The American Dream is presented in two ways in this play. We see it as a fantasy that drives Willy Loman to despair and we see it as a reality, one which Willy chooses to ignore though he has achieved it.
Generally, the idea behind what we call the American Dream has to do with achieving economic independence, upward mobility, and empowerment through financial success.
This notion is often depicted on a grand scale, aligned with "rags to riches" tales where a person escapes poverty and achieves wealth. However, there is also a popular understanding of the American Dream that takes on a more humble definition - home ownership, the absence of debt, and raising a family.
These last characteristics describe Willy Loman. He and his wife Linda are making the last mortgage payment on their house when the play begins. They will be out of debt. They have also raised two sons to adulthood. Claims of achieving the American Dream are open to the Lomans.
Willy either cannot or will not accept these domestic achievements as the fulfillment of his dream.
According to Willy's version of the American Dream, he is a complete failure.
Willy Loman is a man emotionally dedicated to the pursuit of material success and popularity. When he dreams, he dreams big.
In the play, Willy presents his ideas as to the human qualities required to attain this success as well as his ideals and his vision regarding the nature of achievement. The corner-stones of Willy's take on the American Dream are popularity, wealth, and romance.
These ideals are founded in part on Willy's view of his brother Ben.
Ben remarks: "William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!"
Ben is clearly not a representative man. His story is akin to a romantic adventure, full of the poetry of ambition. Despite the unique qualities of Ben's story, Willy sees it as the prototypical success story. He does not see his neighbor's life as an achievement of the American Dream, though Charley runs a successful business.
Just as he sees his own life as a failure, Willy refuses to accept anything less than a grand-scale achievement as a true fulfillment of the American Dream.