Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Specifically it will examine the connection between the Loman family and American culture. William Heyen's essay, "Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and the American Dream" analyzes Willy and compares him with some of Arthur Miller's other characters. Ultimately, the essay describes the play's intricate images of the American dream, a dream that may seem old-fashioned today, but was the heart of American optimism in the 1940s, when this play was written. Heyen writes, "The American dream is rural, not urban, and the perfect world is out there somewhere, and when we can't find it out there ahead of us, we go back to the elm-shaded past" (Heyen 54). Miller alludes to this "elm-shaded past" often in this play, from Willy's desire to plant a garden like the one he used to have, to his reminiscing about the elm trees that used to line their street. Ultimately, Heyen believes that the play represents the American dream and dreams in general, and that dreams, if attained, leave nothing to reach out and strive for in our lives. The American dream then, is the center of the play, and the center of Willy's life, but it is the American dream of success in business and thus wealth. For Willy, a small time salesman at best, attaining it is impossible, but the goal is in the dream, not in finally finding it and discovering it is not what you thought it would be at all. Heyen's view of the play is complex, but it centers on Willy and Willy's dreams. Willy's dreams are still applicable in today's world, even though Willy is outmoded in his own world. His dreams are what has given his life meaning, and when they are shattered, Willy's life is shattered, as well. He chooses death over life, and dies believing he has made a difference in his family's life (the ultimate American dream), but sadly, just as he was thwarted in his own dreams, his death is as meaningless as his dreams turned out to be.
Willy's dreams are not dreams of equality and family love, his dreams are all about his own success and wealth, something that has eluded him his entire life. Biff, his son understands this, and says near the end of the play, "He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong" (Miller 1054). He believes he has been a success in the past, (even though it seems this was not really the case), and he refuses to take another job when it is offered. He says, "I can't work for you, that's all, don't ask me why" (Miller 1043). Willy could (and should) have taken the job, and at least made an attempt to keep his family together, but like so many decisions in his life, he makes the wrong choice, and instead kills himself. He makes many poor choices throughout his life, basing them on his false and "wrong" dreams, and all these choices come back to bother him as he grows older.
Willy's view of the American dream includes his sons' success, as well, and he realizes that they are no more successful than he is. This is as difficult for him to accept as is the fact that essentially, his career is over, and he has accomplished nothing throughout his many years of selling. Willy says, "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 1043). Willy is more dead than alive because he has always let his dreams get in the way, but he is never able to bring them quite to fruition. Another critic defines the American dream of today (and Willy's day). He writes, "The original premise of our dream of success - popularly represented in the original boy parables of Horatio Alger - was that enterprise, courage, and hard work were the keys to success. Since the end of the First World War this too has changed. Instead of the ideals of hard work and courage, we have salesmanship" (Clurman 133). Willy's views of himself and his worth all revolve around his abilities as a salesman. He lies to his boss, "In 1928 I had a big year. I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions" (Miller 1039). Even as he is leaving his profession he has to make himself sound better than he was, so he can reach that goal of salesmanship above all else.
Critic Heyen also maintains that the American dream in its oldest form was rural, not urban, and Willy emulates this old-fashioned idea of the American dream in his desire to plant a garden and see the old elms that used to line their street. He writes, "Willy's lost elms, the horrible tearing scene in which he attempts to plant seeds, Biff's desire to work out in the open with his shirt off, the picture of Willy's father banging around the country in a horse-drawn wagon -- these are truths of the American heart" (Heyen 54). Thus, Willy is a common man of the 1940s; he is a blend of the old, traditional American values of hard work and decent living, and the new values of wealth and salesmanship. He has a foot in both worlds, and he is torn by where to place his ideals and dreams. Ultimately, he becomes a man of his time, and ends up dreaming for the wrong things at the wrong time. Willy just cannot seem to get his life together no matter what he does, and since he continually makes the wrong choices, he ends up backed into a corner with nowhere to go but into a tree.
Willy makes up the bulk of the play, but his family is an important piece of the puzzle, as well. His wife, Linda, is not a complex character, and even though they have been married for decades, she does not seem to understand Willy. She says at the end of the play, at his grave, "Why did you do it? I search and I search, and I can't understand it Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home" (Miller 1054). She has a simplistic view of the world, and she has always supported Willy in her own way, but not in the way that Willy obviously needed. He has an affair with "The Woman," and still, Linda stays with him. However, she does not seem to encourage him any more, only agree with him, and it is quite clear that Willy needs a lot more than agreement. He has powerful ideas, but not very many people around him understand them, or even make the effort to understand them. In that, Willy is all alone even though he has a family surrounding them, and that is another aspect of the American dream and society in this play. Willy is part of a society that really does not care about him or his family, but somehow, he expects society to care. He expects his boss to keep him because he has done a good job throughout his life, and he expects his sons to be successful because that is what sons are supposed to do. However, Willy is usually disappointed by society, and so, in effect, he is basing his American dream on a society that does not care, so he sets himself up for failure the moment he sets out to find that dream and make it come true. Critic Clurman continues, "This leads to a behavior pattern which is ultimately doomed: not necessarily because of the economic system of which it is the human concomitant, but quite simply because a man is not a machine" (Clurman 133). He maintains Willy's death mirrors the death of salesmanship in our society, but even more, it symbolizes the death of the American dream, no matter what dream that is, and who is dreaming it.
Perhaps the saddest part of this tragedy is that Willy cannot learn from his mistakes. That is why he turns down the job offer, does not communicate with his family, and ultimately chooses the most painful and permanent way to end his problems. Critic Clurman says, "Willy Loman never acknowledges or learns the error of his way. To the very end he is a devout believer in the ideology that destroys him" (Clurman 154). He cannot see that society and the American dream are against him, and he has to let them go in order to survive. Survival is not his prime motivation, money and the "right" thing are his motivation, so he believes that the insurance money will do what he could not - take care of his family. He never learns, and that is also the mark of a tragic and flawed hero.
While the play represents the American dream and how it has changed in American society,…