How does Arthur Miller interpret the American Dream in his Death of a Salesman?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Arthur Miller's classic American play, Death of a Salesman, is an exploration of the American dream in terms of Willy Loman's search for an answer to the question "what went wrong?" in his quest to achieve the American dream.

Willy Loman's idea of the American dream is focused...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

Arthur Miller's classic American play, Death of a Salesman, is an exploration of the American dream in terms of Willy Loman's search for an answer to the question "what went wrong?" in his quest to achieve the American dream.

Willy Loman's idea of the American dream is focused on appearances. Look good, be personable, and make friends. Willy believes that any man who does those things deserves to achieve the American dream and will naturally accomplish it:

WILLY: Bernard is not well liked, is he?

BIFF: He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.

HAPPY: That’s right, Pop.

WILLY: That’s just what I mean. Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because 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.

Now in his sixties, Willy comes home with his heavy sample cases after what was supposed to be a sales trip to upper New England, but he couldn't get past Yonkers, a suburb of New York City just above the Bronx. After thirty-six years on the road, Willy is exhausted in body and spirit.

His wife, Linda, gets up from bed to meet him:

WILLY. I’m tired to the death....I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it, Linda.

Throughout the play, Willy questions what brought him to this point in his life. He searches desperately for the moments when his life went wrong—when he went off the path on his way to the American dream.

He has flashbacks to moments he can remember when he thinks he might have gone wrong: for example, when he betrayed his relationship with his wife and destroyed his relationship with his son, Biff, without even realizing what he was doing.

Willy simply didn't understand that it wasn't individual circumstances that denied him the American dream. It was his own choices, his own mistakes. Willy failed himself.

Willy was hoping that even if he couldn't accomplish the American dream, his sons Happy and Biff could achieve it for him, but they failed as well, leaving Willy with no dream at all. The American dream slipped through Willy's fingers, and he had no idea how or why it happened, and he simply lost faith in himself and in the dream:

CHARLEY: It was a very nice funeral....

LINDA: I can’t understand it. At this time especially. First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear. He only needed a little salary. He was even finished with the dentist.

CHARLEY: No man only needs a little salary.

LINDA: I can’t understand it....

BIFF: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.

HAPPY. Don’t say that!

BIFF. He never knew who he was.

CHARLEY....You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life....He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished....A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Biff doesn't subscribe to Charley's romanticized version of Willy's life:

BIFF: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.

Willy came to realize who he was too late and that his failure to acquire the American dream was his own fault. He made wrong choices, and those choices sidetracked him, wasted his time and energy, and took him off the path toward the American dream:

WILLY. Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.

Figuratively and literally, Willy Loman killed himself to make money.

Arthur Miller doesn't attack the American dream, as such. He simply questions it. He questions if it necessarily applies to everyone or if it's reasonable for everyone to try to achieve it. He also questions the objective of the American dream, which is the acquisition of material wealth.

Willy's mistake—the tragic flaw of a modern tragic hero—is that he valued the American dream above everything else and pursued it at all costs. The decisions Willy made in deference to the American dream destroyed his relationships with his wife and with his sons, and they ultimately destroyed his own life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I agree that the traditional American Dream perceives the United States as a land of opportunity where anyone who works hard can get ahead, unlike in Europe, where the system was understood to be rigged in favor of the hereditary aristocracy and against the common man.

However, Miller critiques Willy Loman's distorted version of the American Dream. To Willy, the American Dream is easy money. He dreams that a salesman can get rich quickly simply by being likable. He doesn't want to work at learning and gaining expertise in any particular field because he has the idea that if he has a charming personality he can sit in a hotel room in velvet slippers taking orders over the phone.

Willy is more suited to gardening than sales, and he never obtains the easy life he dreamed about when younger. When the play opens, he is older and still slogging it out with a big sales territory to travel. He has never made very much money. He asks for an easier sales position and is fired instead. 

He also has encouraged his sons to be personable and to expect the money to flow in that way rather than pushing them to become educated. Miller is saying that if the world Willy fantasizes about ever existed, it is no longer the America that exists. People need to find out what their gifts are and cultivate them through hard work, rather than hang on to the idea they can find a shortcut to riches and success. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As was mentioned in the previous post, the American dream is the belief that through hard work and dedication individuals can attain financial success, which results in living a fulfilled, content life. Throughout the play, several characters attain the American dream, while Willy and his sons miserably fail to reach their dreams of living a financially secure, fulfilled life. Through Willy Loman's character, Miller examines the vain pursuit of attaining the American dream. Willy Loman becomes obsessed with his version of the American dream after witnessing his brother's financial success. However, Willy believes that he and his sons can attain the American dream by simply being well-liked and popular. Willy's expectations for Biff and Happy become unreachable due to the wrong guidance and advice he gave them as children. Willy becomes so obsessed with the American dream that he damages his relationship with his sons and eventually commits suicide in order for his family to receive life insurance money. Miller essentially explores what happens when individuals become obsessed with the American dream and reject other aspects of their lives in order to attain it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a great question and Miller's work, Death of a Salesman is directly related to the the American Dream in an inverse way. In view of this, it is best to define the American dream first and then show how the work addresses this.

The American dream is an ideology that says that freedom and hard work will lead to prosperity. So, anyone who has a good work ethic will make it in America. America is the land of great opportunities. The beauty of this dream is also that it is apart from a person's upbringing, nationality, or anything else. All that matters is hard work and the freedom that the United States provides.

Miller's Death of a Salesman is the dark side of the American dream. Willy is living under its dream without ever being successful. This kills him in the end as he commits suicide. His lack of success and most likely the lack of success of his children is not something that he can handle. This is why throughout the work, we hear him mumbling and living in a dream world. He has created a tragic world for himself.

So, we can say that Willy believes in this American Dream too much and this is his problem. His inability to achieve success defines his life and worth. In the end, death is the only solution he can see.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team