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  • Writer's pictureElisha Bae

The American Dream

In school, we've been reading the play, "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller. A recurring theme in the play was the idealistic view of the American Dream where the main character Willy Loman wishes to be remembered as a successful man. However, throughout the novel, I started to question whether or not the American Dream was something worth following. So I wrote an essay about the value of the American Dream both in the novel and real life.


 

A dream, in dictionary definition, is an idealistic goal that everyone hopes to achieve. The American Dream is definitely a prime example of that. However, a dream doesn’t always come true — sometimes, reality comes in between the fantasy.

The plausibility of achieving the American Dream is challenged in the novel Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Willy Loman was a passionate businessman who was willing to go far and wide to achieve the final goal — becoming a successful salesman who is respected by everyone. He wanted everyone to ‘know [him] up and down’, not just in New England, but everywhere he went. Biff Loman’s American Dream was to find his place in the world and do the things he loved to do. Happy Loman was hoping to tease and flirt his way into whatever he’d like to do. Linda Loman had the most realistic, yet the most unrealistic, dream of them all; she wanted to have a family that supported each other through all ordeals. Just by looking at the character’s motives and dreams, the readers quickly realise that the American Dream is just for show.

The dream of being a respected salesman was the very reason why Willy Loman killed himself. In the novel, Willy’s brother, Ben is a role model that inspires Willy to strive for success. Ben had ‘walked into a jungle’ and when he came through the other side, he was ‘rich’ — at such a young age of ‘twenty-one’. The readers see Willy repeating this phrase over and over again throughout the play. At first, it would just seem like a story that Willy likes to tell, but . However, if Willy based his success on the life of his brother — which he did — the readers would know that he was going to stumble downhill very quickly. Arthur Miller shows how dubious Willy’s situation is by his diction. He wrote that Ben walked into a ‘jungle’. Jungles are full of tall trees and vines that you have to cut your way through to get to the other side. This takes time and effort, as well as taking risks in life. Still, people on the outside would only see the person going into the ‘jungle’ and coming out ‘rich’, without knowing the hard process in the middle. Willy didn’t think about the hard work that Ben would have put in to become a successful man. He didn’t take risks. He thought that continuing his job would one day get him to a position of respect and fame. The jungle signifies another aspect of becoming successful in the industrialised world. When Ben was walking through the ‘jungle’, he would have had to cut down the plant life; a metaphor for making sacrifices of what is already given. Willy Loman tried his best to maintain the same life he always had but was still waiting for a change. He had been too naive about how things worked in reality. The dream he had captivated him in a world where his success wasn’t the final outcome.

Biff and Happy Loman’s dream was also quite similar. As a man at a ‘working age’, Biff would have had lots of society’s pressure to make use of his strengths and talents. Even his father didn’t approve of his work at the farm because it didn’t pay him decently. Biff knew that in order to look as if he had a successful life, he would have to ‘get ahead of the next fella’. However, he knew that the life of a businessman didn’t suit him. Biff had been the victim of society’s expectations of a young man. He admits that his family, himself included, have been ‘talking in a dream for fifteen years’. He wasn’t a valued staff — he had just been the ‘shipping clerk’, a person nobody could remember. Although Biff seemed to follow his father’s American Dream by trying to become successful in some parts of the novel, at the end he truthfully acknowledges that his American Dream lies somewhere else, perhaps in the open fields of a farm.

In Happy’s case, the situation seems to be the opposite. At the start of the novel, he seemed very sure of himself; he wasn’t afraid to be the one to initiate scandalous love affairs to get to the place he wanted. His American Dream seems to align with his father’s — he says that “com[ing] out [as the] number-one man" is the “only dream” they can have. Happy seems to be the only male character in the Loman family who seems to have grasped his goals. Even after his father’s death, when other family members were trying to figure out what to do with their life and dreams, Happy knew what he had to do. In front of his father’s grave, he states that ‘Willy Loman did not die in vain’ and that he would ‘win it for him’. One may say that he is brave to fulfill his father’s legacy, but it looks like a very fruitless thing to do. The act of sacrificing oneself to live another person’s dream will only lead to dissatisfaction of their own life. The sense of hopelessness that comes through when continuing on the dream of a man who tragically ended his life will linger in Happy’s life.

