“Death of a Salesman” – Lecture Notes What is the “American Dream”? One of the earliest and most successful pioneers of such an idea was Benjamin Franklin. His “rags to riches” story inspired countless Americans in the 18th century and made them believe that they too could become great. Emerson too inspired a generation to achieve great things in his famous essay “Self-Reliance.” Such quotes such as: “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried” or “To be great is to be misunderstood” led a nation to discover who they were and reach toward heights many never thought possible. Yet the American Dream in 1949, the American Dream of Willy Loman, while it may desire similar outcomes as the dreams of Franklin and Emerson, it does not take the same avenues to get there, and thus, it often falls shorts of being realized.
The American Dream: The dream of Willy Loman is that will become a successful businessman so that he can comfortably support his family and their needs. His entire life is spent attempting to gain stability into a world that is anything but stable. In reality, Willy fails to achieve this goal, but he constantly strives to reach it, even if it means lying to his family about his successes. But in Willy’s failure to achieve his dream, he passes off his dream to his son Biff. He feels that Willy can pick up the slack that he left behind. Willy’s delusional idea of the American Dream never pans out for himself or Biff because instead of pursuing it through hard work, Willy believes more in superficial versions avenues toward success. In one of his many flashbacks, Willy tells his son that the key to success is being well liked, when in reality this has nothing to do with making one’s place in the world. “Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be like and you will never want” (33).
Illusion vs. Reality: Willy Loman is literally the “Low-man” in the play because he often cannot distinguish between the reality of a situation or the illusions he lives within. Willy “low” status is reflected in dead end job (which he’s had for 34 years), his lack of accumulated material possessions, and his average “dime a dozen” social status. As mentioned earlier, Willy adopts the idea that if a person is well liked and attractive enough, he will gain acceptance and door will suddenly open for him. Yet for Willy to live by such ill-founded ideals, it is necessary for him to create lies that construct his ideal reality for him. “You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know, and I go right through” (33). Over time, Willy begins to believe his own lies and his constructed realities until he is no longer sure which version is real and which is an illusion. Willy attempts to bring up his children in this same world, yet when Biff catches his father involved in an affair, he recognizes the difference between the real world and the world of illusions that Willy has constructed. Biff’s faith in his father is shatters, and he now sees him as a fake. As the play draws to a close, Willy begins to realize (although he continues to deny it) that he and his sons are in fact ordinary. The only way out of this cycle is to ensure that Biff can make something out of himself, and after the chance of working for Mr. Oliver is rendered dead, Willy’s solution to help jumpstart Biff up the corporate ladder comes in the form of an insurance settlement. Willy illusionary world makes him think that he will be “worth more dead than alive,” and so he leaves this world under the pretense that he has made the American Dream easier for Biff to achieve with his death.
Abandonment:Throughout Willy’s life, he has been faced with continual abandonment. The first to begin the trend is Willy’s father when he is very young. Even as an adult, Willy seems to lack any sense of self; this is due to the fact that he fails to recognize where he comes from and, hence, who he is. Willy’s older brother Ben also abandons him when Willy is young. Ben leaves and makes his fortune in the diamond mines of Africa; it may be this abandonment by Willy’s role models in search of wealth and stability that leads to his need to become a successful businessman and instill the same need for success within his children. However, the ultimate abandonment occurs in Boston when Biff catches his father in an affair. Biff abandons the idea that his father is a great man, and he throws away the dreams that Willy held for him.
Capitalism & American Way of Life:Willy Loman wishes to rise to the top of corporate success and become someone that everyone respects and admires. The dream of rags to riches still lives in today’s world, yet the danger that swallowed Willy’s dream still exists too. Attempting to make a name for oneself in the capitalist market can allow a person to reap large rewards or it can leave a one penniless and broken. Willy is the second of the two. In his attempt to play the game of capitalism, he fails, largely due to his false philosophy that popularity is the key to success. In the end, Willy is fired because he no longer fits the needs of his company. This way of viewing Death of a Salesman allows for a dark view of American society. While capitalism and free enterprise seem like noble causes, such methods do not consider the station of the “low-man.” The ordinary man, like Willy, is simply used by capitalism until he has dried up or lost his usefulness; then he is spit out like a “piece of fruit.”