Futility Of The American Dream In Death Of A Salesman
The 1949 play Death of a salesman is a tragedy written by playwright, screenwriter, short story, and children’s writer Arthur Miller. The play has won many awards and honors. It has also been the lengthiest play ever performed on Broadway. It has many performances in the American theatres. The story in the play is about a salesman known as Willy Loman, his wife Linda and his two sons Biff and Happy. He has many failures in his work and family but never gives up on chasing the American dream by dedicating himself to goals and dreams
At the beginning of the play we see Willy fantasizing of the days he was a successful businessman. He was well travelled and capable of giving his family a comfortable life by buying them luxury cars and other expensive items. He was very successful in that he was capable of providing for his family and keeping a mistress on the side. He fantasizes on the times when his children were young particularly Biff who was a good footballer and was liked by many people. His entrance to the University of Virginia made Willy dream of the success of his sons.
According to Willy, being liked by many people was the most important thing in his life. To ensure that he was most liked, he ensures that he upholds a successful image to both his family and friends. To him success is measured by how much a person is liked and how attractive people find him. He is very obsessed with being liked by everyone such that he goes an extra mile in his duties. This is to make him be loved and appreciated even at work. He thinks that he is very successful, as well as he is well known in the whole of New England. He also thinks that he is capable of selling more than anyone else in the company. He boasts of the days when he sold an average of one hundred and seventy dollars. This makes him feel more successful and liked by everyone. He describes his neighbor‘s son Bernard as a nerd because he is not liked by many. When Bernard comes to pick Biff to do school assignment, he discourages his son not to associate with Bernard. He claims that Bernard is not popular like his son Biff. This is because Biff is good in football (Bentley 750).
As the play progress we see the old Willy, life has turned around for him. He is not capable of travelling around a lot as a salesman. Whenever he travels, which has now become very rare it frustrates him. This is due to the fact that he was very fond of travelling and meeting new people but his age cannot allow him to enjoy that. He feels like the world is closing down on him no one likes him any more. The trip does not yield enough as he is incapable of selling like he used to. Whenever he makes a sell tour he returns without selling anything. This frustrates Willy even more as he feels like his lifestyle has changed. He is longer capable of living his high profile lifestyle he had used to.
Among the themes in the play is failure. We see how Willy has failed in many ways. His realization that he is a failure leads him to experience more hallucinations that eventually make’s him loose his job. He gets frustrated by everything, including his car for failing to reach his targeted sells. He further complains about his car, when he says “that god dam Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car” (Miller 147). He laments when he is asked to pay for the fixing of the car. All that he puts his hands to do seems like a milestone to accomplish. Take for instance the struggles he has with his car when he cannot afford to pay for the mechanic, the garden he tends to that never grows, and the on and off delusions are a sign of how much Willy is failing.
Willy sees himself fall short as a parent, his older son Biff has amounted to nothing. From the beginning, Biff started to fail in schoolwork. He refused to go to summer school and he cannot use his scholarship as he failed to graduate. He works in a farm that he later abandoned after realizing that he has no future in that field. He moves back home later when he is jobless and broke. In his marriage, the affair he had proves to him how much of a failure he is. His time and love was dedicated to his mistress more than his wife. He goes along to offer the mistress presents that were meant to be for his wife. This is seen in the fact that he offers the mistress new stockings. This is despite the fact that his wife wears the torn ones and she has to sew them to wear.
In his business, he fails to achieve the targeted goal in sales. He also cannot be able to drive himself to reach more customers. This is due to the hallucinations that affect him. This in turn resulted to Willy’s retrenchment and marked the peak of his failure. With the many setbacks he is experiencing, Willy is left with no alternative but to kill himself. By killing himself he is to give his family a second chance. He believes that after the insurance is paid, it will cover his debt, mortgage and give enough money to his family. He also thinks that this will enable Biff to start his own business. To also demonstrate how much a failure he has become, Willy goes to his neighbor Charley to borrow money to settle his bills (Hurrell 82).
Betrayal is a theme that is well illustrated in the play. The fact that Biff does not amount to anything worth seems like a betrayal to Willy from his son. From the time that Biff was young Willy had great expectation and ambitions for him. As he grew up and turned to be what Willy had not expected him to, that is becoming a failure. It frustrates his father who feels like he is being a betrayed by his son. Willy has also betrayed his love to his wife when he had an affair with the other woman. His wife Linda is aware of the affair but she is afraid to confront him. She claims she does not want to cause a row in the family. He believes that Biff betrayal is due to the fact that he caught him in bed with his mistress and hence the resentment they feel towards each other. Biff also feels that he is being betrayed by his father with the entire lies he tells him. He has been lying to him all along of how he would start a very big business. He would tell him that he will outdo his neighbor Charley. All this promises do not happen and according to Biff, this is a betrayal from his father.
The American dream of prosperity and fame is also a theme presented in the play. All a long Willy has failed to accomplish his dreams. His believes that a successful person should be well liked and attractive, a norm associated with the American dream. After getting old and no longer being capable of travelling a lot and also not achieving successful sales determines how his dream fails. He becomes a complainant on everything, a fact that is not associated with the American dream of hard work without complain. On the other hand, his brother becomes successful in the African jungle when he is left to stay there and found gold. This proves how the American dream blinds people to think that they can prosper only in America. Just like Willy, he thought he would be successful in America and hence refused to follow his brother Ben, when he asked him to follow him to Africa.
In conclusion it is clear that Willy lived a life of chasing dreams and goals that he never achieved. His life was a series of betrayal. He was betrayed even in his death when the insurance refused to pay his claim to his family. Willy was also a dreamer and he carried his dreams to his grave. This futility in chasing the American dream is best summarized by the words of his friend and neighbor Charley: “Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand. Willy was a salesman…Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory” (Miller 152). This shows that the American dream was actually nothing but a dream.
Bentley, Eric. The Play, a Critical Anthology (Chap. 9 Arthur Miller’s play “Death of aSalesman”) New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1951.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations of Death of a Salesman. 16 May 2010<http://www.questia.com/read/98104072?title=Arthur%20Miller%27s%20Death%20of20a%20Salesman>
Hurrell, John. Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesmanand A streetcar Named Desire. New York: Scribner, 1961.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Plays. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics), 1998.
Sandage, Scott. Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge: Harvard UniversityPress, 1961.