The Midlife Crises in Death of a Salesman, Alfred J. Prufrock, and American Beauty

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The Midlife Crises in Death of a Salesman, Alfred J. Prufrock, and American Beauty

Disillusioned and disenchanted, both Arthur Miller's Willy Loman and American Beauty's Lester Burnham share sexual frustrations and a dissatisfied longing for their respective pasts, but Willy, like T.S. Eliot's equivocating Prufrock, is unable to move beyond the failures inherent in his mediocrity and instead retreats into his delusions.

On the surface, Willy and Lester have all the elements of settled, prosaic lives shaped from the pattern of the "American Dream": large homes in middle- or upper-class neighborhoods, successful children, loving wives. But under this facade, both share a need that has devastated men and engendered distrust in their families for generations: the extra-marital affair.

Willy's affair with The Woman is a crucial turning point in his relationship with Biff, his oldest son. When Biff catches Willy and his mistress, Willy first attempts to distract his son and then be rid of him. However, his attempted cover-up fails and forever shatters the idolatrous relationship between father and son.

Willy: She's nothing to me Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.

Biff: You... you gave her Mama's stockings!

Willy: I gave you an order!...

Biff: You fake! You phony little fake! You fake! (Miller 1850)

Biff's discovery of his father's indiscretions shatter the Loman family's fragile facade of middle-class happiness. Although Willy is genuinely remorseful for his conduct, neither his repeated refrains of "stop crying, I gave you an order!" (1850) nor his apologies can mend the rift between him and Biff. Yet even as Biff loses his football scholarship and wanders, not unlike hi...

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...the passive salesman and the aggressive quitter. Where Willy Loman quickly makes society's ideals his own and then falls victim to his own dissatisfaction, Lester achieves happiness because he rejects the standards that society sets for a middle-aged man.

Works Cited

American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Writ. Alan Ball. With Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Dreamworks SKG, 1999.

Eliot, T.S.. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1996. 2459-2463.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking, 1965.

Millar, Jeff. "The Rise and Fall of Everyman: `American Beauty' Proves Potent Family Portrayal." Houston Chronicle 24 Sept. 1999, Star ed.: 1. Academic Universe. LEXISNEXIS. Madden Lib., Fresno, CA. 13 Apr. 2000 <>.

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