The American Dream is one of the major themes of Death of a Salesman. The American Dream philosophy was born in the early 20th century, when many immigrants arrived in America to seek better economic opportunities and a better lifestyle. Willy, the protagonist, believes that one must be friendly and have a positive personality to realize the American Dream. Hard work and perseverance are the keys to American success. Willy, however, fails to recognize this and is doomed to failure in his business ventures.
The American Dream is defined by idealistic and materialistic values. The American Dream requires that one lives a happy, successful life. Willy tries to fulfill the American Dream throughout the novel but fails because he doesn’t know what it takes.
Willy sees the American Dream as the achievements and accomplishments of a successful career. Willy, a dreamer as he is, tries to be a successful salesman. “selling [is] the greatest career a man [can] want .” (Act 2). Willy fails to achieve his sales career goals. Willy attributes the lack of depth in the business world to this. He sees this in his thoughts on Bernard:
“Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you’re going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like agonizes. Because the man, who makes an appearance in the business world, creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” (Act1).
Willy’s distorted views have been instilled in his sons. Biff and Happy are his sons. These thoughts and views were fed to his sons, which ultimately led to their failure. Happy says, ” I mean I can outbox, outrun, and outlift anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those common, pretty sons-of-bitches till I can’t stand it anymore” (Act 1). Happy believes that he should give orders because he is more powerful than the people who give him them orders. Happy was taught by his father that this was the only way to success. Biff is the same. He is not a successful entrepreneur because of his dashing smile, great looks and ability to connect with people. He is also lacking hard work, perseverance and a work ethic which can make him a failure. Willy doesn’t see it that way. Willy sees his sons as if they were ‘the clouds. He looks down at them like they are his successes. Unfortunately, this does not help them in their daily lives. Linda Loman, his wife and the Loman boys are not the only people Willy views as poisonous.
American Dream as Miller’s Characterization
Miller created Linda, Willy’s spouse, in such a manner that it is hard to determine if she is a positive force or destructive force. It is difficult to comprehend why she allows this deception rise to such a high level. Linda’s love for Willy is strong. She considers herself his protector. Linda allows Willy the freedom to fall into his illusions, so that he can feel content. Ironically, her love for her husband can be seen as his destroyer. Linda, in her admiration of Willy, also accepts his dream which proves fatal. She lets him kill himself, not revealing that she was aware of the suicide attempts. Linda was affected by Willy’s illusions about success, but Biff was the most affected.
Willy’s search for the “American Dream”, is most damaging to his oldest son Biff. Both are impractical, just like their father. Biff must deal with the disillusionment, while Willy has to live with the illusions. Willy keeps Biff going, despite him still searching for his purpose in this life. Biff was still in high school, but his future was certain. Although he was liked by many, he soon realized that his father had shattered his vision of him, “just because he printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn’t mean their going to graduate him”(Act 1) . Paralysed by reality, Biff realizes that there’s more to life than football and being liked. After much searching, Biff finally comes to terms who and what he really is.
“… I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw – the sky. I saw the things I love in this world… and I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be…I am not a leader of men… Pop I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you” (Act 2).
Willy soon discovers that his life is not what he imagined. Willy soon realizes that he has not lived the life he imagined. He realizes that he has not succeeded nor achieved his goals, but has remained a shadow or his dream. This sudden realization is what drives him to a fantasy world, afraid of the future. Willy’s failure to sell cement makes it clear that his natural desire for the outdoors was not realized. “… He was a happy man with a batch of cement… so wonderful with his hands… he had the wrong dreams, all wrong” (Act 2. The play demonstrates that the wrong path may have been the right choice. This assumption is Willy’s inability to see the truth and who he is, which leads to the tragic end. (Stanton, 103)
How to realize the ‘American Dream’
Willy’s solution is suicide. It’s the end of a life spent unsuccessfully trying to achieve the “American Dream.” (Ferguson 94). Willy’s perception of success is flawed and he has failed to attain the success he longs for. Willy believes the American dream can only be achieved by the most popular and attractive people. He doesn’t believe he belongs in this elite group. Willy doesn’t see the errors of his ways, which is a shame. He believes that attractive, well-spoken people should be the ones to succeed. He soon discovers that he isn’t on top, and this is what ultimately destroys him. The outstanding play Death of a Salesman challenges the American Dream. We can take lessons from Willy Loman. All of us have the desire to achieve our “American Dreams.” However, we must be realistic, work hard and persevere in our efforts. (Scanlan, 233)
Willy believes that Willy has only his personality and appearance to make himself look heroic. Will perseveres even after his sales career ends. A salesman’s only hope of survival is to keep dreaming. Charley, after Willy’s passing, said of Willy, “he’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they stop smiling back, – that’s an earthquake…. A salesman is got to dream boy. It comes with the territory.” (138). Charley is aware that sales is hard work. He knows that his smile and shoeshine will fade after a lot of failures. The American Dream is the antagonist in this play because it causes Willy’s degeneration, insanity and destruction. (Jacobson, 255)
Willy’s death at the end is due to the flaws in the American dream. The one that killed Willy was the one that said that some people would work all their lives and then end up with nothing. This is exactly what happened to Willy. The American dream lures people in and won’t let them go. It’s a lose-lose situation. Willy made the American Dream his culture and the American dream became Willy’s victim. This is all evidence that the American Dream will never become a reality.
It is obvious that many people fail to realize the American Dream. However, this is not due to the American system. Instead, it is due the lack of hard work and dedication by the pursuer. All people have the opportunity to live their American Dream. Some might blame the system when it’s their fault. (Helterman 103) There is no shortcut to success in life. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to achieve your dreams. People who have lived difficult lives understand the system better than most. They are able to work hard and get results. Willy Loman can teach us that everyone has the desire to achieve their American Dreams. However, we need to live in reality, work hard and persevere in our efforts. Miller is one of those playwrights that shows that the American Dream is an ideology that can be pursued and fulfilled. It is not a magic bullet that allows the blindly fervent to succeed.
The play’s central theme, the American Dream, explains the pressure on all male members of the Loman clan to succeed. All of the Loman men strive for success in areas that will never bring them happiness. Willy Loman is driven to excel in every aspect of his life. This is evident in Willy Loman’s constant exaggeration of his achievements and skills, as well as his son’s. In “Death of a Salesman”, Willy contradicts himself constantly. One example is when Willy has a flashback and returns to his wife in eager anticipation. He talks about his ‘five hundred gross’ in Providence and’seven hundred gross’ in Boston. However, he later contradicts his own sales figures when questioned. He eventually admits to his true ‘two hundred gross for the entire trip’. Willy exaggerates the figures in this part of his play to fulfil his role as a successful businessman. (Lawrence, 548)
Miller seems to be trying to tell us that we should pursue our own dreams, not follow the dreams of others. Although the American Dream may be a noble concept, it is not a guarantee. Willy is an example of someone who can work hard and not get the rewards they deserve. This could be due to their choices in life, or simply because of changes in circumstances. Willy believed Biff’s popularity was key to his success. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have a well-paid job, a large house, and a luxurious lifestyle. You are what you make of it.