Elusive American Dream in Miller's Death of a Salesman and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath

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The Elusive American Dream in Miller's Death of a Salesman and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath

The American dream of success through hard work and of unlimited opportunity in a vast country actually started before America was officially America, before the colonists broke away from England and established an independent country. That dream has endured and flourished for hundreds of years; as a result, American writers naturally turn to it for subject matter, theme, and structure. In examining its lure and promise, they often find, not surprisingly, that for those who fall short, failure can be devastating because material success is a part of our cultural expectations.

Americans are judged and judge themselves on individual success or failure as indicators of their personal worth. Indeed, two works of fiction, Death of a Salesman and The Grapes of Wrath, are good examples of these ideas, for they illustrate the repercussions of the belief in the American Dream and what happens when the dream proves elusive.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s illusions are based on his belief in individual success, but his ideas about how to attain that success are impractical and unrealistic. Willy’s comment in Act I that “some people accomplish something” (15) is ironic because he yearns for this to be true for himself and Biff, but it is not true for either of them. Willy thinks he’s “vital in New England” (14) and would be “in charge of New York now” (14) if his original boss was still alive. However, although Willy is entranced by these illusions, the reality is that he is not a successful salesman and is fired. He also thinks Biff should be making good money and blames his son’s failure on his laziness. But it is Willy who has se...

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...d a the country” (129), and that is the capitalist system, which is supposed to make life better for everyone. Steinbeck creates a connection between the rotten grapes and the moral decay among the businessmen because of their greed, a vice that is poisoning the American promise by bringing great hardship with little hope for a better future.

In conclusion, both of these works use the deep personal loss of their characters to represent the greater dilemma posed by an American Dream that is elusive and, at least for them, never fulfilled. Hopelessness, despair and disillusionment are the result of what both authors portray as a ruthless, often dehumanizing capitalist system that seeks profit at any cost.


Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
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