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Death of a Salesman is an intriguing story by the American writer Arthur Miller published in 1949. The stage play focuses on a compelling, tragic story involving an ordinary American citizen in his quest for prosperity and success. The play reflects the different perceptions and views of achieving the American Dream at all costs. Through the main character’s experiences, thoughts and predicaments, Miller explores the shortcomings of attaining the American Dream as the view of prosperity that varies from individual to individual. The play is considered a tragedy of an ordinary man who gives his life to achieve the dream of improving his family’s life. Miller’s play reflects the Post War era that gave new hope of prosperity for most Americans to pursue the American Dream. After several years of working as a salesman, Willy Loman still realizes that his family is yet to achieve the success that, in his view, is being liked. The play centers on Willy’s subtle dream and how it impacts his idea of success and mental well-being. Similarly, Miller portrays how an individual’s inability to accept change and the society around him is detrimental to his growth. Through various symbols, Miller efficiently illustrates the different views of the American Dream and how self-perpetual denial affects people’s idea of success.
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The American Dream
The play’s primary focus is the American Dream and how each views success and prosperity differently. Willy Loman has been traveling as a salesman for over thirty years to make ends meet for his family. He seems sick of these exhausting travels, as portrayed through his thoughts, full of tensions and worries. Through Willy’s flashbacks and memories, Miller demonstrates his philosophy of success that has driven him to the current state of unsuccessfulness. He compares his life to his brother, Ben Loman, who successfully went to the wilderness and returned wealthy. According to Hocenski (2015), Ben’s success embodies the archaic view of the American dream as he beats the odds of going into the wilderness by himself and emerges triumphant. When the pay begins, Ben has just died in Africa, and Willy sometimes converses with his ghost in times of distress. Willy tells Happy, “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” (Miller, 1996). He continues, “The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress.” (Miller, 1996). Speaking with his children, Happy and Biff, Willy reiterates that although his brother was successful, it was not as easy as they imagined.
Willy’s view of success varies significantly from the old-fashioned aspect of the American Dream. The ideology that anyone, despite their origin and social background, can achieve some prosperity in American society is far-fetched for Willy (Hocenski, 2015). He believes that any man who is charismatic, manly, and liked by many people naturally achieves success because he deserves it. Willy compares his life to another successful salesman, Dave Singleton, who died, and many people came to his funeral to bid him farewell. Similarly, he compares his family’s life to his neighbor, Charley, and his son, Bernard. His impossible standards and vision drive Willy into a dreamy reminiscence of an idealized past which hugely impacts his wife and children. He tells Biff, “Bernard can get the best marks in school, but when he gets out of the business world, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises.” (Miller, 1996). Willy projects his unrealistic view of success on his sons, assuring them that it is more valuable to be charismatic and well-received in the business world to succeed. Willy’s delusion and out-of-touch with reality are portrayed in the end when he sacrifices himself to get his family’s financial benefit.
Miller utilizes various symbols that illustrate self-deception, romantic personality, and varied views of prosperity in the sight of the American Dream. The seeds symbolize Willy’s failure as a father to nurture his sons and the opportunity to prove his worth to his family. His desperation to mold his children, especially Biff, in his own way massively fails because of his delusional thoughts and lack of acceptance of the change (Sterling, 2008). Although he believes he works hard enough as a salesman to take care of his family, he feels that he has failed to build something for his children to inherit, just like his father. When his children abandon him, he states, “I’ve got to get some seeds right away. Nothing is planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.” (Miller, 1996). Willy is disappointed in himself for failing to secure a future for his children. Similarly, the rubber hose indicates Willy’s desperate attempt to take his own life.
Overall, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman effectively illustrates the varied views of success, unrealistic expectations, and self-identity. The author efficiently demonstrates a combination of memories and dreams through the protagonist’s quest for prosperity and his inability to accept the changes in his life and society. Willy Loman’s delusional thoughts and unrealistic expectations drive him into dreamy resonant of an ideological past and ideology that success is for the popular and charismatic people. Through the protagonist, the author indicates how the American Dream can be opportunistic and detrimental when a man does not live up to his expectations.
- Hocenski, T. (2015). The Concept of the American Dream in S. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and A. Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Doctoral dissertation, Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek. Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Department of English Language and Literature).
- Miller, A. (1996). Death of a Salesman: Revised Edition. Penguin.
- Sterling, E. (Eds.). (2008). Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Vol. 3). Rodopi.