The Theme of American Dream in the Death of a Salesman Essay Example
Isaac Newton once said, “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” While this law of motion may be referring to physics, it can also be true of human ambitions. Each individual’s idea of the American dream is shaped by factors which ‘act upon them’ by way of their families or what society asks of them. For example, children raised in wealthy, upper-class families tend to stay in the upper class unless acted on by laziness or lack of drive. Children raised in poor, lower-class families tend to stay in the lower- class unless acted on by personal aspiration or an eye for enterprise. In the case of Happy and Biff Loman, children raised in dishonesty and fraud tend to stay frauds. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the Loman family’s unconventional ideas of how generations should interconnect destines them to follow this pattern as the family grows and chases their own American Dreams.
There is no strong sense of role as parent and child in the Loman family. They use casual names to refer to one another several times throughout the play. For example, rather than referring to his wife by a playful pet name or her name itself, Willy says “You’re the best there is, Linda, you’re a pal, you know that” (Miller 25; act 1). Beyond this, Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, don’t refer to their father warmly. Instead, they use “Pop”. In Daniel Thomieres’s article, “All Is Not Gold”, he comments on this by saying that the name Pop “is almost not a name, but rather something like an onomatopoeia, or, worse, a palindrome, that is to say, that the word possesses a mirror structure, as if Willy’s relationship to his sons could never escape a (deadly) specular logic”. (Thomieres).
This illustrates that Willy allows this lack of affection from his children. Willy yearns to be well liked both by his children and in the business world. He mentions the value of being ‘well-liked’ on numerous occasions, such as, “Oh, I’ll knock ‘em dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me” (Miller 24; act 1). He mentions it again when criticizing his own family: “...Because Charley is not — liked. He’s liked, but he’s not — well liked (Miller 19; act 1). This in part may be because Willy’s father was not present for the majority of his life.
Willy’s father abandoned him when he was a toddler, and inadvertently, it had a major impact on how he would live out the course of his life. Willy is blatant, however, on how he feels about the abandonment itself: “...well, Dad left when I was such a baby and I never had a chance to talk to him and I still fell—kind of temporary about myself” (Miller 33; act 1). While Willy acknowledges that he had an unorthodox upbringing himself, he has turned that around to raise his own children unconventionally. The disappearance of a father manifests in many ways in children. Willy’s father’s disappearance could have made him realize how important having a father really is, and in turn making him a very present, very purposeful father. However, he did not take this avenue. Thomieres shows this when he says, “Willy knows that he has always felt ‘kind of temporary about himself’ ever since his father abandoned him. He cannot be part of the continuity of time in which generations follow one another” (Thomieres). Despite his efforts to be present and loved by his family, he raises his children to be dishonest, leaving them with no adequate example of how to lead the rest of their adult lives by taking his own. Willy follows in his father’s footsteps and his own sons are likely to follow in his.
Throughout the play, both boys have a skewed sense of identity. Theodore E. Zorn illustrates this in his essay, “Willy Loman’s Lesson”, when he says, “For most of the movie [play], Biff’s identity is not clear—even to him. Thus, when he waits six hours for Bill Oliver, ‘I thought a lot about who I am’. Similarly, Linda says repeatedly that he is ‘finding himself’” (Zorn 222). Not only does this illustrate the pox left on him from his father, but Miller also uses Biff’s indecisiveness to represent the younger generation’s idea of the American dream. Biff is young and inexperienced in the workforce. The younger generations in the forties and now seem to follow a similar construct. They are people of ambition who lack the means to carry out their goals. Biff’s life could’ve taken a different route, but instead, he is left with a false sense of identity: “And then he gave me a look and—I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years” (Miller 76; act 1). Biff is reflecting on the events in his life and realizing that the world doesn’t function the way their father taught them it would.
The other Loman son, Happy, is doomed to orchestrate his own life in an equally destructive way. Happy feels alone, lost, and lustful, and these are not character traits that Miller stylishly conceals. Happy talks about his feelings when he says, “I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely” (Miller 13; act 1). Happy is leading a life, that on the surface seems fruitful and desirable, but beneath his façade, he has built around himself, he is a fraud much like his father. Happy deceives and has sexual relationships with engaged women. Because he has already at a young age driven himself so deeply into his sharp practice, Juan Zhao in “Corruption of the ‘American Dream’ in Death of a Salesman’” says, “Unfortunately, Happy is doomed to repeat his father’s mistakes, with his attitudes towards women. He has casual relationships and isn’t as honest as Biff at the end of the day” (Zhao 3). The author recognizes that both boys have undesirable faults of their own, but Happy got the short end of the stick when it comes to taking after his father.
It could be said that Willy’s attitudes towards his sons, wife, and life, in general, were entirely manufactured by his abandonment as a child. However, this cannot be solely to blame. It is clear that Willy’s father leaving him had an impact on him internally, as stated above. However, it also vastly impacted the evolution of his mental state. In “Death of a Salesman, Life of a Jew” by Bert Cardullo, he says, “The evidence in the play for Willy’s psychopathy is plentiful, so much so that it has led to his being diagnosed as manic-depressive before the age of anti-depressant drugs” (Cardullo 2). It is clear to the reader that Willy is suffering from a sort of noticeable mental instability. He escapes by ingesting fumes in his basement: “I was looking for a fuse. The lights blew out, and I went down the cellar. And behind the fuse box — it happened to fall out — was a length of rubber pipe — just short” (Miller 42; act 1). He also has tried to commit suicide or is considering the act: “...and then deliberately smashed into the railing, and it was only the shallowness of the water that saved him” (Miller 41; act 1). It is also evident in the way he treats his wife, his children, and himself. Even if Willy had admitted that he needed some sort of psychiatric help and medication had been available, his pride would have come between himself and his salvation.
Willy chases his American Dream to no avail in Death of a Salesman. His shortcomings in business defeat him beyond working harder, and his difficulty as a father left him feeling disliked. It ultimately culminates to his suicide at the end of the play: “As the car speeds off, the music crashes down in a frenzy of sound, which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string” (Miller 102; act 2). An outside force has acted upon Willy, and Biff and Happy are the objects left in motion. They were taught dishonesty. They were schooled in deceit. The motion they were set in since childhood was the idea that forcing your way to the top of the success ladder was essential. Unless they come to a different conclusion and develop their own dreams, this is the motion they are doomed to stay in.