Describe how Death of a Salesman is an "anatomy" of the American dream

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that Miller's work does represent the basic anatomy or structure of the American Dream.  In many respects, Willy's narrative represents the downside of the how the American Dream was perceived by Americans.  For example, the idea of the American Dream as being something that "everyone could attain" helped to create a sensibility of needing to conform, to do what others do.  This was extremely present in the 1950s, where "keeping up with the Joneses" was the norm and a part of the American Dream.  Willy suffers from this and part of his added burden is that he lacks that type of respect from others that he so desperately seeks.  Another anatomical dissection of the American Dream that Miller offers is how monetary wealth is so much a part of its established and perceived success.  Willy suffers from the fact that he lacks monetary wealth.  This is the only standard he uses to define success, and because of it, he is a failure.  In diviniing this element from the vision of the American Dream and the matrix within which it places individuals, Miller points out another fault with it and a reason why Willy's unhappiness was almost a foregone conclusion.

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lprono | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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Death of a Salesman is an anatomy of the American Dream because it challenges the quintessentially American argument that social mobility is available to all and that the United States is a land of opportunity. The play has been often read as a response to the financial downfall of Miller's father following the 1929 stock market crash.

The story of shoe salesman Willie Loman, whose firm only pays him commissions rather than a full salary, shows that capitalism and free enterprise do not automatically mean economic success. Willie is an example of capitalist exploitation, as, after having spent his entire working-life following the precepts of the American work ethic, he finds himself in precarious economic conditions and cannot pay his family bills. Because of his predicament, Willie experiences a deep feeling of depression which soon leads him to be unable to distinguish between his own dreams of economic success and his grim financial reality. Willy's failure to persuade his boss that he is still competent salesman, i. e. that he can still be useful to capitalist machinery, eventually leads to his suicide.

Willie Loman (a possible play on "low man") is constantly frustrated by the failure of the social promises and hopes contained in the  rags-to-riches paradigm to effectively materialize. The salesman's despair is only worsened by his awareness that his two sons, Biff and Happy, will be equally unable to attain the status that he has failed to achieve.

The play points out that the characters in the Loman family wrongly believe that they can improve their lower middle class condition without any social and moral commitment. Willie and his two sons are contrasted with the character of Bernard, the Lomans' next-door neighbor's son. Bernard's qualities are precisely those which the Lomans lacks: dedication and intellect. The Lomans are trapped in the petty aspirations of a consumerist society which values money and fame over moral values.

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Death of Salesman is hardly the anatomy of the American dream. Instead, the American dream serves as the backbone of Willy's life. Still, Willy's desire for the American dream pales in comparison to the actual philosophy of it.

To Willy, being popular, attaining superficial happiness, earning instant gratification, and blowing his ego out of proportion made him feel successful and as if he had attained his so-called American Dream.

But the real American Dream asks for deeper commitments: Time, effort, sleepless nights, sacrifice, holding back on gratification, patience, and endless labor. Only THEN will one be able to reap the benefits of well-lived, and well-worked life.

In Death of a Salesman, the American Dream is hard to get, and flies by really quick. It is the same idea behind Old Man and the Sea: The search for this life of strength and sustenance gone forever. It would be hard to see the American Dream as the head and body of Death of a Salesman. It is certainly at the heart of it, but it is still topsy-turvied by Willy Loman himself.

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The word "anatomy" can also carry overtones implying a kind of dissection -- an in-depth look to determine the causes of the death of something. To the extent that the American dreamed seemed to be dying at the time Miller wrote, Death of a Salesman can be seen as an "anatomy" in this sense.

The term "anatomy" may also be relevant to the play in the senses suggested here:


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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The word "anatomy" in this sense means an in depth examination or analysis. Therefore the suggestion is that the play examines or analyzes what came to be known as the American dream as it stood in that period of time. If it is agreed that the definition of the American dream at that time included a house in the suburbs (which didn't exist until after WWII); a steady, dependable and lucrative job (which was much harder to come by before the end of WWII); and a prosperous family that could pursue ambitions that stemmed from interests and passions instead of pursuing the necessities of making a living through any means open to them, then Death of a Salesman is an analysis of this dream because Willy, who places all his hopes and self-esteem on fulfilling this definition of the dream life, ultimately fails to achieve success, particularly notably with his sons.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I like #6's comments on the word anatomy. I associate it myself with an in depth examination that gives reasons for the object's death or decline. This excellent play does this centrally through the character of Willy Loman and its presentation of him as a "low man" who is used and abused by American capitalist society at large and the way it creates and promotes the American Dream, which, as the play suggests, is not open to all and often creates a crushing sense of failure that it is impossible to recover from.

