The Elusive American Dream in Miller's Death of a Salesman and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath
The American dream of success through hard work and of unlimited opportunity in a vast country actually started before America was officially America, before the colonists broke away from England and established an independent country. That dream has endured and flourished for hundreds of years; as a result, American writers naturally turn to it for subject matter, theme, and structure. In examining its lure and promise, they often find, not surprisingly, that for those who fall short, failure can be devastating because material success is a part of our cultural expectations.
Americans are judged and judge themselves on individual success or failure as indicators of their personal worth. Indeed, two works of fiction, Death of a Salesman and The Grapes of Wrath, are good examples of these ideas, for they illustrate the repercussions of the belief in the American Dream and what happens when the dream proves elusive.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s illusions are based on his belief in individual success, but his ideas about how to attain that success are impractical and unrealistic. Willy’s comment in Act I that “some people accomplish something” (15) is ironic because he yearns for this to be true for himself and Biff, but it is not true for either of them. Willy thinks he’s “vital in New England” (14) and would be “in charge of New York now” (14) if his original boss was still alive. However, although Willy is entranced by these illusions, the reality is that he is not a successful salesman and is fired. He also thinks Biff should be making good money and blames his son’s failure on his laziness. But it is Willy who has set Biff on a similar illusory course, for he has convinced his son that he only needs to be attractive and well-liked, not studious or even honest. Willy can’t understand how “In the greatest country in the world a young man with such personal attractiveness, gets lost.” (16). Almost as an afterthought he adds, “And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff, he’s not lazy” (16). Willy’s confusion comes from his own mixed-up values, which are in contrast to the American work ethic. For example, Willy prefers Swiss over American cheese (16), a symbol that he really doesn’t understand or accept the qualities he needs to be successful in America. Willy can’t even stand the effects or price of success. He resents growth and competition, which he calls “maddening” (17), and keeps finding excuses for his and Biff’s failures. He can’t seem to move beyond 1928, which comes just before the Great Depression, itself a real symbol of the failure of the American Dream. And Biff carries on his father’s legacy: “He has succeeded less, and his dreams are stronger and less acceptable” (19) than his brother’s. But even Happy, who wants to “show some of those pompous, self-important executives . . . that Hap Loman can make the grade”...