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American Dream in The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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The first man to ever coin the term American Dream was James Truslow Adams, in which he describes a dream of a place where everyone has an equal opportunity regardless of predetermined life factors. By putting a name to this ideology, Adams gave many American people a goal to chase after, especially during trying times, like when “Death of a Salesman” was written and is set. This theme and many others are seen throughout Miller’s play and in the story’s characters. Through Miller’s portrayal of the American Dream throughout “Death of a Salesman,” one can see the alienation and otherness Willy possesses; which, in turn, brings attention to many of the socioeconomic problems present in the 1940s American family and household.

Arthur Miller uses the American Dream throughout the piece, specifically through his characters. Willy Loman is the reality of the American Dream, with his beliefs in the simplicity of economic prosperity, he claims, “Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer,” showing his undoubted faith in the American Dream. Willy continues his firm belief in this idea throughout the play without realizing that he actually lives the American Nightmare, where, in his attempt to reach his dreams, he destroys everything he built. Willy uses several methods in his efforts to live the American Dream, all of which turn on him and land him in the American Nightmare. He begins by taking a labor intensive job that demands many hours of travelling, hard work, and getting people to like him, which separates him from his family for extended periods of time. This element in Miller’s story plays on an aspect of the American Dream many believe in which, “. . . the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity – that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families – but have less time to enjoy their prosperity,”, which Miller uses more and more as Willy strives to live his dream. Another aspect Miller uses is Willy’s affair, like many, Willy will stop at nothing to become the best salesman and gain the material prosperity promised to him by the American Dream, but this action is just one of the many that push Willy into the American Nightmare. The final push is Willy’s unchanging attitude and belief in the American Dream, which leaves him working an old job that isn’t adequate for all the new changes around him. Willy eventually begins to realize the horror he is living, “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive,” (Miller p. 71) and his realization is an overbearing aspect of the American Nightmare, that all of the hard work and effort put in to being successful is for nothing. Miller used Willy’s constant plight for the American dream where he ends up living a nightmare in which he becomes alienated from his family, friends, and coworkers in his search for success through an infeasible method.

Willy’s alienation is another theme used by Miller in “Death of a Salesman,” which is seen throughout everything Willy does. Miller starts showing Willy’s alienation by the many scenes of the family talking about Willy behind his back, where his inability to hear what they say corelates to Willy’s inability to sense his otherness to those around him; however, slowly, Willy starts to realize the alienation he has created for himself through his flashbacks and visions. He dreams of the days when his family was happy to see him come home, and his business partners were running to meet him, all of which was destroyed by his own actions and continue to be destroyed by his constant episodes. Willy began to become alienated by driving away his family, which is subtly shown through his sons’ short tempers with Willy, but is eventually brought to the surface of the story during the restaurant scene. When Happy denies Willy’s relation to him, the family’s detachment between each other hits Willy like a brick wall, and Willy starts to remember another instance where he began alienating himself. In Willy’s affair, he subconsciously alienated himself from his wife with guilt, specifically that of stockings, “WILLY (angrily, taking them from her): I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out,” where Miller used Willy’s subconscious guilt to show his slow alienation from his wife. Eventually, this guilt materializes when Biff discovers his affair, and Willy is further pushed away by his children as Biff calls out Willy on his deepest insecurity, “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” which leads Willy to feel further alienated as an outcast from his own son who was his pride and joy. Miller continues this alienation of Willy all the way to the end of the play when even Willy’s wife, who seemed there for him no matter what, had an underlying separation from Willy seen her monologue at his graveside, “It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. Willy, dear, I can’t cry,” Linda, like her children, became detached from Willy by his constant trips away from home and his berating attitude when he was home. Miller’s use of otherness in the Loman family was constant throughout the play as it slowly grew in intensity, but why?

Throughout the play Miller used the American Dream and alienation themes to portray a relatable story to the people of the time, and in turn bring much needed attention to the issues of much of the society the story was portrayed in. Arthur Miller, himself, described the intended audience as that of depression people. The people seeing the play and the adult characters in the story, had, historically, lived through not only the Great Depression, but also World War II, both of which lead to great change in the American household. As said by Tricia Hussung of Concordia University, “The economic and global instability of the early 20th century gave rise to the need for closely defined family units,” meaning the need and want of Willy and his dreams of economic prosperity with his nuclear family were just products of his environment, much like that of the audience. Many of those who would have been Willy’s age at the time of this play felt the confusion Willy felt and couldn’t understand why efforts that worked previously wouldn’t work in their modern era. Robert J. Habghurst says that this time in America resembled, “… a postwar period of confusion of purposes and of doubt to our ability to recreate a stable and peaceful society on a world scale. This is and age in which we see clearly our social weakness, but seem impotent to do anything about it. . . . It is an age of great understanding and little will power,” which is one of the main problems Miller showcases through his use of themes in this play. Miller uses Willy’s character to show this issue in the 1940’s American household, Willy can clearly see his social weakness, as shown by his flashbacks, but he has little will power to do anything substantial about his issues and can only see the easy way out. The main theme of the American Dream in “Death of a Salesman” is used by Miller to relate to the people of this age who are the way they are as a result of what they lived through, while the use of the alienation theme is used to show the imperfection in chasing after the American Dream and how it will ultimately end in the American Nightmare.

Through Miller’s use of the American Dream in “Death of a Salesman,” one can see the alienation and otherness Willy endures bringing attention to many of the issues many 1940’s Americans struggled within their chase of the American Dream. Not only does Miller efficiently use Willy’s character to embody these themes, he also uses the entire play to push the audience to see the imperfections in the American Dream and in their society. Even though Adams coined the term for the American Dream, it is up to those, like Willy, who strive for this life to define whether they live an American Dream or an American Nightmare.

Works Cited

  1. Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Little, Brown, and Co., 1931. Print.
  2. ‘The American Dream- What Is The American Dream?’ Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.
  3. Havighurst, Robert J. ‘The American Family.’ Vital Speeches of the Day, vol. 14, no. 18, 7/1/48. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.
  4. Hussung, Tricia. ‘The Evolution of American Family Structure.’ Concordia University- St. Paul Online. Concordia University- St. Paul, 23 June 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.
  5. Kullman, Colby H. ‘Death of a Salesman at Fifty: An Interview With Arthur Miller.’ Michigan Quarterly Review. University of Michigan Library, 1998. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.
  6. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Pelister Virtual Learning Center, n.d. PDF.

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