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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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What does Death of a Salesman convey about the American dream?

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Death of a Salesman is saying that the American dream is often futile and may ruin the lives of those who pursue it.

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In Death of A Salesman, Arthur Miller suggests that the American dream is not achievable or appropriate for everyone—in fact, probably not for most people. Through Willy Loman's struggles, the audience sees that the pursuit of wealth and success for its own sake is likely to bring misery, particularly if one's happiness, identity, and self-esteem depend on achieving an impossible dream.

Willy Loman is desperate to achieve the American dream, which he equates with becoming a wealthy and successful salesman. Willy is convinced that he can achieve success in business based on personality alone; however, his dreams remain out of reach. He wants worldly success so much that he is sometimes able to delude himself into thinking that he has achieved it, despite all evidence to the contrary. As the audience watches Willy struggle to cope—emotionally, financially, and professionally—it becomes clear that his futile pursuit of the American dream has ruined his life.

For Happy Loman, Willy's youngest son, financial success may actually be achievable. He has a well-paid job with good prospects and could probably become rich if he wished. However, this is not what he wants, and despite his name, Happy finds himself miserable and frustrated. Happy's predicament further illustrates the futility of the American dream, suggesting that even if one manages to attain financial success, they may remain unfulfilled.

Biff Loman, Willy's other son, could probably be quite happy ignoring the American dream altogether and earning a modest living working with animals in the countryside. It's clear that Willy has harmed his eldest son by continually setting up the American dream as something he ought to strive for. Brought up to believe it's possible to achieve great success without hard work, Biff finds himself deeply depressed by the disappointing direction his life has taken and his lack of material success. Only as an adult does Biff finally realize that he may not be able to meet Willy's grand expectations—and unlike his father, Biff wonders whether he might actually be better off embracing his mediocrity.

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As the above answers address, Willy has a mistaken sense of the American Dream. (Or the modern world has stream-lined and distorted the original "Puritan Work Ethic" into a sales pitch and quick buck.)

One aspect I would like to emphasize is this. Each generation would provide a life better for the one that follows. The modern interpretation of the American Dream involves getting the deal done at any cost. Willy gives stockings to the secretaries in order to be more productive, make more money to provide for the wife (for whom he can't afford to buy stockings.)

The infidelity falls into the same catagory, in a large part. It is a business gesture in order to provide. Biff's witness to this sheds light on the rationalization of Willy. He almost seems indignent enough to say, "Look kid, I did this for you and your mother! Can't you see that?"

Willy is left talking through this circular logic. In trying to create a better life for his sons, he destroys them.

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One of the primary themes of Death of a Salesman is that the  American Dream, the philosophy that a man can become or achieve whatever he wants through industry and hard work in America, is potentially unrealistic and, with its emphasis on material success, seriously flawed.  Willy Loman fully embraces the idea, however, and firmly believes that if he works long and hard enough, he can achieve the wealth and recognition he craves.  In pushing himself to excel as a salesman, he actually denies who he really is - he has a fine talent as a carpenter, but to pursue such a mundane calling seems unworthy of his lofty, materialistic aspirations.  Overworked and beset by stress and financial difficulties, Willy dies, having missed out on what is important in life, even as his aspirations remain unfulfilled.

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In Death of a Salesman, what is Willy's idea of the American Dream, and how does he try to make it reality?

On the surface, Willy's idea of the American Dream is not unusual; in fact, it seems very typical of his times, and our times, as well. He wants to achieve financial success in his career, and he wants to provide a comfortable home for his wife and sons. He dreams that his boys will grow up to become successful men in their own lives. That said, Willy's dream differs from some because he defines success only in terms money. His value system does not encompass honesty, integrity, service to others, or any kind of contribution to society. Willy's American Dream is not idealistic; it is solely materialistic.

To achieve his American Dream, Willy works hard, but he observes no ethical standards. For instance, he charms and bribes the secretary in Boston to gain an advantage over other salesmen. He takes pride in his house, but he builds his new front porch with lumber his sons have stolen from a construction site. He wants Biff to make good grades in school, but he encourages him to cheat. He tries to rear his sons to succeed in the world, but he does so by passing along his own corrupt values and refusing to recognize their failings--until they are grown men and the truth no longer can be ignored.

Like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Willy Loman represents a man whose life ends in tragedy because his American Dream was corrupted along the way to its achievement.


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In Death of a Salesman, what is the significance of the American dream?

The importance of the American Dream in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesmanis entirely dependent on the meaning that Willy Loman in particular gives to such a dream. In his eyes, the American Dream is the acquisition of money and wealth as a result of being well-liked and attractive. Nowhere does Willy's American Dream include hard-work, nor practicality: Everything is superficial and without any substance nor backbone whatsoever.

The significance of the American Dream, however, lays on the ability to catch it, achieve it, or earn it. It is a social myth that has propelled politics, literature, and even religion: To get back as much or more as you put in. To wake up to the day when there will be no more financial worries, because hard work provides for a settled future. Nowadays with an economy as weak as ours, the American Dream seems to be in a very high pedestal that we all pray we could reach. Willy has the same hopes but like Biff says of Willy during the "Requiem"

he had the wrong dreams.

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