The play Death of a Salesman tells the story of Willy Loman, a common man who devotes his life as a salesman to search for and achieve success and happiness. Willy’s dream to succeed forms the appeal of the play, which translates to one of the play’s central themes – the ‘American Dream.’ Ideally, there is no definite definition of the “American Dream.” For this reason, every American identifies with their own American dream, which typically revolves around the achievement of the highest possible aspirations and goals. Nearly every character in the play is portrayed in the light of pursuing the American Dream, albeit in their own different versions. Later in the play, Willy’s philosophy and understanding of the American dream and the choices he makes with this understanding leads the Loman family to a tight spot. Death of a Salesman is a solid example of how choices create a lifetime effect while chasing the “American Dream.”
Ideally, in the pursuit of any goal or dream, the American dream included, the choices a person makes play a significant role in the determining how much of the dream is achieved by the end of the period within which it is to be achieved. Willy’s definition of the American dream is becoming successful and prosperous by merely being charismatic (Nahvi). He believes that to succeed; one has to be popular and well-liked among peers and the society in general. According to Jacobson, the meaning of the ‘business success’ that Willy pursues extends beyond the mere accumulation of status, goods, wealth and security (247). He is convinced that the key to success is personality and charisma, not innovation and hard work as it may be assumed in other settings. Willy desperately tries to instill this philosophy of success into his sons Biff and Happy and even goes further to try to make sure that his sons are popular. For example, when Biff admits to making fun of his teacher’s lisp by imitating him when he was late for class, Willy is seen to be more concerned to know how his classmates reacted his son’s actions rather than how the teacher reacted and what then transpired.
BIFF: See, the reason he hates me, Pop — one day he was late for class, so I got up at the blackboard and imitated him. I crossed my eyes and talked with a lithp.
WILLY: (Laughing.) You did? The kids like it?
BIFF: They nearly died laughing! (Miller).
However, by the end of the play, Willy’s perception of the American dream does not pan out. Partly since despite the popularity his son Biff enjoys in high school, he grows up only to become nothing more than a drifter and a ranch-hand, a complete opposite of what he envisioned for his son.
The decisions Willy make as he tries to reach his version of the American dream end up haunting him in the future once he realizes that all of them contributed to his failure rather than the success he hoped. Throughout the play, Willy chooses to live in the past, ignoring the need to psychologically remain in the present. In the play, he loses his moorings and sense of what is right and is seen to enjoy living through past events in his life instead of the present (Nahvi). This is exemplified where he tells Linda that he “opened the windshield and just let warm air bathe over me” and later corrects her by saying that –“the windshields don’t open on the new cars” (Miller). After which he realizes that he had the Chevvy he had in 1928 in mind. To this, he says “I coulda sworn I was driving that Chevvy today” (Miller). This paints the picture that although people think about the past, Willy relives it involuntarily. Moments when Willy is seen to relive the past mostly feature when he is in a crisis and are sometimes related to the troubled relations he shares with his male relatives, his elder brother Ben and his son Biff. In addition to involuntarily living in the past, Willy is adamant and refuses to acknowledge the fact that he can no longer be a good salesman (Jacobson 248). Moseley asserts that among the reasons that Willy cannot be a functioning salesman include his exhaustion, age, the fact that his old friends in the territory have retired and “inability to remain psychologically here and now” (1). Pursuing his American Dream, Willy refuses to accept the reality that he is not the best salesman and instead chooses to retreat into his past and relives his memories where he is seen as successful. For example when his favorite memory is when Biff vowed to make a touchdown for him in his last football game.
Willy’s perception of the American dream and the choice to instill it into his sons negatively affects his sons’ lives. Believing that being well-liked and having personal contacts are the key factors in success, he tells his son “Benard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him” (Miller). This, according to him, is because “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interests, is the man who gets ahead” (Miller). This turns out not to favor Biff, and before the play comes to an end, he realizes that his Willy had the wrong dream.
Willy later realizes that the choices he made were not the best and that whatever his life became was only a result of the choices. He tells Charley that “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive” (Miller). In so doing, Willy is seen to bemoan how worthless all his years as a salesman have been. As a salesman, he seems to realize that he never earned enough money to put some aside as savings, he never built or grew and seeing that he has lost his job, he has nothing to show and nothing left. This realization, along with the reality that he has an insurance policy with a large premium eventually leads him to toy around with the idea of suicide, which he finally commits (Nahvi).
In summary, the choices one makes have a far-reaching effect on their lives, regardless of whether they are good or bad choices. This is exemplified in Willy’s lifetime and his presence throughout the play to when he dies. Seeking to achieve his American dream built on popularity and charisma, he convinces his sons to subscribe to his philosophy of success. This does not turn out well for either of them in future since Willy’s version of the American dream was misplaced and built on the wrong grounds.
- Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman,” American Literature 47 (May, 1975): 247–58.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. N.p.: Penguin, n.d. PDF. A play by Arthur Miller. http://www.pelister.org/literature/ArthurMiller/Miller_Salesman.pdf. Accessed November 29 2017.
- Moseley, Merritt. “The American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” The American Dream, Bloom’s Literary Themes. New York: Chelsea Publishing House (2009).
- Nahvi, Alaeddin. “The Illusion of American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.”