If there is one thing that the novel makes clear, it is the fact that the American Dream is just that — a dream. There is no guarantee when the dream will be fulfilled. There is also no promise that at the end of the dream will be what you were expecting. While the American Dream can be a powerful medium for aspiration, a distorted view of it can ruin your life. Biff understood that blindly chasing the American Dream would have serious consequences. To his father, he begs to “take that phony dream and burn it before something happens”. By calling the dream ‘phony’, Biff enables the readers to explore what the American Dream actually means. He noticed Willy’s inconsistency in perceiving the difference between dreams and reality and wished to break free from being a part of Willy’s dreams. To him, the amazing ‘American Dream’ was too far from the reality of his situation.

Even though the dream may just have been a mirage, there must be a reason for people to follow that dream. Some kind of reward for following the American Dream needs to be present in order for people to wish for it, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case in the novel. The characters, especially Willy Loman, had all lost something because they were blinded by their American Dream. Even so, there is one thing the American Dream gives to the people who chase it: hope. When Willy talks about the future, the time when he would retire with enough money to live a happy life, he seems to be very hopeful. He goes on to say that he is “gonna get a little place out in the country” and “raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens”. He even says that he would “build two guest houses, so [Biff and Happy would] both come”. However, the only thing about hopes given by chasing the American Dream is that it is too fragile. The great future is determined by a dream — or a delusion — and if that fails, everything will tumble down. The hope that is offered when you start to follow your American Dream isn’t worth the tragic end that may come through.

People nowadays seem to be ever captivated with the idea of the life goal, ‘rags to riches’. The American Dream seems to touch upon this popular notion. Even though the American Dream would have been based on the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson states that ‘all men are created equal and all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, the concept of it changed as time passed. In the modern world, the American Dream became a belief that anybody could climb the social ladder if they had enough determination. For people who knew that their life wasn’t made equal, mostly in terms of wealth, the free and ever-changing classes of society seemed to be the answer. That is why the American Dream is so important to people. Unfortunately, reality often looks different; a significant number of people do not achieve success in the way they want. And most people want to be successful in terms of finance. Although the American Dream should be more of a spiritual fulfillment rather than monetary success, humans are known to be selfish in terms of possession. In the novel and in the real world, the idea of the American Dream thinks highly of economic successes compared to other areas in life, such as family, culture, and education. Messner and Rosenfeld (founders of the Institutional Anomie Theory) critiques the American Dream has flaws as they ‘encourage an exaggerated emphasis on monetary achievement while devaluing alternative criterion of successes’. Willy Loman could just be another victim of capitalism. Due to the society he lived in, he believed that there was no better way to show success than becoming a rich and respected man. This went on to a point where he considered himself as only of monetary value and decided to take his own life for the life insurance money.

So, was it the people themselves who rained over their sweet dream? Yes, that would be the case shown in the novel, Death of a Salesman, as well as in society. However, the real tragedy of the play is not the fact that Willy Loman could not fulfill his dreams. In fact, chasing the American Dream doesn’t compare to the things that he missed due to his infatuation with his success. He had been unaware of the love of his family and how to appreciate them. The readers also feel empty inside, watching his quick suicide, leaving family grief-stricken. His death was supposed to give his family another chance at a more stable life but in the process, he becomes a commodity, whose value is determined with his financial worth. This takes every aspect of life left in him. By leaving this loose knot, Arthur Miller perpetually illustrates the hopelessness of chasing the American Dream.

 

What are your thoughts on the American Dream? Should people try to follow it?


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