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Corruption of the American Dream in Death Salesman

The American Dream’ is based on the ‘Declaration of Independence’: ‘We believe that all men are born with these inalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ (Thomas Jefferson, 1776). This ‘dream’ consists of a genuine and determined belief that in America, all things are possible to all men, regardless of birth or wealth; if you work hard enough you will achieve anything. However, Miller believes that people have been ‘ultimately misguided’ and Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, is a moving destruction of the whole myth.

The origins of the American Dream seem to have been rooted in the pioneering mentality of the 18th and 19th century immigrants, most of whom came to America because of a promise of a new and better life. In particular, the opportunity to own one’s land. But land ‘ran out’ and so cities developed and massive variations arose in wealth, which meant that this ‘American Dream’ changed from being a potential reality, into being a dream, like the name implies. Most of Miller’s plays are directly or indirectly about the American Dream, because ultimately this dream wasn’t going to succeed as lots of people wished. Death of a Salesman written in 1949, is a moving destruction of the whole myth.

To be hard working, honest and have ambition were the ways of the American Dream. This lead to success, wealth and in due time – power. But this dream for everyone developed, and encouraged greed, selfish behavior, pride and rivalry between one another.

Willy Loman was ‘caught-up’ in this American Dream. It causes business to develop in the world. Capitalism and also the profit motive and competitive instinct, makes Willy have a weakness in his personality. This weakness was caused by a combination of business pressures. Willy wants to prove himself through successes a salesman, but as he fails, his own life destroys him.

‘I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.’

‘Never leave a job until your sixty.’

Willy’s quotes above shows that he is insecure, and is not the successful businessman he says he is.

Miller based Willy’s character on his own uncle, Manny Newman. Miller said,

‘That homely, ridiculous little man had after all never ceased to struggle for a certain victory, the only kind open to him in this society – selling to achieve his lost self as a man with his name and his sons’ name on a business of his own.’

This explains exactly what he had in mind for Willy to be – as he was, ‘trying to achieve his lost self’.

The things that are meant to happen in business are success, wealth and esteem. This is what Ben has achieved and done. Miller stressed his success and material reward in Ben. He does this by Ben repeating himself a lot, ‘ I walked into the jungle, and when I came out I was rich.’ But Ben also has emptiness in spite of his success. In the eyes of the audience, he has no real happiness.

When Dave Singleman was mentioned, by Willy when he was trying to tell Howard what being a salesman used to be like, we only have Willy’s evidence, as all we know, this man maybe maid up in Willy’s head. But this man is a huge icon for Willy to look up to.

‘He was eighty-four years old, and he’d drummed merchandise in thirty-one states’.

Also Willy desperately wants a funeral similar to Dave’s,

‘When he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral.’

This was because Dave was greatly valued, whereas Willy isn’t, nor is he loved as much. I think that this marks Willy’s failure as a businessman. He hasn’t realised the demands of the business world. Rather than the old way of Dave Singleman’s time. Howard isn’t interested in the story of Dave. To have a successful business, it has to be efficient, sometimes having to be ruthless. Now people buy products, not for dreams or personalities. Willy said, ‘ There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear – or personality.’ In my opinion, Howard Wagner treats Will harshly, because Willy has been very loyal to the business, and has had no reward for his length of service.

‘They don’t even know me anymore.’

He has the feeling of being used by the firm, and with no gratitude.

‘I put thirty-four years into this firm…You can’t eat the orange and throw away the peel – a man is not a piece of fruit!’

He needs to believe he is ‘vital in New England’, but knows he is not; he is just kidding himself.

Biff said about Willy, ‘He had all the wrong dreams. All, all wrong, and he never knew who he was.’ Being a salesman is very unpredictable, and precarious as a living.

‘He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back – that’s like an earthquake.’ You would have to give a good impression.

Charley has realized that Willy’s view of success is seriously flawed. Charley said, ‘The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.’ And as Willy can’t sell anything, his has got nothing. Willy has lost all self-respect. Eliza Kazan, director of the original Broadway production, said, ‘Willy’s fatal error is that he built his life and his sense of worth on something completely false. This is the error of our whole society.’ Willy can’t function as a salesman, also a human being, because he’s not liked. ‘Willy’s liked, but he’s not well liked’, is the opinion of other people.

Will has been a failure in life. But he feels even more so because of the fact that success in the American Dream is supposed to be available to anyone. This figure has significantly effected his family – especially his sons. Biff is just as hopeless as Willy in a lot of ways.

The values of the city are power, brings money. Willy though has never liked the city, and prefers the country, because there is not so much pressure. He is attracted to the wild, free and open countryside. ‘The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks.’ Willy finds the city very claustrophobic.

