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Parody of the American Dream in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman

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Death of a Salesman as Parody of the American Dream  

 
In 1949 Arthur Miller wrote the play, Death of a Salesman. The play is a parody on the concept of the American Dream. The aim of this essay is to explain in what ways this statement can be said to be true. But at first; what is the American Dream? Well, if you are an American and if you have a family, a house and a car, a decent job with a good salary and if you consider yourself to be surrounded by people who respect you for who you are, you can be said to have reached the American Dream. The concept of the American Dream became a popular idea during the nineteenth century when millions of people immigrated to America in search of better lives. At that time, a better life could mean a cottage or perhaps a house, some cattle and a piece of land to cultivate. Even today the meaning of the American Dream is quite the same; be sure to have valuable possessions, a social life with high standard and keep up good standards.
The phrase the American Dream came into the American vocabulary starting in 1867 when writer Horatio Alger came out with his book “Dick.” It was a rags-to-riches tale of a poor boy in New York City who saves his pennies, works hard and eventually becomes rich. It became the model that through honesty, hard work and determination, the American Dream was available to anyone willing to make the journey.

There are several connections to the concept of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman. One can be found on page 32 when the principal charachter Willy Loman expresses his jealousy towards the successes of his brother Ben. Ben knew what he wanted, Willy says. He started with the clothes on his back, walked into the jungle and came out enormously rich at the age of twenty-one owning several diamond mines. Willy continues: “That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate!” (32) Another example of a man’s success, and therefore also of the American Dream, is found on page 38. Willy’s imaginary memory of Ben describes their father as a great inventor who travelled with his whole family westwards through America. He was successful in selling his inventions and he also became rich. On page 54 Willy remembers one occasion when his son Biff was playing at Ebbets Field. There was this glow around him and people cheered his name when he came out. He was a star then and this kind of personal success is also a typical example of the American Dream. And as described on page 62, Willy himself experienced a personal success in his work. It reached its peak in 1928, when his commission average was at its highest level.

The whole story of the play is in itself a parody on the American Dream. Willy Loman is a weary 63-year-old man who wants nothing more than to reach the American Dream, but in reality he fails (has failed?) big time. He is no longer a good salesman, he does not earn enough money, he does not manage to communicate with his family, his sons’ lives are a disappointment to him and he disrespects his own family by having a mistress. The parody lies in the gap between Willy’s wishes and his actual accomplishments. Willy does not have a healthy ideal self, compared to his real self. The rift is too deep for two feasible reasons. Firstly, it is not possible for Willy to achieve all of his goals due to external circumstances such as a changed labour market and the free will of his sons. Secondly, it is not possible for Willy to achieve all of his goals due to internal circumstances such as a decreasing capacity to master social situations and a consciously made choice to commit adultery.

Willy Loman, in his naive world between determined hope and painful awareness, represents a parody of the American Dream. But at the same time, he represents a memorable saying by George Bernard Shaw: “You see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things as they never were and ask ‘why not?’”

 

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