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“The American Dream has become a nightmare” (Sanders). The American Dream is the ideal life of comfort and happiness that Americans desire to achieve. Death Of A Salesman written by Arthur Miller and The Catcher In The Rye written by J.D. Salinger are two very different books, however, they share the idea of each protagonist wanting to achieve the American Dream. Willy Loman, the protagonist in Death Of A Salesman, is trying to become successful by making a large amount of money and having a happy, loving family. Holden Caulfield, protagonist in The Catcher In The Rye, is trying to do the same by developing himself into a better student, friend, brother, and son. Both of these stories share the common theme that when striving for a prestigious goal such as the ideal of American comfort, an individual often finds themselves caught up in mental health issues. The two characters present signs of these issues when they begin to have hallucinations, mood swings, and reach a vivid point of self realization.
Firstly, both Willy and Holden experience hallucinations and lucid daydreams of their past throughout their journeys in the books. Willy experiences flashbacks from when his two sons, Biff and Happy, were younger. These flashbacks are from times when Willy was proud of his children; for example, a flashback from when Biff was younger and was a football star who would be going to school on a scholarship, before one of his games. Willy experiences daydreams of his dead older brother Ben, who represents wealth and success for Willy because he found a diamond mine in an African jungle. He also experiences flashbacks and hallucinations about the woman with whom he had an affair with. The woman is a representation of Willy’s loneliness in his life and in his marriage. These hallucinations and flashbacks become dangerous for Willy, “I suddenly couldn’t drive any more. The car kept going off onto the shoulder, y’know? […] No, it’s me, it’s me. Suddenly I realize I’m goin’ sixty miles an hour and I don’t remember the last five minutes. I’m— I can’t seem to — keep my mind to it” (Miller 13). This shows that he becomes an unsafe driver as he is swerving off the road and he also begins running stop lights. Willy’s flashbacks and daydreams represent his development as he looks back on when he was a successful man.
Holden also experiences hallucinations. He often sees and talks to his younger brother, Allie, who died at age 10 from leukemia. “I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie. I do that sometimes when I get depressed. […] ‘Okay, Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby’s house. Hurry up’” (Salinger 99). He also has daydreams of himself in situations where he is dying, for example when he is walking down the street and he imagines himself crossing the street but never making it to the other side because he was killed first. “Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street, thought I’d just go down, down, down and nobody’d ever see me again” (Salinger 65). Holden’s flashbacks and daydreams represent the happiness and the feeling of success that he had with his brother before Allie died. The hallucinations that are experienced by Willy and Holden are side effects of their mental illnesses, caused by their desire for the American Dream.
Furthermore, both Willy and Holden become very emotionally unstable characters and begin to have mood swings. Willy’s mood changes rapidly. For example, when Willy was in the kitchen with his wife enjoying himself. Then all of a sudden he became very angry about the kitchen appliances that he and Linda own because of how he’s always paying for them but other families have better ones. Willy also contradicts himself frequently, saying things like “Biff is a lazy bum. […] There’s one thing about Biff- he’s not lazy” (Miller 16). This shows that he has difficulties deciphering how he feels and takes out his frustration on those around him.
Holden is also unable to control his emotions. His mood fluctuates as he goes from feeling depressed, to sad, to angry, and often raises his voice at others for no reason. An example of this is when he hires a prostitute. He later on decides that he does not want her which results in him being punched by her pimp. The woman proceeds to take five dollars out of Holden’s wallet which makes him upset; “All of a sudden I started to cry. […] But I swear I’m crazy. I swear to god I am” (Salinger 56). Holden also contradicts himself and the way he is feeling. For example, when he goes on a date with a childhood friend named Sally, at first he confesses his love for her but later on he tells her that she is a “royal pain in the ass” (Salinger 159) This proves that while striving so hard to achieve their American Dreams, their mental health is deteriorating as showed through their mood swings.
Finally, the two characters both reach a self realization point in their life, where they make their big decisions to help themselves become their own idea of successful. At the end of the book, Willy becomes aware of the fact that his idea of the American Dream is not realistic for him to achieve and he understands that he will never reach success in the way of business and that he cannot control the lives of his sons. From this, he seeks to find an alternate solution to how he can become successful. He realizes that he is no longer able to support his family with money from sales and the money from Charley, so he begins by planting seeds in their garden with the thought of providing his family with some food. After, he comes to his final decision of how he can become successful. He decides that his 20, 000 dollars of insurance will be able to take better care of his wife and his two sons than he will be able to if he continues the way his life is going now. Throughout the whole book, it is foreshadowed that Willy commits suicide as he is suicidal from the start; “He’s been trying to kill himself. […] The insurance inspector came. He said that they have evidence. That all these accidents in the last year- weren’t- weren’t- accidents” (Miller 58), in the end, his final decision is to kill himself.
By the end of Holden’s journey in the story, he comes to realize that he is taking his life in a bad direction and that at the rate he is going, he will not be able to achieve his idea of the American Dream. He realizes that he will not be able to to be a successful student or please his parents with the way he behaves. Throughout the whole story, Holden presents suicidal thoughts and tendencies very frequently, “Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to god I will” (Salinger 263). During this time, Holden admits that he feels depressed but avoids admitting that he has many unhealthy coping mechanisms and that he needs help. His point of self realization is when he realizes that he can not accomplish his dreams at this time in his life but if he makes some changes he eligible to be very successful. At the end of the book he admits that he needs help and is admitted to a psychiatric ward for treatment. The idea of self realization for the two characters shows that they reach a point of understanding of the mental illnesses that they are suffering from as a result of their quest for the American Dream.
In conclusion, the American Dream is a common topic that appears frequently between the books Death of a Salesman written by Arthur Miller, and The Catcher In The Rye written by J.D Salinger, creating the shared idea that in striving for “the American Dream”, an individual often finds themselves worse off, and gradually, but severely affected by mental issues. Hallucinations, flashbacks, mood swings, and most importantly, frightening self-realization show that these two protagonists were not unaffected by the stress of working towards something next to impossible, almost a fantasy- the American Dream.
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