Mythical American Dream Challenged in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman challenges the American dream. Before the Depression, an optimistic America offered the alluring promise of success and riches. Willy Loman suffers from his disenchantment with the American dream, for it fails him and his son. In some ways, Willy and Biff seem trapped in a transitional period of American history. Willy, now sixty-three, carried out a large part of his career during the Depression and World War II. The promise of success that entranced him in the optimistic 1920's was broken by the harsh economic realities of the 1930's. The unprecedented prosperity of the 1950's remained far in the future.
Willy Loman represents a uniquely American figure: the traveling salesman. Every week, he takes a journey to stake his bid for success. It would be difficult to miss the survival of the American frontier mentality in the figure of the traveling salesman. The idea of the American dream was heavily influenced by the rush for gold and land in the nineteenth-century American West. It is no coincidence that in the 1950's, the decade most preoccupied with the mythical American dream, America experienced an unprecedented love affair with Westerns.
Willy and Linda try to build their own version of the American dream with their family. In high school, Biff was the all-American boy as the captain of the football team. True to the myth of the all-American boy, girls and admiring friends surrounded him. Willy and Linda's lives are full of monthly payments on possessions that symbolize that dream: a car, a home, and household appliances. The proliferation of monthly payments allowed families with modest incomes to hedge their optimistic bets against certain future success. The husband would surely advance to higher and better paid positions over time, so why not buy these symbols today?
The rise of consumer capitalism produced an interesting cultural psychology. The promising American frontier became the world of business. Thousands of new niches opened in American culture, and the aspiring young man with talent and a dream could not help striking gold somewhere in the jungle of economic transactions. Willy, despite his inability to advance beyond his position as a common salesman, still believes he lives in "the greatest country in the world." His dream of success for himself and his sons has an aura of American Manifest Destiny. He believes that natural charisma, good looks, and confidence are the most important attributes needed for success. Biff's failure to move ahead despite his "personal attractiveness" bewilders him. Both his sons are built like Adonises; they are "well liked" and seem destined for easy success. Clearly, Miller wanted to capture the flavor of American culture in this play. Willy's peculiarly American job, his all-American sons, and his commitment to the American dream bind together the myths and symbols...