The American Dream is one of the most important motifs in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
The essence of the American Dream is that one living in, or coming to, America can achieve his or her fondest dreams or wishes simply by working hard. Willy Loman is a man who has worked his entire life trying to get ahead as a salesman. Changing times and younger men have made it impossible for Willy to achieve the success he so desires.
Willy is the character that most believes in the American dream, the belief that anyone can be a "self-made man" and can achieve enormous success. It is safe to assume that Willy began his sales career in the late 1920s. This was during a time when survival was difficult in the face of the Great Depression what would not end for several more years. When the economy stabilized, sales might have been a realistic venture. There were famous men of the 19th Century who embodied the potential of building empires from scratch, such as Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller. During Willy's lifetime, Henry Ford had defied the odds with the creation and advancement of the auto industry.
Willy's personal hero was Dave Singleman. When Willy first chose to go into sales, he was guided by the story of Singleman who had touted himself as a great success, still working in his eighties and never having to go on the road to carry out his business. It is not certain that Singleman was as successful as he told Willy, but Willy never questioned the authenticity of the older gentleman's claims.
Society also promoted the sales profession with training, correspondence (by mail) training courses, etc. However, success in the sales industry began to decline in the 1940s. Unfortunately, Willy never thought of anything else but sales. He never put any money away for retirement, and at the age of sixty-three, he is exhausted from being on the road all the time with no chance of retirement.
Another aspect of the American Dream for Willy is the hope that his sons will be able to realize the dream of prosperity that he could not. Happy has a regular job, but he is only interested in partying after work. Biff, who seemed at one time to have great potential, has failed to make anything of himself, and is still searching to find himself at the age of thirty-four.
While Willy has worked hard, sales was never the best fit for him. For example, he believed that making friends with customers would lead to success. He noted:
The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.
He failed to understand that in a changing world, large accounts and contracts were no longer made over dinner and sealed with a handshake.
While Willy wishes more for his sons, Happy does not have a fire in his belly to be more than he already is. Like his father, Happy is unrealistic. When Willy dies, Happy declares:
I'm gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It's the only dream you can have - to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him.
Happy does not have it in him to do so.
Biff wants more but is not certain how to do that. He realized at particular point that he could never follow his father's path.
BIFF [crying, broken]:
Will you let me go for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?
Biff's dream is to move out West and work with his hands. He wants nothing to do with a job that requires him to slave fifty weeks out of the year with nothing more than two weeks vacation.
Of the three, Willy seems to be the character that most buys into the tenuous promises of the American Dream. When he realizes that he will never move beyond his current circumstances, he commits suicide. He tells his brother Ben (who he talks to in his imagination) that at the funeral, Biff will see what a great man Willy was, and see that Willy had been right all along. This is delusional thinking. Willy also believes that the money from his insurance policy will give Biff a second chance.
After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.
Biff does not buy into the American Dream, nor does Happy. Willy believes so fully, that he sacrifices his life so that Biff might acquire what Willy was never able to find.