“Death of A Salesman,” by Arthur Miller, is a play that tells the story of a traveling salesman, Willy Loman, who encounters frustration and failure as he reflects on and experiences his own life. Willys quest for the American Dream leads to his failure because throughout his life, he pursues the illusion of the American Dream and not the reality of it. His mindset on perfection, his obsession with success, and his constant reminiscence of the past and foretelling of the future, all contribute to his defeat in the end.
The reality of the American Dream is that people are capable of succeeding. Success, though, requires one to work hard and be dedicated to both his/her professional life and family life. Yet, the illusion of the Dream is that attaining material prosperity defines success. Failing to acknowledge the importance of hard work in achieving the American Dream is another aspect of the illusion.
By ignoring the present, Willy fails to deal with reality. He has a tendency of living in the past and thinking of the future. He always thinks that if he had done something differently then this could have happened, or things will get better as time passes. His habit of distorting the past, never allows Willy to realize what is going on right then and there in the present. At one time, when Willy goes off down memory lane, he “says” to Biff and Happy, “America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boysthe finest peopletherell be open sesame for all of us, cause one thing boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any streetand the cops protect it like their own” (31). Willy makes this distortion of the past in order to make himself believe that he has achieved the American Dream. At times when doing this was not possible, Willy looks to the future and thinks he can still achieve it then.
For instance, he has this dream of having a big, spectacular funeral. In the end when Willy dies, at his funeral, Linda says, “Why didnt anybody comeWhere are all the people he knew?” (137). All his life, he holds on to this fantasy, but he never faces the reality of how he could have made it come true. It is his vision of the people of the past that lead Willy to follow a particular path, leading to his demise in the end.
The success attained by Willys role models, his father, Dave Singleman, and Ben, is what he envisions to be the American Dream. He only visualizes the end product, being successful, and not the process they may have gone through to achieve that success. Willys father sold flutes and made that his living. In an encounter with his thoughts of the past, Willy listens to Ben, his brother, who refers to their father by saying, “Great Inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime” (49). Willy assumes that by being a salesman, like his father was, he is automatically guaranteed success, and that it wasnt something that he would have to work for.
Material success, such as money, luxury, and wealth, and popularity are his goals and his definition of success. On the other hand, self-fulfillment and happiness through hard work is not. By only focusing on the outer appearance of the American Dream, Willy ignores the reality of the hard work and dedication required to obtain it. His constant preoccupation with being successful, being well-liked, and attaining that Dream with the “perfect” job, the “perfect” family, and the “perfect” life, never leave his mind.
The unattainable part of Willys notion of the American Dream is perfection. This illusion shadows Willy as it takes him through his life. He has this set picture in his mind of how everything should be: a good job, a high paying salary, a wonderful family with smart kids and a perfect housewife, being well-liked, being happy, and having no problems at all. Because Willy has this perception of how life should be, any entity that does not fit his viewpoint, turns out as this huge ordeal. This obsession of perfection is a reason for why, in reality, he did not have a happy family. By trying to make his family fit the image of the American Dream, he actually caused their unhappiness. Failing at this attempt of “perfecting” his family is just one example of Willys many mistakes. Due to the fact that he is a so-called perfectionist, accomplishment is never evident to Willy. Once he reaches any “goal”, he never sees the good in it, instead he only sees what he could have done better. Perfection is just a figment of the imagination, an elusive illusion, just as the American Dream is in Willys mind.
Willy Loman portrays a “common man”, who lives a life that is purely an illusion. Although Willy has good intentions, his tragic flaw is that he focuses only on the appearance of the American Dream and never on the reality, the work ethic, or how to achieve it. Willy brings about his own downfall, his defeat, because he tries to pursue this “superficial” idea. Miller includes this theme of the American Dream in his social criticism in an attempt to portray the deviation in the values of society. For instance, materialism and technological advances, causes the American Dream to change as times changes. The salesman is a position that has declining importance at the time. He shows that an individuals values are based on what society has established. Yet, as society changes, the values one has may not, causing conflict between the society and the individual.