had lost all respect for him which is all willy had going for him.
His family was the only ones who saw him as successful and now that even that was gone, he knew he had nothing. This was the last thing Willy needed, and it was what caused him to take his life. Towards the end of the play, Willy gets the idea in his head that the only way he can finally prove his success and social standing to his boys is for them to see how many people would come to his funeral after he died “But the funeral- Bed that funeral will be massive! That boy will be thunder-struck, Ben, because he never realized- I am known! He’ll see what I am, Ben! He’s in for a shock, that boy! (Miller 1927. )
As Noobrakhsh Hooti and Farzaneh Azipour write in their article Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman: a postmodernist study; “Willy wants to make an impression, to be remembered after his death, to give something to Biff and Happy, and his inability to do any of this haunts him. Once he realizes his life has been futile: he is old, has achived little, is scorned by his boss and his sons, which makes Willy come to face the absurdity of life”(21. ) This statement shows that Willy is so desperate to prove his importance and status to his family, that he is willing to end his own life to do it.
Suicide is often seen as a cowardly move for one to escape their own problems, not very often is it seen as an act of courage or is accepted as a reasonable thing to do. One could argue that what Willy Loman did was the “easy way out” and purely for selfish reasons. On the other hand though, it could be seen as a last resort for him to finally prove himself to his family. As Hootie and Azizpour argued; “what else can Willy do, the, but climb back into his car and drive off to a death that at last will bring him the reward that he has chased so determinedly.
A reward that will make up for his sense of guilt, justify his life, and hand on to another generation the burden of belief that has decayed his soul (21. ) so what Willy did can be seen in two ways, he can be looked at as a coward who took suicide as the easy way out of his pathetic life, or he can be looked at as a sad man who did the last thing he thought would finally prove himself to his family, and finally achieve the American Dream. Everyone wants to be successful and live the American dream, but Willy Loman took that to an extreme.
As Thomas Porter said it “The most salient quality of Arthur Millers tragedy of the common man Death of a Salesman is Americanism” (24) He based the success of his whole life off of those around him and he compared himself to everyone else. When Willy Loman realized that his life was never as good as he thought it was and the dream of power and success was unrealistic, it was too much for him to handle. The power and seduction of living the dream overpowered and controlled Willy Lomans life and eventually ended it. As Arthur Miller shows in this play, the power of the American dream is enough to drive a man crazy, and even end his life
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