In the light of critical opinions discuss Miller’s exploration of the American Dream in Death of A Salesman in relation to the characters of Willy and Biff Loman. Focus upon the ideas of success and failure within the American Dream in relation to Miller’s portrayal of Willy’s idolisation of Biff and the effect this has on Biff’s life.
The term ‘The American Dream’ by its very nature is an unrealistic phrase. The use of the word dream reflects the fact that although it is an aspirational concept it may not actually be achieved by the majority of the American population. Some may argue that it is a dream born of a system, which aims to exploit the hardworking people of America. In his critique of Death of A Salesman Leonard Moss states ‘Is he (Miller) not attacking in short, a system that is geared to exploit the common man?’? There are clearly instances within the play where the writer suggests it is impossible for Willy to achieve the dream. Although the concept of the American Dream is thought to result in equality amongst a nation of immigrants, it may be perceived as being dictatorial. This is because it is telling Americans how to live their lives and although one objective of the American Dream may be to achieve freedom, it may in actual fact be oppressing those in pursuit of it.
The American Dream is explored throughout Death of A Salesman. Willy deludes himself into thinking that the American Dream is easy to obtain and will result in success for him. He believes that it will all come to him easily and that he is deserving of it. But realistically, he pins his hopes on the American Dream so much that it is the reason behind his demise. Willy’s faith in the American Dream remains strong although his own son confronts him with reality by saying “Will you take that dream and burn it before something happens?” (Page 102 Act 2). As one critic states, ‘the play romanticizes the rural-agarian dream but does not make it genuinely available to Willy’?. This implies that the American Dream has a purpose to lure Americans into a false sense of security believing that they can achieve the American Dream and financial success. This can be seen in the play as Willy fully believes in the concept of the American Dream but he doesn’t have any hope of achieving it. The play focuses on the American Dream and emphasizes what is perceived as success. Biff describes his desire to work in the country and be free “We don’t belong in this nuthouse of a city! We should be mixing cement on some open plain…” (Page 43 Act 1) whereas Willy’s perception of success leads him to believe that he will automatically receive fame and fortune through commercial success. In contrast Biff wishes to live a simple life like that of the pioneer figure in the American Dream myth.
This brings us to ask another question: What can be defined as success in the American Dream? For some it could mean that hard work and endurance results in financial security, acceptance and quality. The idea of success is very ambiguous as it could have different meanings to the individuals who want to achieve it as their lives are individual to them. ‘The whole life of the Loman family is dominated by this man’s idea of ‘success”?. Willy is in constant pursuit of the American Dream. Willy believes as long as he appears confident he will be liked by other people and that they will be buying into him as opposed to his products “Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead!” (Page 20 Act 1). He bases his work ethic on a successful salesman who had many people come to his funeral as he was very popular. However, at Willy’s funeral, he proves to be almost entirely friendless. Willy has deluded himself into thinking that he is so popular and well liked but it is suggested that self interest in society prevents emotional attachments.
A key example of success is Ben. Willy is living in Ben’s shadow as he is the successful brother. He had the opportunity to go to Alaska with Ben but declined to stay in America. Ben was part of a team that discovered diamonds in the jungle and consequently earnt a fortune from this. Biff wants to soul search and find his place in society, but at the age of 34 he has not yet done so. Although, as a child, Biff appears to be popular and successful he finds that he cannot conform to society and is still trying to find somewhere he fits in. Biff challenges his father’s expectations of him by asking “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” (Page 99 Act 2). Miller is perhaps suggesting that economic instability results in the repression of individuality.
Willy pins all his hopes on Biff. ‘Willy Loman suddenly sees how deeply his own son could care for him. This discovery pushes him to the final extreme of his illusion, crying out: ‘That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent!’ and: “Ben, he’ll worship me for it!”‘?. He spots the potential in Biff and then begins to live his failed dreams through Biff. He puts a lot of pressure on Biff to succeed. This damages their relationship and may also have resulted in Biffs kleptomaniac tendencies (possibly a sign of rebellion). Biff initially appears to be the all American boy who is capable of achieving the American Dream but the play shows how the most promising of people can ultimately turn out to be nothing in life
‘Richard J. Foster states ‘Biff, who in the play as an amplification of reflection of Willy’s problems, has been nurtured on Willy’s dreams too. But he has been forced to see the truth”?. Willy idolised Biff when he was a child as he seemingly had everything and the potential in life to succeed. Willy tries to make himself a better person by making Biff successful. Subconsciously, Willy has realised that he has failed in life and will not achieve the American Dream, yet he fails to publically admit this; both to himself and his family. Biff is able to see that neither he nor Willy can achieve the American Dream and tries to let Willy know this indirectly “Biff realizes Willy had the wrong dreams. In accepting the truth about his father, Biff is able to make a decision about his future based on a realistic view of his capabilities”?. He rebels from his father’s ideals of success and ways of life and this could possible be a way in which he is trying to tell his father that they cannot achieve the American Dream.
