Throughout the course of American mythology and literature, there is a curious persistence of the concept of the American dream. From the very beginning of western influence on the continent, groups of people have constantly flocked to the land in search of a fabled life better than their own. Even among natural born citizens, there exists a belief that life can become whatever a person desires, as long as they work hard. Playwright Arthur Miller frequently wrote about and depicted this ideology. Through his play Death of a Salesman, Miller denounces the American dream as impossible and unrealistic for society as a whole, due to its vague nature and definition, destruction of social relationships, blind insistence in hope, and ultimate irrelevance to future culture.
In general, the idea and aim of the American dream is vague and therefore hard to quantify. Based on the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, the idea focuses on the three tenants of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Juan). Such concepts themselves are vague and malleable, as demonstrated by the constant legal debates and disputes regarding legislation and judicial decisions meant to define these rights. These concepts become even less certain when defined by amorphous bodies, such as culture, business, and society. Additionally, the ideas of the value of success and the methods of achieving it vary from person to person (Jacobson 255). Consequently, what constitutes success for one person, whether it is a monetary value, level of respect, strength of social connections, or a combination of all three, will invariably differ for the next person. Even if their criteria for measuring success is the same, chances are that two different people have different levels to attain in order to consider themselves a success due to the mere diversity of people and their origins.
For Miller, the pursuit of the American dream seems to inevitably destroy the social relationships which motivate success. For example, in order to satisfy his loneliness, Willy Loman sleeps with a co-worker and ruins his relationship with Biff when the latter discovers this situation (Miller 86). This desire could be classified as an offshoot of the pursuit of happiness; however, by fulfilling that need, Willy jeopardizes his happy family and relationship with his favorite son. Such is also the case for one of Willy’s idols, his brother Ben. In order to make his wealth and his fame, Ben used all his resources, including his social and familial connections, as means to increase his profits and his power (Jacobson 250). By utilizing this viewpoint, Ben demonstrated his possession of and skill with making and finessing social relationships. However, his use of people borders on the sadistic, as they have little meaning in his life beyond increasing his tremendous wealth. These two contrasting examples only prove that true success in either social connections or wealth often means destruction in the other category.
Additionally, Willy’s delusions from trying to reconcile these two parts of his life only lead to a perceived falseness in his emotional well-being. As Willy continues to put on a show of success for his sons, he continues a pattern of insincere theatrics that ultimately ruin their perception of normality and success in the world (Most 549). As such, Willy perpetuates a habit of insincerity that ultimately deludes his position in his journey towards success, as well as his social status. Unfortunately, by passing this deception onto his sons as a normal behavior, Willy guarantees that they will have a harder time understanding and coming to terms with success, the cost of pursuing the American dream, and their own identities. This tragic combination of situations best comes to light near the end of the play when Biff states that Willy did not know who he was and Happy retorts that he will personally see that he becomes the “number-one man” in his father’s memory (Miller). Such an interaction demonstrates the contradiction evident in these two sons’ understanding of their father. Unfortunately, though Biff finally understands the flaw in his father’s lifestyle, there is no lesson learned about how to correct it and move on.
Equally as troubling is the unbridled and unrealistic hope evident in Willy’s dreams, which ultimately lead to his break with reality and death. In the uncertainty of the future, one can use hope either as an opportunity to constantly improve or as means of filling the time until one’s death (Stivers 227). With such a choice, it is fairly obvious which branch Willy chose. However, this boundless optimism is, by its very nature, founded on a lack of evidence and reasoning. Thus, by continuing down this line of thought, one could become entirely detached from relate, as Willy became when he started imagining situations which had already occurred. His lying ultimately leads to his loss of remaining self by the time of his restaurant and potential end of his existence (Most 557). As such, not only does the character lose touch with real conditions but the lying ultimately undermines his character. This loss not only proves tragic for Willy’s mental stability, but also for his continued existence.
Unfortunately, Miller’s cautionary lessons about the dangers of striving for the American dream seem to have fallen on deaf ears. As a play about the average working class man trying to elevate his financial and social status to that of his dreams, Death of a Salesman often does not even play to sympathetic audiences but rather to one has reached a higher level of wealth necessary to afford Broadway tickets (Siegel). True, the same desperation to gain financial improvement exists as prices keep rising, but the patrons are generally more than just common people. Instead, they are the ones who can afford the extravagances of seeing a commercial show with an innovative design and big name stars. In contrast, the average person which Miller wrote about was one that manages to pay off the house after several decades and can survive with just a modest salary, as Linda attests in the Requiem (Miller). That kind of people would not be able to afford hundreds of dollars today just to see a show. Instead, they would use their time to better make sure that their family had all the basic necessities and that they worked hard. A modern audience probably would not be able to understand this desire in the age of instant gratification.
As the writer of the best known classic American tragic, Miller has the opportunity to make his social criticism concerning the American dream well known to large number of theatre goers, students, and readers in general. Through the actions and downfall of Willy Loman and his sons Biff and Happy, he highlights the impracticalities of this concept, namely its vagueness, destruction of social bonds, and sheer lack of foundation in pursued in blind hope. Ultimately, however, this cautionary tale has lost some of its impact when performed in commercial theatre to those of considerable financial means. However, perhaps if it is continually taught persistently in schools, maybe Death of a Salesman could have some success in debunking the myth of unbounded universal success.
Jacobson, Irving. “Family Dreams in Death of a Salesman.” American Literature May 1975: 247-258. Print.
Juan, Zhao. “Corruption of the ‘American Dream’ in Death of a Salesman: A Thematic Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Cross-Cultural Communication 2010: 122-126. Print.
Most, Andrea. “Opening the Windshield: Death of a Salesman and Theatrical Liberalism.” Modern Drama 2007: 545-564. Print.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman 1949. PDF document.
Siegel, Lee. “Death of a Salesman’s Dreams.” The New York Times Opinion Pages. 3 May 2012: A31. Print.
Stivers, Camilla. “The Ontology of Hope in Dark Times.” Administrative Theory & Praxis Jun. 2008: 225-239. Print.