The American dream is something that is constantly alluded to in popular media and literature from all around the world. This American dream is thought to be the ability to reach one’s goals of success and riches in the capitalist economy and free society that characterizes the United States of America (Roth 201). Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is a play which many people believe centers around the American Dream. Willy, the protagonist, is extremely concerned with making himself a fortune and teaching his children how to do the same in their future, however his family life suffers and he never is able to reach his dream.
Miller’s play is an anatomy of the American Dream in its portrayal of the leading characters and how their lives turn out. Miller carefully constructs his characters in order to successfully relate to his audience.
Willy is a salesperson, but the product that he sells is never identified. The product is kept hidden in order for the audience themselves to picture what he is selling.
This makes Willy more relatable to the audience and he can easily be compared with the millions of salespeople in the United States across various industries. In portraying Willy as a broken man throughout the play, Miller shows how his job and quest for fortune has hurt him as a person. Although many people believe Miller was criticizing the American dream and showing the harm it causes, it can also be said that the writer was merely trying to reimagine the American dream through the perspective of different characters (Demastes and Fischer 370).
Willy’s brother Ben exemplifies the stereotypical American dream. That is, to go from rags to riches in a short amount of time. Ben makes his fortune by the time he is 21 by being bold and daring. Ben is characterized as a ruthless man who will stop at virtually nothing to gain what he wants. This is shown during the play when Ben visits Willy and Ben and Willy’s son, Biff start to wrestle around. It appears Biff is winning until Ben trips Biff and points his umbrella in the face of Biff, declaring himself the winner.
Biff experiences an internal conflict in regards to the American dream. Although he feels somewhat drawn to the fast-paced business world that his father pursued, it is obvious his true calling involves working with his hands. He expresses contentment after working as a farmhand for a while. This contentment, however, is riddled with feelings of guilt that he ought to be making a real living for himself and following in his father’s career path.
Miller shows how the American dream is only reached by those who are determined to do whatever it takes to reach their goals. Willy believes that superficial characteristics such as likeability and attractiveness take priority over hard work, and his viewpoint ends up being his downfall. At the end of his life, the disparity between his own life and what he views as success cause him to mentally breakdown (Demastes and Fischer 372). Miller may also be suggesting, however, that the American dream can mean different things to different people. Biff ultimately resolves that he should abandon his father’s dream and pursue what will make him happy. He is assumed to go back to the ranch at the end of the play after his father’s funeral. The characters in “Death of a Salesman” show the American dream from different perspectives. Arthur Miller’s characterization shows how the American dream can be reimagined, as well as why it can result in ultimate destruction or unmatched success.