Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman has been used to convey social commentary on American society. Discuss the breakdown of the family in pursuit of the American Dream. Please support with specific examples from the play.
Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, shows the decline of the family as father and sons see the American dream in very different ways.
Willy Loman has been a salesman for a very long time. Things have changed in the business, but Willy has not—he is out of touch with reality. He believes that one can still go out and become an enormous success with little trouble, like his brother Ben. Ben decided what he wanted and won the success he wanted: rich at twenty-one. Willy believes everyone can do what his brother did.
Willy comments on his son Biff's lack of success and how Biff could turn his life around. Willy is again alluding to the American dream: success, there for the taking.
Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff— he’s not lazy…I’ll see him in the morning; I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time.
If it were as easy as Willy believes, Biff might be the success his father envisions, but it's not. And Biff does not have Willy's vision of the American dream. Biff is not happy working in an office—he loves working outdoors.
Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman…And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer…To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors with your shirt off.
Because Bill does not embrace the world as his dad wants him to, there is a great deal of conflict between them; they fight. Willy wants Biff to do what Willy believes is best for him, while Biff wants to pursue his idea of the American dream. It's very hard for Biff who loves his dad, but cannot live up to his father's expectations—this contributes to the breakdown of the family.
Biff's brother, Happy, is no closer to success than his brother. He is not as mature, and is totally unmotivated. Happy works at a job with little potential for growth—his idea of the American dream is to have material wealth and women:
All I can do now is wait for the merchandise manager to die…I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for...And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, plenty of women...
Willy believes his sons can experience the success if they do it his way (which has not really worked for him, if he could see the reality of his situation). Their inability to please him continues to erode the fabric of the family unit.
After Willy kills himself, Charley defends him. He notes that Willy didn't have anything to really hold onto with his job: he did not work with his hands, did not have specialized training like a doctor. And he had to dream to survive.
By the story's end, Biff plans to leave. He finally knows who he is. Happy decides to live Willy's dream—being very much like his dad. As Willy so desperately wanted, Linda has paid off the house: they're debt-free. But Willy is gone, the boys are leaving, and Linda is alone. There is no dream, and the family has been destroyed.