Death Of The American Dream English Literature Essay

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Death of the American dream in Death of a Salesman

Authored by Arthur Miller, the novel "Death of a Salesman" revolves about the lives of the Loman Family and the dream Willy harbors of materialistic gains. Written in 1949, it is a ridicule of the materialistic culture of Americans. The drama attacks the conception of the American dream by Willy of harboring materialistic wealth and success as the way to achieve the dream while sacrificing personal integrity. Willy is presented as an aging salesman with a wife two sons. Willy’s disillusions and his lack of distinguishing them from reality, forms the basis of conflict in the drama. Willy is trying to reach the American dream, pegging it on the search of financial wealth and fame. The context of the play was after World War II and the Great Depression, events that left Americans distraught. Although the play critics the capitalism, competition, and greed for material wealth in the American society, it also acts as a call to reestablish the ideals of the American dream as envisioned by the framers of the American constitution.

Willy has a misconception of the American dream. Those coming to the shores of the country perceive it as a land of equality and equal opportunity, in which "each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable" (Truslow, 405). However, Willy’s perception is that the American dream is only about financial, fame and material wealth. Willy equates the pursuit of money to pursuit of happiness and business success.

Willy’s problems of trying to reach the American dream are misconstrued because of his illusions. Willy chases his illusions of the American dream and this result in conflicts and problems in his family. He does not seem content with what he has in life, and thus faces many problems. He is just a salesman trying to live a big life, instead of changing his idea of the American dream to suit his standards. He does not seem to realize that there is no standard of being rich, and whatever materialistic gain he has, he will always aim to gain more. Thus, the key to the American dream is to find self-fulfillment.

A distorted and unfulfilled dream ends tragically. Willy’s age takes a toll on him and he is no longer able to compete as a travelling saleman. He has not achieved his dream of fame and material wealth. His situation now leaves him in a position where he faces termination. At sixty years old, Willy had two sons and wife who loved him, "She more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings" (Miller 1195).

The American dream as envisioned by the framers of the constitution is still attainable. Miller wrote the play just after the World War II and The Great Depression. This was a time of economic hardships and as Benziman argues, "there was a conflict between the profit motive and the desire for individual enhancement on the one hand, and the idealistic concern for the nature of American society and its democracy on the other" (23). This conflict shaped the lives of many Americans and it is central to Miller’s play. Miller contrasts the Millers with the Charley’s who uphold the ethical and social values to achieve success. Willy is simply a salesman who does not create anything but only persuades people to buy, implying that his "occupation denotes the American loss of values and society’s submersion in a flawed ethics of consumerism, salesmanship, and fraud" (Benziman, 24). Charley on the other is a profession of the law, a profession that implies he upholds the values of the American dream such as equality, liberty, human rights, and democracy. The author uses this contrast to show that even in the culture of materialism and capitalism that is prevalent in the American society, the American dream as envisioned by the framers is still achievable.

Willy seems lost in reality and is trapped in his own disillusions. This disillusion seems to stem out of his financial situation that makes him irrational. This irrationality is also partly to blame for the failure of his business. At the beginning of the play, he seems disillusioned with life and is even suicidal. As Benziman (26) asserts, "he has been brainwashed by the materialistic and competitive values of his social and professional environment, as well as by his own choice of the particular model that he admires, his brother Ben." He only looks at the financial rewards the success in business will bring him, rather than focusing on finding satisfaction and fulfillment in what he does. His perception of the American dream leads him to failure, making his life unjustifiable and worthless in his own eyes. The playwright captures the tragic fate of the Willy in the heading of the play "Death of a Salesman." True to its heading, the salesman dies in the end.

Material gain does not lead to fulfillment. This is the idea that Miller is advocating to his audience. Willy seems misguided that when he gains a lot of money, he will find fulfillment. This results in a situation in which he does not seem to uphold family values. He has a mistress and even mistreats Biff, "Biff is a lazy bum! In the greatest country in the world a young man with such-personal attractiveness, gets lost" (Miller 1649). This shows that he is only after material gain, which in the end he does not achieve. While Willy sees the car as a means of bringing the family together, he soon realizes he is losing control of them. He now realizes that the best way to regain control is by committing suicide. He has the misconception that he is still in control since his death means that Biff will now have money to advance his dreams. However, it is evident that when he loses control of life, shame and guilt overcomes him and he decides the best way would be to end his life rather than face the disillusions. When his car breaks down, he symbolically talks about it as if referring to his life, "Once in my life I’d like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs" (Miller 1660). It is this last act of dignity that he realizes that his life has been a lie and the importance of family.

Biff realizes that whatever his father taught him was a lie. Biff comes to this realization when his father gives away his mother’s silk stockings. He feels betrayed by his father and even loses faith and trust in whatever his father had taught him, "You gave her Mama’s stockings!.. You fake" (1296). His father only seeks to make fame and fortunes in the business world and in his quest, he does not uphold his family values. He wants to emulate the richer neighbor Charley by becoming richer than him and having his funeral attended by many people. In the end however, he gains neither. Miller even sarcastically gives him the name Loman, suggesting that he a ‘low man.’ He matches neither Ben nor Charley. This leaves him disappointed, as he cannot achieve his misconstrued dreams. He hangs on to dream and eventually, the unfulfilled dream robs him of life since he cannot even admit the failure to achieve it.

The misguided American dream Willy harbors makes him make bad decisions in life. In contrast, Charlie has a different perception of life and beliefs. He ends up successful ad even tries to help Willy. However, Willy holds on to his dream believing he will succeed. He does not want to listen to Charlie when he warns him against letting his kids steal from a construction site. Willy tells off Charlie that his kids are fearless, to which Charlie responds, "jails are full of fearless characters (1112). Willy seems too stubborn to listen to the voice of reason. This shows that Willy would rather not admit to Charlie’s advice since it would be an admission that Charlie is right and he is wrong. His desperation to succeed leaves him open to ridicule. He has to beg for his job back, and even talks to himself while on the street, because his pride would not allow him to talk to anyone else about his failures. He cannot even confide to his wife because he perceives it would cause concern to her or his sons because he perceives they think he is insane.

In conclusion, the play highlights the distortion of the American dream. The American dream has been as old as the American constitution. The framers of the constitution envisioned a country in which everyone in the country would find fulfillment in working hard. While times have changed, the spirit of the American dream remains the same. However, capitalism and materialism have distorted it. This is evident with the 63-year-old Willy who perceives the pursuit of money and fame as the way to achieve the American dream. The author ridicules this thinking as Willy does not achieve his distorted view of achieving the dream and ends up dying. He harbors a dream that he cannot accomplish and this leaves him disappointed. He ignores the present, and decides to live in the past thinking about the future.