The Devastating Impact of the American Dream In Death Of A Salesman

The Devastating Impact of the American Dream In Death Of A Salesman

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The pursuit of the American dream can inspire ambition. It can transform a person and cause him to become motivated and hard-working, with high standards and morals. Or, it can tear a person down, to the point of near insanity that results from the wild, hopeless chase after the dream. This is what occurs to Biff, Happy, and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's book Death of a Salesman. In the play, Willy Loman is a traveling salesman whose main ambition in life is wealth and success, neither of which he achieves. Corrupted by their father, Biff and Happy also can not attain success. Biff fails to find a steady, high-paying job even though he's 30, and he hates the business world, preferring instead to live on a farm in California. Happy, on the other hand, has a fairly well-paying, steady job, but still suffers from emptiness and a sense of being lost, a void which he fills by sleeping around with many women, some of whom are even married or engaged. Thus, Miller uses motifs, such as deception, theft, and hallucination, to show the pathology that all three of these characters experience in the wake of the American dream.
Miller's use of lies throughout the book reveals the madness that results from the pursuit of the American dream. Happy habitually lies to others and to himself because he cannot face reality and wants to seem better than he is. When he is at a restaurant with Biff, Happy tries to impress a girl, saying that "at West Point, [people] called [him] Happy" and that he sells champagne (Miller 102). He tries to grab her attention by talking about money and he hopes that he will be more appealing if he claims that he is rich and successful. The American dream is all about money, which Happy lacks, so he pursues the dream in his own way -- by pretending that he is wealthy because he knows that he will never be. When Willy comes into the restaurant, excited to hear about Biff's meeting with Oliver, Happy encourages his brother to lie, saying "[Biff] told [Oliver] my Florida idea" (108). Once again, Happy believes that he will be worthless to his father without money. Therefore, he tries to mask his and Biff's failure with deception, in order to disguise the fact that he has not achieved wealth. Happy learns this behavior when he is a young boy from Willy, who urges Happy to "be careful with those girls, don't make any promises" (27).

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Willy encourages dishonesty in his son, and Happy perceives it as a lesson to be learned and begins to consider lying a form of reaching success. With his father's approval, Happy has no reservations about lying and uses it to make himself seem impressive and to mask the reality of his failure.
Theft is another motif that demonstrates the immorality resulting from the obsessive pursuit of wealth and success. Early on, Biff steals a football and, instead of reprimanding him, his father says, "Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative" (30). Again, Willy ruins his son by making it seem as if theft is acceptable and sometimes even necessary to prove oneself. Biff learns that stealing is tolerable, just like Happy learns that lying is normal. While Happy uses deception to pretend that he has achieved the American dream, Biff resorts to theft as a form of revenge and contempt for those that are successful. Once again, the motif of theft repeats when Biff says, "I wonder if Oliver still thinks I stole that carton of basketballs" (26). Biff previously worked for Oliver, who was pretty successful since he had his own business. In his mad pursuit of the American dream, Biff deems it acceptable to steal a carton of basketballs because he knows that he is not successful, but tries to attain success by stealing. When Biff goes to visit Oliver to try to get Oliver's support in a business venture, Biff ends up stealing again and he tells Happy that he "took [Oliver's] fountain pen" (104). Happy asks Biff why he did this and Biff answers, "I just -- wanted to take something, I don't know" (104). It seems as if stealing is automatic for Biff because he has acted on his impulses for so long that now, whenever he wants to take something, he does so without thinking. Biff also takes the pen after he realizes that his goal of starting a business with Oliver's help is crumbling, so his theft seems like a way to cope with his failure. Additionally, Biff is so desperate to attain this dream that it has made him prone to automatic stealing, just like Happy has become a chronic liar because of his wild chase after the American dream.
Willy's hallucinations also form a motif that further expresses the madness that follows in the quest for the American Dream. Willy hallucinates the most about Ben, his older brother who found success in Alaska. Every time Willy pictures Ben, Willy says "If I'd gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would've been totally different" (45). Ben represents a missed opportunity for Willy since Ben found wealth in Alaska, but Willy missed his chance to go. Alaska embodies the many opportunities that Willy passed up, which he now regrets since his dreams of success are not and will not become reality. Because Willy has realized that all of his chances for wealth have passed him by, he tries to live his dreams vicariously through his sons. In another hallucination, Willy turns to his brother for help, asking "Ben, how should I teach [my sons]?" (52). Willy seeks Ben's advice for how to raise his sons because he wants his children to become rich, like Ben. Wealth is Willy's primary concern, which is reflected in the way he raises his sons and in his thirst to help his sons achieve wealth. After Ben tells Willy that he was rich when he walked out of the jungle at seventeen, Willy exclaims, " [he] was rich! That's just the spirit I want to imbue [my sons] with! To walk into a jungle!" (52). Willy's outburst symbolizes his desire to instill longing for riches into his own sons. Also, Willy wants his sons to become rich no matter what. It shows that Willy is willing to throw his sons into a ferocious jungle, associated with survival of the fittest and fierce competition, just to achieve wealth. Thus, Willy's hallucinations reflect the mental stress that results from his unrelenting pursuit of the American dream.
Biff's stealing, Happy's lying, and Willy's hallucinations all result from their desperate attempts to achieve the American dream. When Biff and Happy are unable to attain their goals of wealth and success, they respectively steal and lie in the hopes of one day reaching their dream. Willy, on the other hand, has already given up on his dream and instead borders on insanity; he hallucinates most of the time about Ben, who represents Willy's missed opportunities. Willy depends on his sons to bring him wealth and, with that, happiness, but he has corrupted his sons such that neither can live up to their father's expectations. At times, they attempt desperate measures to become wealthy and please their father. Biff turns to stealing, which he deems acceptable because his father praised Biff when he stole a carton of basketballs, and Happy relies on lies, which he thinks will impress others and at least convey the impression that he is successful. These three characters demonstrate the wild pursuit of the American dreams and its devastating impact on people's lives, behavior, and relationships.
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