Willy Loman – Illusions of the American Dream
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman came out in 1949 during a postwar period of exceptional prosperity and optimism. Belief in the American Dream was at an all time high. The American Dream is the idea that anybody willing to work hard can have it all, a house in the suburbs, a new car, a new refrigerator, and all the latest technology. Someone willing to strike out on his own with an adventuresome spirit, nerve, and luck can still become a millionaire. This myth includes the promise that the children will do even better than their parents and enjoy better social and economic conditions. Willy Loman believes whole-heartedly in the American dream. Willy is so completely caught up in pursuing his version of the dream that he loses sight of everything else. The dream is just that: a dream. Everybody can’t be rich. Willy cannot be successful because his vision of the American Dream is a recipe for failure. In this paper we will explore this recipe for failure through the comparison of two characters, Willy and Charlie. Both are fathers with sons about the same age, but their views of the world, raising sons, and the nature of success differ.
Willy is already a “has been” when the story opens. He never made it big. Although he might have been happy working as a carpenter, he rejected this kind of work because he wanted to do better than his father had. In other words, he aimed for money, not for work that would be fulfilling. He traveled all over the New England states to earn a living, but despite his efforts never had money to spare. The family didn’t go hungry and they weren’t poor, but like most people they struggled to make their payments and keep up with the bills. Willy feels like a failure because he never struck it rich. He blames himself for not having nerve enough to go to Alaska and find gold like his Uncle Ben (who ended up in Africa with a diamond mine), who tells Willy, “…when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. He laughs. And by God I was rich.” Willy says to his boys, “You see what I’m talking about? The greatest things can happen!” Willy is filled with admiration for this uncle who “never kept books.” To Willy, Ben’s strike-it-rich, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, wheeling and dealing is the essence of the American Dream. If he had gone with Ben, he would have been a millionaire, too. Luck would have chosen him.
Charlie has a different view of the world. When Willy tells him, “If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different,” Charlie says, “Go on, you’d froze to death up there.” Charlie is more practical. He sees how things are with Willy (too old to travel anymore and can’t earn a living), so in addition to loaning Willy money, he offers Willy a job, but Willy won’t take it. Charlie says, “You want a job?” And Willy answers, “I got a job, I told you that.” Willy is in denial.
Saving face is more important to him than solving the problem; plus, if he admits he’s washed up, then there is no more hope that he can achieve his vision of the American Dream. So he has to pretend he’s doing okay. Charlie sees the situation more clearly. Instead of denying a problem, he tries to find a solution. To him actions speak louder than words — it’s more important to do something than to brag about it (or pretend you did it). Thus, when Willy marvels that Bernard is going to argue a case before the Supreme Court and “never even mentioned it,” Charlie says, “He don’t have to — he’s gonna do it [italics added].”
Charlie isn’t caught up in dreams like Willy is. He sees earning a living more concretely. He tells Willy, “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.” Willy says, “I always tried to think otherwise…I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing — ” Charlie, in other words, depends on what he’s got to offer, the product he has to sell. Willy depends on influence, personality, and people liking him. The trouble is, old age has robbed him of these — if he ever had them — so he’s living in a dream world. He idealizes the death of an 84-year-old salesman who died alone in a hotel room. He ignores the loneliness of such a death and exaggerates the importance of the man’s funeral. He likes to think his own funeral will be a big one and lots of important people will come to it. The old man’s death underlines the question, “What’s it all for?” Why are we so concerned with material success and so unconcerned with the spiritual — that is, happiness, meaning, and fulfillment?
Willy wants desperately for his son Biff to be a star. Success to Willy is the overnight kind, not the kind you build day-to-day, and he believes Biff can be a professional football player. He wants it so much and is so enamored with the possibility of a son who is a star that he ignores Biff’s character flaws as he’s growing up. He doesn’t correct Biff when he steals a football, for example, and doesn’t urge him to study so he can graduate from high school. Instead, he encourages Biff to rely on Charlie’s son (Bernard) who studies hard and can give Biff the answers most of the time. At the same time he tells Biff not to be like Bernard because people who study hard are not well liked by others.
When Biff fails math and doesn’t graduate, Willy blames the teacher. Charlie, by contrast, is not so wrapped up in what career his son will pursue. He lets Bernard find himself and what he wants to do with his life, and the result is that Bernard becomes a lawyer.
When Willy says to him, “And you never told him what to do, did you? You never took any interest in him,” Charlie answers, “My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything.” Here, Willy understates his obsession with Biff’s success. He took more than an interest. He wanted to live his life through his son. Biff’s stardom would bolster the self-image Willy longs for — of a man who has made it, a big shot.
Willy’s idea of success is based on money. Towards the end Willy says to Charlie, “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” He’s thinking of his $20,000 life insurance policy that would give Biff a new chance to make good. Charlie answers, “Willy, nobody’s worth nothin’ dead.” Charlie values life more than money. Charlie’s identity isn’t all tied up in his son’s accomplishments and doesn’t require hitting the big time. Willy says to him (about Biff’s career as a football player), “When this game is over, Charley, you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your face. They’ll be calling him another Red Grange. Twenty-five thousand a year.” Charlie, unimpressed with money and fame, kids, “Who is Red Grange?”
It is significant that Willy, who believes so completely and aims so high, fails while Charlie, more realistic, succeeds. The American Dream encourages people to aim high. But there is actually only room for a very small percentage at the top. Willy lives in a dream world where anyone can become rich, while Charlie lives in the real world where it’s more important to be happy and fulfilled. Willy loses everything because he can’t give up his illusions. When Willy asks Charlie how his son “did it,” Charlie gives the essence of his outlook. “He prepared himself.” In other words, Bernard studied and day by day did the things he needed to do to obtain gainful and meaningful employment and in the end did well. The story makes the point that success is not a one time lucky event, but one must build on small successes over time. Although there are a few celebrities who do make it “overnight,” they are not always happy and fulfilled by fame and fortune. Arthur Miller’s wife Marilyn Monroe is an example of the American Dream gone wrong. So is Willy Loman.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York, Viking Press, 1981.
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