The American Dream in Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is definitely the playwright's best known play, and, at the same time one of the most successful plays in the whole of the American theatre. It is easy to see why the play's main theme, as well as its main characters, would be so appealing for the American audience. First of all, Willy Loman, the hero of the story, is a salesman who virtually sacrifices himself and his family for the American Dream. The play is tragic as it as deals with Willy's disintegration under the weight of his own crushed ideal. Only too late, he realizes that all his life he has believed only in fake material values that cannot bring fulfillment. Moreover, his drama is even more poignant because he has not only himself to behold and deplore, but also his sons who have been imbued with the same ideas. Willy is obviously a victim of the conflict between the human, meaningful values and the materialist conception expressed by the American Dream. His suicide only emphasizes the dramatic irony of the play: Willy kills himself again to fulfill a material purpose, namely that of letting his family collect the insurance.
If the plot of the play is in itself dramatic, the means that Miller employs to introduce the story enhance the tragic quality. Thus, the past is constantly intermingled with the present, as Willy's bitter reminiscences are actually acted out on the stage and not merely recalled. Willy thus meditates on his empty life, which had been nothing but a lie as he himself admits: "I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been."(Miller, 94) All his life Willy believed in the core ideas expressed by the American Dream: to be liked in society and to live well is to be successful in business. Judging that a man is instantly liked if he is a successful salesman, Willy blindly acceded to the typical ideology impressed on him by the American society. To this end he sacrificed unconsciously his human part and his moral integrity. He taught the same lesson to his sons: to be proud of their business achievements only, and to value nothing else. When Biff is about to fail an important exam in school his father tells him that knowledge is not important, and that the only thing that actually matters is to be successful. The even more bitter part of the story is the fact that Willy has to admit in the end that his dream was not only wrong but also fake. Desperately clinging to the idea of success, Willy constantly deceived himself and well as his family about his own achievements. He thus told everyone that he earned a lot of money and that he was extremely popular in the cities he visited, when in fact he failed most of the times. The play thus comes as the dramatic journey of a man towards self-recognition as a human being.
It is obvious that for Willy, success has always represented the main value as well as the standard to judge himself and the people around him.
The psychological drama is thus that he has equated material success with the value that a certain human being has inside the society. This is evident in the fact that for him to be liked and to have success as a business man are one and the same: "The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates a personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. (Miller, 21) Willy Loman is thus the victim of the ideology specific to the American society during the twentieth century. In his study on Miller's play, Lois Gordon emphasizes that for Willy, the American Dream has been the only religion, replacing the moral and the human values: "In the play Willy has no traditional religion; his religion has been the American Dream; his gods have been Dave Singleman, Ben, and his father, but they are now all dead -- to the world and as meaningful values for himself."(Gordon, 278) it is also evident that the American Dream is contradictory in itself. As Gordon puts forth, Willy gives himself away to consuming dreams of success: "Willy, as victim of [the] inexorable social system which drives its men to frantic, all-consuming dreams of success, is doomed not only by their grandiosity but also by their inherent contradictoriness. And as social victim, he is given his elegy in the last scene by his friend Charley, who, ironically, by a kind of indifference and lack of dream, has succeeded within the American system."(Gordon, 282) the contradictoriness of the American Dream becomes apparent when Willy admits that he has always endeavored not to waste his life but he finds that this is precisely what he had done: "I've always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I know that all I've done is to waste my life."(Miller, 11) Another important device that Miller uses to produce a better effect is the fact that Willy wavers permanently not only between the past and the present but also between truth and lie. He often contradicts his own statements immediately after he makes them. Thus, for instance, he first expresses his disapproval of his sons that are not able to support him and the rest of the family. The next moment however, he deplores the fact that he himself can not support them and the family. Also, when he talks to his wife, he says at one time that he is well-like by everyone who knows him and then he contradicts his own opinion saying that his only problem in his business is that people do not like him very much: "I'm very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don't seem to take to me."(Miller, 23) Willy's wavering between truth and lie makes his path towards the recognition of the self even more painful.
The terrible strain of always pursuing success has kept the Loman family, especially Willy and his two sons, from knowing the truth about themselves. Linda is the only one who understands the truth about her husband and takes him for what he is: a common man. She is nevertheless all the more devoted and loving. Miller thus presents the drama of an American family that has to suffer the consequences of trying to fulfill the social exigencies. Willy begins to realize that his identity is not the same thing as his social success when he is confronted by his son Biff, who tells him they are just common man using money as a metaphor: "Biff: Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!
Willie: I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!"(Miller, 101)
Thus, Miller's play is probably along with other classical works, such as the Great Gatsby one of the most suggestive representations of the American Dream. The drama of Willy as well as the entire Loman family is appealing to the American audience because of its psychological and social realism. The American Dream forced the people to try to be what they were not, for the sake of surviving in a society that resembled a jungle: "Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!"(Miller, 105) the tragedy associated with the American pragmatism is emphasized when it becomes apparent that a man can be more…