In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, how is the American Dream characteristic of the American ideals/philosophy? What are the differences between materialistic and idealistic values associated with the American Dream?

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The America Dream is commonly associated with both a materialistic and a philosophical self-determination. And self-determination is the key concept to consider when examining the American Dream.

In a materialistic sense, the American Dream is understood as a belief that individuals are not limited to the social class or social...

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The America Dream is commonly associated with both a materialistic and a philosophical self-determination. And self-determination is the key concept to consider when examining the American Dream.

In a materialistic sense, the American Dream is understood as a belief that individuals are not limited to the social class or social status into which they are born. We can each reach the level of our own talent and ambition as the result of (1) the American social-political ethos which refuses to pre-judge a person’s potential and (2) the structure of capitalist democracy, which is also understood to reward hard work, perseverance, and (maybe above all) a faith in one’s own abilities.

Materially speaking, achieving the American Dream is all about climbing the economic ladder. It’s about competition, which literally means competition with the neighbors when it comes to Death of a Salesman.

The other side of the American Dream can be described as “idealistic” or philosophical, and this side can be tracked back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas about self-determination as a transcendental and somewhat spiritual sense that an individual contains the seed of the Cosmic and so is potentially capable of achieving great things. Every person, according to this way of looking at things, has the chance to be great, and this greatness will be the direct result of being true to oneself as an individual, avoiding conformity or the compromises of group-thinking. If you develop your individuality, in other words, there is no limit to what original and therefore great things you might bring into the world. And that originality will be rewarded by self-satisfaction.

This is the point, however, where we can see how the idealistic and the materialistic begin to dovetail. There is quite a bit to say about this. And Miller’s play wants to comment on the confusions that sometimes arise when Americans believe too firmly in the notion that an Emersonian self-determination can always be measured by material wealth. This is not what Miller seems to believe.

To explore this, we should look at how Biff and Willy Loman express these different strains of the American Dream.

When Biff realizes that he really loves working outdoors and that he has only been fooling himself in thinking that he was every a successful (materialistically successful) salesperson, he is finally embracing the idealistic or philosophical side of the American Dream. He is finally thinking for himself. He is no longer subjecting his own vision to the limits of his father or the values of wider society. He is also recognizing that there is value in non-materialistic things and experiences. Wealth is not everything. There is more to life than that. (This idea is very close to the Transcendentalist ideals exemplified by Henry David Thoreau in his writings.)

When Biff comes to this revelation, the connections between his ideas and the ideals of Emerson and the idealistic side of the American Dream are clear:

Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be ... when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.

Willy is not able to take this leap. He is, instead, more or less trapped in the belief that inner greatness leads to material success. Since he has not achieved material success (outside of attaining home ownership), he feels that he is not a great person. In failing to achieve outward greatness, he has proved that he has no inward greatness—no greatness of spirit.

In his belief that the material American Dream is always necessarily linked to the more philosophical, Emersonian kind of greatness, Willy Loman cuts himself off from any chance to see things as Biff finally does. He is trapped in a very limited understanding of the American Dream, one in which wealth represents a greatness of spirit.

If Willy was able to see that these two strains of the American Dream are separate (or at least can be measured and experienced separately), his fate would not be so dark. But, this is the point. Willy Loman's inability to place value on the idealistic side of the American Dream in addition to the material side is actually a tragic inability to see his own value.

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