The Concept of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
More than half a century after it was first introduced to audiences, Arthur Miller’s controversial play, Death of a Salesman, is still widely discussed, analyzed and pondered by experts and casual observers alike. One key reason for this is for the many themes to be found in the play, not the least of which is that of the concept of the American Dream. This research will focus on this concept in order to not only better understand Miller’s overall work, but also the stark reality which the play depicts.
The American Dream as a Concept in Death of a Salesman
To understand the concept of the American Dream in Miller’s play is to first understand the social and economic environment of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period during which the action of the play unfolds. During that time, as the United States surged forward in the post-World War II economic boom, it was the collective national goal, as well as the goal of practically every American man, to be successful in every area of life- finance, romance, family and friends; in short, the personification of what has become known as the American Dream itself (Bloom). It was this concept-of the all around successful American male- that Miller utilized as a means of showing how the life of Willy Loman, the main character in the play, strayed so far from the American Dream that it in fact became a living nightmare for Loman, and by association and transference, his wife and children.
Career-wise, Willy Loman never gained a foothold on the American Dream; as a travelling salesman, he never was the man who was able to make the big deals that would advance him in his profession. As a matter of fact, his very name, Loman, can be interpreted as an image of Willy as “low-man” in his professional life. Willy constantly lives in a state of fear in regard to approaching his boss for the promotion that could in fact enrich his professional life; furthermore, it would be totally against Willy’s defeatist and negative nature to actually pursue a new career (Phelps), as he seems to find it more effective to dwell on the shortcomings of his past than to embrace a new future.
Regarding Willy’s family, his earliest inferiorities seem to have come from the fact that his older brother became a success in the diamond business, and Willy is a middle aged man still grasping at an American Dream that has eluded him. Ultimately, Willy also sees himself as emasculated in comparison to his sons, who express their independence from their father by pursuing their own professional paths in life, and romantic interests, seemingly exceeding anything their father could ever achieve (Bloom).
When the concept of the American Dream is mixed into Miller’s Death of a Salesman, we see it presented not as a means of advancement, but rather as a source of frustration and destruction for a man who seemingly had a dream without the drive to make the dream a reality. Therefore, in conclusion, the American Dream as a concept in this play is best viewed as the proverbial dragon that Willy Loman could never slay.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Phelps, H. C. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Explicator 53.4 (1995): 239-240.