The American Dream has been centrally built around the idea of the family. This is the spiritual side. Biff sums it up,

‘We’ve never told the truth for ten minutes in this house. The man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know!’

It is Willy’s fault the way Biff feels, ‘And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!’

Willy’s loneliness, unfaithfulness to Linda and his insecurity, leads to his affair in Boston with another women. Willy buys new stockings for this woman in Boston and makes Linda mend her own, old ones. But Linda cares for Willy a lot, and constantly tries to cover up for him and also tries to understand him.

Willy says, ‘That’s funny, I could have sworn I was driving that Chevy today.’ He is forgetting things, but Linda covers this up by saying, ‘Well, that’s nothing. Something must have reminded you.’ Should Linda have questioned his behaviour more?

Willy feels guilty for Biff, as he knows about Willy’s affair, which would have had an incredibly traumatic effect on Biff’s life. It would be devastating. Because of this, Biff went to prison for ‘steeling a suit’. Biff went onto steeling to compensate his feelings inside.

Unfortunately, Happy is doomed to repeat his father’s mistakes, with his attitude to women. He has casual relationships. He isn’t as honest as Biff at the end of the day either.

I think that these values of society – the ‘American Dream’ aren’t the only values in the play. The characters are not conditioned solely by the society they live in. They often have choices but often choose wrongly. I believe that there are three ways of viewing ‘Death of a Salesman’.

Firstly, this play is a modern tragedy. Willy is a tragic figure. The whole of his life has been totally unpredictable,

‘He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back, that’s an earthquake.’

Any man could turn against Willy at ant time, if he makes the wrong impression.

Although Will is always ‘falling’, the audience sympathise with him. John Mason Brow said,

‘Miller’s play is a tragedy modern, and personal, not classic and heroic; its central figure is a little man sentenced to discover his smallness rather than a big man undone by his greatness.’

Arthur Miller once said,

‘I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its higher sense as kings were.’

Secondly, Death of a Salesman is a play about relationships. With Willy and Linda: Willy doesn’t look after, or care for Linda as much as he should, but Linda does. ‘Linda has developed an iron repression of her expectations to Willy’s behaviour – she more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties.’ Also I think that Willy and Biff, both failures, contrast totally to Charley’s and Bernard’s success. Biff ‘flunked math’, whereas Bernard got all the correct results he needed for college. Now Biff has no job. Bernard is a top lawyer. Bernard says, ‘I’ve got a case in front of the Supreme Court.’ But Willy can’t understand why Biff isn’t as good or powerful in life, as Bernard, ‘What…what’s the secret?’ asked Willy, ‘Why didn’t he ever catch on?’… ‘After the age of seventeen nothing good ever happened to Biff.’

Bernard replied, ‘ He never trained himself for anything.’ Whereas Bernard did, he worked hard.

Willy has a worse life as a salesman, because of this ‘American Dream’. Charley has a highly paid fore filling job.

Thirdly, this is a play of original structure. Miller was going to name this play ‘Inside his head’. We can understand why because, regularly we see Willy’s ‘daydreams’, within his mind. It is a very clever way to tell the audience, what happened in the past, and why things are how they are, now in the present day. An example of this is Biff having not got on with Willy. We understand why, when we see a ‘daydream’ in Willy’s mind of what happened in Boston. Biff found out about Willy’s affair. Miller wanted to make the transitions form scene to scene seamless.

Miller said,

‘There are no flashbacks in the play but only a mobile concurrency of past and present… because in his desperation to justify his life, Willy Loman has destroyed the boundaries between now and then’.

The various lighting effects used in the play were to see how Willy felt, being in the city. He wants to be in the countryside – lighting of leaves and trees.

The music involved was clever, because some characters have different instrument and music, to help the audience to realise, in Willy’s ‘daydreams’, who it is. Willy’s was a flute. And Ben also has a distinct type of music.

The staging was clever too. No walls were in between the rooms. But when it was the present day, people walked through a doorway. But when it was in one of Willy’s ‘daydreams’ they ignored the walls. Again to allow the audience to be aware of the characters being in real life or in Willy’s ‘daydreams’.

‘Death of a Salesman’ contains much that is critical of modern American society. But, this was not Arthur Miller’s sole purpose in writing it.

Willy’s misjudgement of his failure in life is demonstrated in ‘Death of a Salesman’. He feels as though he has failed because he has no fortune to show for it, in either his or his son’s names. What he has truly failed in is his family life, and his married life. That is the corruption of the true ‘American Dream’.

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