The notion of the American Dream in the context of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman takes a rather pessimistic interpretation while looking at the fruitless attempts of the play's protagonist Willie Loman to fit in the world of successful and wealthy people. The action of the play is set in post-war America, in New York and Boston of 1949. In the materialistic world of capitalism, the eternal human longing for immortality is actualized through immoderate consumption of things and generally acquiring as much money and valuable material possessions as possible (Comeau, 1). Willie Loman's ardent desire to be well-liked and prosperous thanks to his assumed personal attractiveness does not bring him either happiness or success. On the contrary, his systematic refusal to educate himself, grow as a personality, or adapt to the ever-changing life circumstances brings along crisis and tragedy not only upon his own life but upon the life of his family. The members of Loman's family have completely different views on happiness and neither of them supports Willies ideas. The disintegration of the family is mainly Willies fault; it is his inability to set priorities and establish correct values for his children that leaves them all at a loss. Miller vividly shows that the ideals of the American Dream and the ways to reach it cannot stay intact even for as little time as half of the century as the society inevitably changes requiring those who live in it to change too.
Willie Loman Lines in Death of a Salesman
Willie's inspiration to be the man to realize the ideals of the American Dream is his elder brother Ben, who used to say: I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich (Miller). This simple story of his brother who made his fortune working in the diamond mines of Alaska and who has been long dead by the time of the play's action serves as a personal lighthouse to Willie reminding him that any man can become successful in a short period of time if he struggles enough. What Willie does not take into account is that the world is changing and one must change with it in order to keep up with the times. The recipe of success that used to be valid at the turn of the century is of little value in the post-war consumerist American society. As Willies neighbor and only friend, Charley says: The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don’t know that (Miller). Willie is right that personal attractiveness counts in business but he wrongly assumes that this attractiveness is grounded in people's nostalgia for the things that happened in the past. Thus, when he comes to Howard Wagner, his boss, to ask for an office job instead of having to travel all the time, Willie tries to earn Howard's respect by telling him that Howard's father and he were great friends and he (Willie) is the person who gave Howard his name. However, these issues are irrelevant in the tough world of selling business so Willie gets fired instead of getting a better job. Therefore, Willie Loman can be viewed as an anachronism, the man talking to his dead brother and taking his views about success, prosperity, and happiness from long-outdated ideas of the past. In this view, The Death of a Salesman is indeed a timeless play: according to recent research, it breaks the boundaries of time and place and goes beyond the specific epoch (Hootie, Azizpour, 17).
How Does Biff Inherit the Dreams of Willie in Death of a Salesman?
Willies inability to keep up with the times and set correct priorities in life leads to catastrophe in his family as well. Partly understanding that he personally will not become very big in this world, Willie shifts the pressure of necessity to be prosperous onto his elder son Biff. Since his childhood, Biff has been instilled with the idea that he is going to be someone marvelously successful. Biff does gain popularity in high school due to his footballer talent but he flunks Math in the last grade of high school and never graduates. It is just the beginning of his personal failure. Biff’s story of failure starts with disillusionment about his father. In high school, Biff used to think the world of his father and it is him who Biff goes to in order to fix the situation with the Math exam. Nevertheless, after Biff catches Willie red-handed with Ms. Francis in Boston Hotel, Biff totally loses any respect he has for his father, calls him a phony little fake (Miller), and gets distanced from him. Disappointment in his father leads to Biff’s complete abandonment of his father's pursuits of the American Dream that are closely connected with becoming a well-liked and number-one man. Biff gets alienated from his family, develops a post-traumatic kleptomaniac syndrome that gets him repeatedly unemployed, and finally settles at the ranch discovering the immense pleasures of life in the country. He believes his father had all the wrong dreams and did not even know who he was (Miller). According to Biff, happiness is the work and the food, and time to sit and smoke. Biff realizes that he is just not apt for any kind of office or sales work after he steals Howard's pen and runs down the stairs of Howard's office. Biff does not want to pretend someone he is not making a contemptuous, begging fool of [himself], when all [he wants] is out there (Miller). However, when he tells Willie about this revelation of his, Willie just cannot comprehend and accept information like this. The defense mechanisms of Willies collapsing mind prevent him from becoming fully aware of what Biff is trying to tell him. Willie's ungrounded aspirations and expectations for Biff's life become the reason of their unhappiness and disappointment.
Amazingly, Willie pays very little (or almost no) attention to his younger son, Harold, or Happy. For some reason, Willie concentrates all his hopes and expectations on Biff. Willie can think of Happy only in connection with Biff: You guys together could absolutely lick the civilized world (Miller). Happy tries to attract his parents' attention repeatedly, he informs them about significant changes in his life: I lost weight, Pop, you notice?, I’m gonna get married, Mom. I wanted to tell you (Miller). However, Willie and Linda seem to be more interested in Biff’s futile momentary meeting with Bill Oliver than in any news Happy might have for them. Happy seems to be used to being in the shadow of his elder brother. He finds his solace in spending time with random women he meets in bars or in seducing his colleague’s fiancees. It is undoubtedly Happys way to make up for the lack of his parents' love and attention. For the younger brother happiness is just being noticed by his parents but this is inaccessible for him. After Willies suicide Happy unexpectedly embraces all of his father's ideas about coming out number-one man (Miller). Happy probably wants to be closer to his father at least after his death because they were so far apart when Willie was still alive. That is why Happy wants to prove to the world that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have to come out number-one man (Miller).
To sum up, Arthur Millers The Death of a Salesman demonstrates that it is not easy to achieve the ideals of the American Dream without creating strong ties with the society around you and keeping up with the times. Neither of the characters initially understands what each of them truly wants to do with their lives and this is the primary reason for their unhappiness. Despite the fact that each of them pictures happiness and success in a different way, all of them end up equal failures. It is only upon finding out the truth about one's true nature and genuine ambitions that one can become harmoniously happy and successful.
Comeau, P. (2012). Boats Against the Current: The American Dream as Death Denial in F. Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby and Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman. Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1038&context=honors
Hooti, N., & Azizpour, F. (2010). Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman: A Postmodernist Study. Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 1(No. 8, 2010), 15-28. Retrieved May 21, 2016, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/50934204_Arthur_Miller's_Death_of_a_Salesman_A_Postmodernist_Study.
Miller, A. (n.d.). The Death of a Salesman doi:http://www.pelister.org/literature/ArthurMiller/Miller_Salesman.pdf
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