Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, looks at the idea of the American dream in a few ways. Here are a few ideas for how to approach the topic in a brief essay.
There is a contrast regarding work ethic generated in the play between the Lomans and their neighbors. While the Lomans believe that being liked will lead to the kind of popularity that ensures success (or even stands as the definition of success), Charley and Bernard act upon the idea that success requires hard work.
Notoriety and social status are very important to Willy and, while Charley and Bernard certainly also prize the idea of status, they see hard work as the path to status. For Willy, this status comes from an innate or in-born personality, some natural quality that helps one rise to the top.
"Willy's quest to realize what he views as the American Dream—the "self-made man" who rises out of poverty and becomes rich and famous— is a dominant theme in Death of a Salesman" (eNotes).
These two approaches to success can be understood in light of two differing views of the American dream. For Willy, Biff and Happy, the American dream is, for the most part, related to accolades and social status. It is, in short, a persona. For Bernard and Charley, the American dream retains some of its Puritanical roots in the notions of the necessity of labor. The dream of success is a dream of achievement, accomplishment, etc. Nothing can be achieved without real work.
Thus, the play explores two views of the American dream that co-exist. Many quotes from Willy can support his take on what it means to be successful. Here we see Willy clinging to the idea that social esteem and success are equivalent ideas:
"All the old-timers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunderstruck, Ben, because he never realized—I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey—I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben!"
Quotes from both Charley and Bernard can support their view of how "sliding by" will never be a substitute for actually doing work. In drawing this comparison, you might comment on the differences between early American values and more contemporary American values and note how they are represented by this pair of families.
Another way to approach the idea of the American dream is to focus on the 20th century American dream as it is examined in the play. Home ownership became a cornerstone of the idea of success in America during the post-war era. The familiar vision of a house with a new appliances and a car in the driveway became the American dream (where a less specific vision of upward mobility had previously been the standard "American dream").
In this context, Willy can be seen as a very interesting character. As the play opens, Linda reminds Willy that they are making their very last payment on the house. They have achieved the American dream. Yet, Willy is unsatisfied. Why? Is the generic American dream somehow unsatisfying? Is it not enough to own a house and to have raised two children?
The commentary offered by this state of affairs is somewhat complicated, but by looking at Willy's relationship to his brother Ben, to his children (especially Biff) and to his neighbor, we can begin to see that Willy's personal vision of the American dream is actually less humble and more ambitious than the prevailing commercial vision of home ownership.
You might consider attempting to answer questions like these as a way to shape your essay (using direct quotations from the text to support your ideas):
- Is Willy Loman's relationship to the American dream more or less personal than a generic dream of owning a home and having a new fridge? What does this mean about the validity or value of the American dream?
- Does Willy's failure in his own eyes mean that he is a failure in the context of the American dream? After all, he does now own a home and has reached retirement age having raised two children to adulthood with his wife...
- Is Willy's disappointment perhaps a product of shifting views of the American dream? Is Willy, perhaps, stuck in a colonial, turn-of-the-century mindset that features figures like Ben as success stories, as opposed to people like Charley and Bernard?
- How do Charley and Bernard stand in contrast to Ben in terms of representing a set of values and a view of the American dream? How does Willy fit into this matrix of values?
- Is Willy Loman both a success and a failure? How is his success relative/directly related to a certain view of the American dream? How is his failure also relative/directly related to a certain view of the American dream?
To offer some formatting ideas, since we are dealing with an outline here, I would like to make a couple of specific suggestions.
Plan to write one paragraph on Willy's view of the American dream as a personality-oriented concept. Your topic sentence should introduce this idea. Find a quote from Willy that expresses this idea and plan to incorporate this quotation into your paragraph as evidence/support. End the paragraph by explaining (1) how this quote directly supports your claim and (2) how this idea of the American dream contrasts to that held by Charley and Bernard. Then plan a paragraph that explains how Charley and Bernard enact a view of the American dream that is work-oriented and connected to "old" American values. Find quotes to support your point and structure this paragraph just like the previous one (with the quotation worked into the middle of the paragraph).
Second idea: Plan to write one paragraph on Willy's success in terms of a generic American dream of home ownership and write one paragraph on his failure as it relates to a more personal and ambitious view of the American dream. Find quotes that directly support these points.