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creativethinking | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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I like the term "anatomy" because it is a biological, organic term. Death of Salesman shows a portrait of the American Dream through a full life cycle--from the early days when the dream is young and burgeoning (Biff's a big football hero and Willy's making some ok money), when the dream starts to wane (Biff recognizes his father's betrayal, Willy struggles to make ends meet), and finally through to its expiration (Willy gets fired, loses any honor he may have once had, and commits suicide). The word "anatomy" reminds us that the American Dream is not, as we all would like to think, invincible. Rather, it's as fragile, temporary, and potentially diseased as any human body, or mind, on earth.

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I first read this work when I was an ambitious and idealistic teenager in high school.  It terrified me more than anything else.  I so desperately wanted to be successful.  I was the type of kid that had five, ten and fifteen year old plans.  I look AP classes, participated in extracurriculars, worried about my future and tried to do everything right.  It wasn't materialism, it was just a desire to succeed.  I think I was more afraid of failure than anything else.  To me, this was a story about the dangers of desperate attempts at success.  I am not sure I even understood then why it affected me so.  Now that I am older, I see it as a cautionary tale and not a nightmare.  The people in our lives are the most important thing.  Happiness is not directly linked to success.  It is linked to efforts to enjoy life and make it worth living.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is an anatomy of the American Dream. The American Dream is what Willie Loman is trying to achieve. He believes that if one works hard enough, he will be rewarded. His brother Ben is a perfect example, having owned large sections of forest land and a diamond mine when he was alive. Willie believes that he, too, should be rewarded; however, this play is not about achieving that dream, but failing to realize it. In reality, Willie's American Dream is a "myth." He believes that this dream can be achieved through "material wealth," but it cannot be, and because of Willie's tunnel vision, he loses touch with those around him—losing sight of what really makes a man "successful."

Through his main character, Willy Loman, Miller examines the myth of the American Dream and the shallow promise of happiness through material wealth.

The American Dream is like a false façade on a movie set: underneath the surface, there is nothing. For Willie, the dream that his brother Ben realized is what Willie wants, but all we know is that Ben was materially successful. The promise of wealth and happiness is an illusion. This illusion drives Willie's downward spiral in the play. As Willie continues to fall apart, it only supports Miller's assertion of the emptiness of the dream. There is no American Dream, Miller demonstrates, for the average man. There are only disappointments, "missed opportunities" and "compromised ideals."

Much of [the play's] success is attributed to Miller's facility in portraying the universal hopes and fears of middle-class America.

In trying to achieve the "dream," Willie becomes distanced from his wife, Linda, who is completed devoted to him. Willie has a mistress for a time, and Biff accidentally stumbles upon the secret—which further isolates this father and son. The disillusionment, frustrations and failures that Willie experiences are the true elements of the dream for most Americans.The harder Willie tries, the more disappointed he is.

The play is an anatomy of the American Dream as it demonstrates one man's destruction in putting the dream before all else, and losing everything. Willie never quite accepts that the dream is "an empty promise." He fails… honestly face the facts of his life.

He takes the blame, as he sees it, upon himself, and in the end takes his life in the hope that his insurance money will help his family—serving them with his death, as he feels he could not in his life.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that Miller's work is an anatomy of the failure inherent in the American Dream.  Miller draws from personal experience in this regard.  He recognized Willy's failures in his own father. From his own childhood and in witnessing the failure of his father in business, Miler understood that the American Dream predicated upon wealth and continual acquisition of money is one doomed to failure.  In the end, Miller recognizes that money and the construct of success according to the American Dream is incapable of providing happiness to the individual.  It is here whereby the play operates as a dissection into the anatomy of the American Dream.  Miller is able to construct Willy as a representation of someone who follows all of the expectations laid out in the American Dream, and yet fails in his endeavor.  The anatomy that lies underneath the veneer of the American Dream is one of impossible success and inevitable failure.  In this, Miller is able to suggest that the only chance for happiness is for individuals to actively resist or redefine the matrices of their lives so that happiness and "being something" is not defined by material reality.