The theme of unconditional support between father and son is explored in the play. “The character of Willy Loman is the “the little salesman with a pathetic belief in his worthless son”?. As Willy is living his dreams through Biff, his love for Biff is great. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get Biff to accomplish something in life. When Biff is failing in Maths, Willy encourages him to cheat, and this represents the lengths that Willy would go to, to help Biff. “That’s because he likes you. If somebody else took that ball there’d be an uproar” (Page 17 Act 1). Willy almost encourages Biff’s bad behaviour and excuses it because of his popularity. Willy’s father left him when he was a child. Moreover, he left no money or legacy to be passed onto Willy and Ben. This may have been the point in Willy’s life in which he began to suffer a social injustice as he felt determined to make something of himself to pass onto further generations to free them from the hardship that he suffered. As Willy does not achieve this Biff is his last hope of having success associated with him. Because his father left him as a child with nothing, he is determined to get Biff to achieve something so that the Loman name is held with high regard. The name Loman is somewhat ironic as its individual components are ‘low-man’. This is significant in the play as it represents the common man and someone of low status who may be stereotyped as being unsuccessful in life and will amount to nothing.
The lack of success and achievements in Willy’s life have resulted in shifts between the past and present in his mind. The shifts between past and present represent a time when Willy’s life was promising and the American Dream was attainable. They also symbolize the irrational state of Willy’s mind. He is stuck in the past as it comforts him in times of trouble. He reminisces over, what seemed to be, his prime as both a salesman and a father. When the play is performed, it appears to be very rational and realistic when Willy walks through a wall for example, and this signifies how real these shifts are in Willy’s mind. They show the irrational mental state of Willy. Willy is confused about where he is going in life and his mind is in a state of confusion.
The shifts between past and present may indicate his inability to cope with his life in the present and moreover may be a way for him to escape his troubles in the present day. ‘Willy is the dreamy salesman whose imagination is much larger than his sales ability’? and this relates to the shifts between past and present. His imagination may lead him to a world in which he has no fears and feels that his life is fulfilling. In contrast to this, the language he uses is very simplistic. Willy expresses himself through statements and clichï¿½s that are repeated so frequently that they border on monotonous with one example being “I’ll make it all up to you Linda, I’ll -” (Page 25, Act 1) The shifts also reveal the truth, which is not distorted by Willy’s perceptions of events. This is a key aspect in the play as the rest of the play is influenced by Willy or Biff’s take on events. The shifts between past and present are an example of expressionism in which Miller explores the psychological state of Willy.
A number of motifs are present in the play which are used to represent American materialism. One of which are the stockings. When Willy has a flashback into the past he is with The Woman who he has bought new stockings for. However, in the present Linda is mending her stockings. This epitomizes Willy’s inability to provide for his family. An additional motif demonstrating the same point is the fridge. The use of both of these points shows that Willy has been stripped of his masculinity.
The flute is used extremely effectively as an expressionist device in Death of A Salesman. It expresses the mood of the play at a particular moment. At the start of the play “A melody is heard, played upon a flute” (Page 1 Act 1). The flute gives a feeling of spring and optimism, generally a joyous tone. There is a sharp contrast between the innocence of the initial melody and the description of Willy’s house which is overshadowed by “an angry glow of orange” (Page 1, Act 1). The flute is significant in the play as it focuses on stages in Willy’s life and notifies the audience of the nature of the scene. The audience is informed that Willy’s absent father played the flute and at this point “new music is heard, a high rollicking tune”. This might imply that Willy’s father was a happy go lucky salesman and it lays emphasis on the fact that Willy is not, adding to his many insecurities. The flute is quite sombre/sinister towards the end of the play. Willy commits suicide “as the car speeds off the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string” (Page 105, Act 2).
The final concept to consider is failure in the American Dream. Is the individual or the system to blame for the failure of the American Dream? It could be argued that if the individual is gullible enough to be taken in by the American Dream, they have no-one to blame but themselves if they fail. Failure in the American Dream may represent the naivety of the American population. ‘The system is not the one to blame; Willy can only blame himself for not becoming what he wanted to be’?. This supports the idea that the American Dream exists but it can only be achieved if the individual adapts the American Dream to their life and is willing to work hard to achieve it.
Denial plays a key part in Willy’s lack of success in achieving the American Dream. He refuses to acknowledge that he is a failure. An example of this in the play is where Willy says that he’ll buy a new tape recorder (like the one Howard has) even though he is fully aware that he has no money to pay for it. “The Loman’s have unrealistic ideas of success. To Willy, the foundation of success is not education or hard work but rather ‘who you know and the smile on your face’?. Willy is a proud man who doesn’t want others to perceive him as a failure, as this would force him to confront reality, whereas he prefers to live in a world where he conceals his problems and keeps a false pretence that everything is fine. Biff, like Willy, ignores aspects of reality that do not fit in with his ideals “You’re a – you’re an idealist!” (Page 11 Act 1). Some may argue that the system is to blame but ultimately he creates his own destiny. Faith in the system motivated him throughout his life but towards the end it left him “tired to the death” (Page 2 Act 1)
Craig M. Garrison The System and the American Dream *DEATH OF
A Salesman* (Online) http://playwrites.net/salesman1.html
Bamber Gascoigne (1962) Twentieth Century Drama. Hutchinson &Co.
K. Linderholm (1995) The American Dream. (Online)