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The American Dream or Nightmare in Arthur Miller’s “Dream of a Sales Man.”
“Death of a Salesman” is a dramatic play which was written by Arthur Miller in 1948. The play uses different themes to show how daily life is usually demanding for everyone. Education and great successful careers are some of the expectations placed on everyone by society. Everybody is expected to do something that will prove important in the community’s eyes; pass examinations, make a career out of one’s talent or study, and come out with a great career example, be a lawyer. The play uses the thematic approach of the American dream, which seems like a nightmare in this particular play. The American dream is that everyone can be successful or have a success story despite where they come from. One has to sacrifice, work hard, and take risks to achieve the American dream. This is the sole theme in this play that shows everyone sees the importance of financial success and material things rather than the satisfaction and fulfillment of doing what one loves. However, the dream is not always a successful life; it has a dark side.
The primary character, Willy Loman’s dream, is pushed by the successful life that his late brother, Ben, achieved. Lowman believes that any good-looking, well-liked, and charismatic man deserves to succeed in life and naturally become successful without much hassle. He wants to be liked by people so much that he keeps asking his sons if he is liked and if others are liked. “Bernard is not well-liked, is he?” (Miller 20). He asks his son as a way of reassuring himself because “he wants, beyond anything, to be ‘well-liked’, for without that, he fears he will be nothing at all” (Miller, Introduction 6). During his lifetime, Loman and his sons do not achieve the standards of this dream. Biff becomes a farmhand, after refusing to go to college, a job that his father loathes and is always angered by “How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand?… It’s more than ten years now and has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!” (Miller 5). Happy, his other son, works as an assistant in a department store and hates his job. Although he has a pretty good job, he is yet to reach where his father regards himself as successful.
The American dream changes into a nightmare not when Lowman fails in achieving financial success, but when he dives into the dream and ignores the most important thing, the love of his family. He commits suicide for his family to get 20,000 dollars in the life insurance policy while forgetting that his wife and sons will feel the emptiness after he is gone. He talks about the policy to his late brother Ben and how, after his death, the policy will be honored, and his family will receive the money (Miller 100). Loman sacrifices himself so that his family can receive his life insurance. This shows that although the American dream is a great way to push people to aspire and aim for greatness, it can also turn a person into a “thing” that only gets valued for being financially successful and being worthy of people’s praise for supporting and fending for their family. That was the side of the dream that Loman chose, which made him end his life leaving his wife lonely. He only focused on being somebody and paying off his mortgage, which led to his tragic end.
Loman admires and wishes to be like his older brother Ben, who is an embodiment of the American dream. He starts from nothing and later succeeds. “William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen, when I walked out I was twenty-one. And by God I was rich.” (Miller 33). Loman envies his brother and wants to be more like him. “He stresses his success and material reward in Ben” (Zhao, 124). He does not see that his brother does not seem genuinely happy with his status. He only wants to be a successful salesman, make money, and be popular. He tells Howard about Dave Singleman, telling him about what really being a salesman is, staying in it for long and being respected (Miller 61). His distorted dream of only being charming can make him successful even without hard work makes it hard for him to make it in life because he focuses on being liked and popular, something his brother did not do. Ben found himself in Africa and worked towards his own dream. He admires his brother but does not necessarily do what his brother did, working hard. Ben also tries to discourage him by saying that his policy might not be honored after his death as a means or showing him that it is not the only way to save his family.
The tragic death of Willy Loman is also the tragedy of the society and those pursuing the American dream, which the play attempts to define and also criticizes at the same time (Stanton 156). After his father’s death, Biff talks about how his father had wrong dreams, and also he did not know who he was. He says his words during his father’s funeral (Miller 110, 111). He realizes all these and blames his father for not being successful because he could not tolerate being bossed around by anyone. Biff seems like the only person who judges his father’s dream adequately (Bloom 50). Loman wants to be successful and admired like the legendary Dave Singleman, many people attending his funeral (which happens the exact opposite way, only five people attended) and being “well-liked.” All these achievements do not happen because firstly, he was a bit old and exhausted to be a successful salesman; second, his bad attitude and lack of friends make his funeral have low attendance. Finally, he has doubts about if people really liked him. He tells his wife that people seem to be laughing at him, and he does not know the reason (Miller 37). However, he pushes his doubts and submerges them in his dream, telling his sons that success comes from having a great personality (Bloom 50).
Loman is not able to distinguish between reality and a dream. His quest for the American dream’s ideal life makes him fail in his life because he compared his life with that of others. He follows the illusion side of the dream and not the reality side. This elusive dream leads to his psychological breakdown and, eventually, his death or his suicide. He does not accept that there can be a gap between a person’s personal success and the American dream. He ends up being a failure, and he is remorseful for failing himself and his family too. He holds on to fantasy all his life, but he never faced the fact that there was more than charisma to become successful; hard work is also required (Hawkins 50).
In “Death of a Salesman,” the American dream takes a tragic turn for the primary character and his entire family. Loman pushes his sons to feel important to everyone and focus on being liked by others more than others. He feels like a failure for not being as successful as he would have wanted, which pushes him to commit suicide so that his family can get the insurance money. He does not seem to see that his family needs him and his presence and is worried about him more than he knows. He strives to be successful and pushes his sons towards the same, but nothing happens. He commits suicide; his sons do not get better jobs or lives, leaving his wife lonely in the end. Other characters in the play also portray and achieve the dream in different ways. Howard inherits his way to success through his father’s company, and Bernard becomes successful through studies and hard work. The two versions show the different ways a dream can come into reality. Loman’s version of the dream was brought about by his brother’s success, which was achieved over a short span of time, and charisma was the only way. This desperate pursuit for the American dream brought a tragic turn around in the play.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Revised Edition. Penguin, 1996. http://www.wcusd15.org/kershaw/ENG%20302/DS%20Death%20of%20a%20Salesma %20Complete.pdf
Bloom, Harold, and Blake Hobby, eds. The American Dream. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Hawkins, Ty. “A smile and a shoeshine” From F. Scott Fitzgerald To Jonathan Franzen, By Way of Arthur Miller: The American Dream in” The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and The Corrections.” The Arthur Miller Journal 2.1 (2007): 49-68.
Stanton, Kay. “Women and the American Dream of Death of a Salesman.” Death Of A Salesman (2007): 156.
Zhao, Juan. “Corruption of the “American Dream” in Death of a Salesman: A Thematic Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Cross-Cultural Communication 6.3 (2010): 122 126.
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