Throughout Death of a Salesman, Miller consistently returns to what constitutes the nature of success. While the American Dream necessarily carried with it connotations of idealism and the exceptional nature of American society, Miller’s version explores the anatomy of this dream, exposing it for its faults and failures. With the play’s fateful conclusion the reader comes to recognize that the American Dream is not precisely a dream and not a guarantee. This essay explores the various means by which Death of a Salesman can be understood as an anatomy of this dream.
In Act I we are introduced to Willy Loman. While Loman demonstrates common signs of success – namely a wife, children, and a home — the reader comes to understand that his life is far from a dream. In these regards, Miller has begun the play on the cusp of the collapse of Loman’s dream. Miller uses descriptive imagery to indicate that Loman mental state is deteriorating – his eye site is said to be going bad because he drives through red lights, and he oftentimes speaks to himself. Loman’s deteriorating mental state is symbolic of his general discontent at his life, and foreshadows the eventual collapse that will occur. This general malaise is also extended into Willy’s ironically named son Happy who has strived for similar outward signs of success yet ultimately feeling empty at his core. It’s not entirely clear if Miller means for this to be a direct critique of the American Dream, or simply an insightful characterization of these characters; yet it is clear that their outlook on life is contrasted directly with Willy’s other son Biff. Biff comes to represent a sort of critique of the mainstream perspective on success. Consider Act II, when Biff states, “I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be . . . when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am” (Miller 132). In these regards, Miller is expressing the mainstream conception of the American Dream, as demonstrated by the corporate success of Bill Oliver’s office and Willy and Happy, and is contrasting it with Biff’s conception of happiness as tranquility on a farm – ultimately a more spiritual existence.
Loman is discontented at how one of his sons, Biff, has turned out. Loman has a flashback and thinks that Biff should made different choices. This has the effect of demonstrating that even when the Loman has realized his dreams of success they are punctured by discontent and a general existential malaise. An example of this is demonstrated in these frequent flashbacks. While the flashbacks function as a plot device to inform the reader of past events, they oftentimes occur during times when Loman would rather escape reality. The flashbacks also demonstrate that the American Dream took hold full force in Loman’s life as he strived towards achieving different jobs and seeing that his sons were successful. However, despite working hard during his life and following the rules of society Willy ultimately loses his salary during his old age. In these regards Miller is demonstrating one of the core elements of American society, namely that while there is the ability for individuals to find work and sustenance as they grow older and deteriorate they ultimately become useful to society.
During Act II Willy loses his job and Biff is rejected by Bill Oliver for help with his business. Willy states, “Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground” (Miller 122). While Willy is referring to buying seeds and planting something, it also demonstrates the failure of both Willy and Biff to anything lasting and substantial. Here Miller is demonstrating the dark-side of the American Dream. While many people are able to achieve their dreams of success they are nonetheless many who don’t; it seems this aspect is generally lost in discussions of the American Dream, which makes Death of a Salesman that much more penetrating an examination of it.
In conclusion, Miller’s Death of a Salesman reveals the anatomy of the American Dream. In these regards, the play exposes the dream as not the idealized version of rags to riches success that outlines many American narratives, but rather explores the true nature of the American dreams of success and explores the existential question of what happens when one ultimately reaches this potential and realizes that it is not an end in itself. Ultimately it seems that while Willy has always believed that in following these dreams of being well-liked and attractive as the ultimate pathway to success and happiness, when he finally comes to discover that there is more to life and success than a house, children, and a wife, his life collapses and results in his own self-destruction: the symbolic deconstruction of the American Dream.
The American Tradition in Literature, 12th Edition. Authors George Perkins and Barbara Perkins.