The Illusion of the “American Dream”
The phrase “American Dream” has often been ascribed to the prosperity of the United States, but the explication of this expression lacks consistency amongst the citizens in this country. The diversity of opinions comprised in the American society causes significant variation to the interpretation of this term from person-to-person. An example of these discrepancies is depicted in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In this play, Miller uses several different characters as a function to illustrate the widespread disparity of beliefs regarding the appropriate philosophy for the pursuit of happiness in America.
Willy Loman (the central character in the play) is used to represent a highly capitalistic society. On the other hand, Willy’s son (Biff) is symbolic for socialist ideals. Charlie (a longtime friend of the Loman family) exemplifies a moderate point of view between the two aforementioned ideals. By presenting three contrasting perceptions of the “American Dream,” Miller suggests that a unified view of this concept is an illusion, due to the dissimilar sentiments spanning across the United States concerning this matter.
A defining characteristic of a highly capitalistic society is the notion that success is directly related to monetary value, a concept that Willy believes is essential for the attainment of happiness in America. Miller makes the reader aware of Willy’s feelings about money early in the narration, which sets the stage for a recurring theme throughout the whole play. The first instance where Willy establishes his viewpoint about this topic is when he is talking to his wife (Linda) about a confrontation he had with Biff earlier that morning.
The argument began as a result of Willy’s irritation regarding Biff’s shortage of money: “I simply asked him if he was making any money. Is that criticism? ” (Miller 15). Questioning a person’s absence of money can often be seen as offensive, but Willy thinks this is a perfectly acceptable inquiry to broach, illustrating how important income is to him. Willy’s fixation on the obtainment of wealth endures until his death, which alludes to the mentality of a highly capitalistic society.
Another method Miller employs to depict Willy’s portrayal of an extensively capitalistic society is highlighting the characters preoccupation concerning the need to advance in a given profession. Willy feels that the path to prosperity is directly related to the status of a person’s job title. Although he hasn’t got a promotion over the duration of his sales career, Willy is steadfast in his belief, likening his aspirations to the life of the man who inspired him to become a salesman. While talking to his boss (Howard), Willy references what made him become a salesman.
He proceeds to fantasize about the last years of his role model’s life: “ And old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers– I’ll never forget—and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made a living” (Miller 81). Willy’s admiration for this man demonstrates the significance he places in status for sustained success, but it also shows flaws in Willy’s logic. Working out of hotel rooms at the age of eighty-four is an odd desire to have.
At that age, most people are retired and focused on spending time with their family. Willy’s obsession with gaining prestige alludes to the values present in an extremely capitalistic society. In contrast to Willy’s intended symbolism, the character of Biff exemplifies socialist beliefs in the American society. Not unlike Willy, Miller provides the reader with evidence of this early in the play. When Biff makes his first appearance in the narrative, several statements directed towards his brother suggests that his perception of the “American Dream” differs from that of his father’s.
He reflects on his experiences with different jobs, showing his displeasure regarding the cut-throat nature of the society he lives in: “Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of existence… And always having to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future” (Miller 22). Biff’s statements in this excerpt illustrate how he tried to mimic the example set by his father, but discovered that his efforts gained him no satisfaction.
In this passage, Biff also mentions his irritation about the lack of rest given to workers in America: “To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation” (Miller 22). It is well known that workers in socialist societies are given more time off a year, in order to rest and refresh their minds and bodies. Consequently, this statement serves to refute Willy’s beliefs, due to his readily apparent exhaustion from an excessive workload over his career. By including this passage early in the play, Miller demonstrates two opposing viewpoints pertaining to certain ideology’s present in the American society.
As the narrative progresses, Biff’s beliefs begin to solidify, creating a further rift between himself and his father, while also displaying the rift between socialism and capitalism. The culmination of this tension reaches its apex when Biff and his father get into one final argument. Biff conveys his realization that he wants no part of the ruthless world of business: “Why am I trying to become something I don’t want to be? ” (Miller 132). Biff’s statement is emblematic for not only the business world, but every other profession whose priorities lie primarily in money and competition.
Furthermore, Biff makes a statement that coincides with the socialist ideal that every worker is an integral part of a society, and no individual’s occupation outweighs another: “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you! ” (Miller 132). This statement can be perceived as Biff belittling himself and his father, but the more probable meaning is a portrayal of the idea that no man is better than his fellow countrymen. Biff’s last argument with his father only strengthens the characters intended representation, which is that of socialist ideals.
While Biff and Willy illustrate beliefs on opposite ends of the spectrum, Charlie’s character is intended to depict a view that falls somewhere in between socialism and an exceedingly capitalist society. Charlie is a small business owner, which is an occupation present in free market societies. Although Charlie’s business is a by-product of a capitalist society, he doesn’t place much stock in the accumulation of wealth or worry about his social status. Charlie is more focused on the well-being of the people close to him.
For instance, Charlie see’s that Willy is struggling to make a living as a salesman, so he offers him a job several times over the course of the play. Charlie doesn’t necessarily value Willy’s capabilities to perform the job well, but he sees a friend in need of help and tries his best to provide what aid he can. By doing this, Charlie displays compassion towards a fellow man in distress, which is a characteristic that is revered in socialist societies. Charlie’s character represents positive qualities hat accommodate both socialist and capitalist ideals, resulting in a character that should be admired. Miller’s use of these three characters demonstrates that a united perception of the “American Dream” is simply an illusion. Each character represents an ideal that is, for the most part, distributed across the United States. Considering the fact that each individual citizen in the United States has a right to believe in what they what they feel is appropriate, it is impossible to reach a consensus on a concept like the “American Dream. Furthermore, this notion pertains to any society in the world. Certain countries may not allow their citizens as much freedom to make their voices heard as in America, but that doesn’t impede on their ability to think for themselves. Human beings capacity for critical thinking is a characteristic that differentiates us from every other species on the planet. Because of this, Arthur Miller’s message isn’t applicable to the “American Dream” alone, but rather any generalized “Societal Dream” present around the globe