Sacrifice and the American Dream are closely linked in Death of a Salesman and American Beauty. Discuss. Sacrifice and the American Dream are inextricably linked in the play, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, and the film, American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes. The pursuit of achieving the American Dream ultimately leads to the sacrifice of individual values and morals to achieve the societal expectations of the 1940s urban context and the 1990s suburban context.
The American Dream is a social dream that is underpinned by its materialism where the individual must decide whether to follow its societal values or personal ideals, and face the consequences of their decision. In the play, Death of a Salesman, which examines the lives of the Loman family in 1940s urban America, the American Dream is believed to be achieved by projecting a false image. The protagonist, Willy, is caught up with the notion of “personal attractiveness” and being a “self-made man”.
His perception of himself as being “well-liked” forces him to sacrifice Charley’s job offer instead of his pride, despite his borrowing money from him. On the other hand, Lester has already achieved the American Dream in the film, American Beauty, which examines the detrimental effects of the suburban dream on the Burnham family. The irony is that his success does not create his happiness. Viewers are introduced to Lester’s success in the wide-angle shot of his picturesque suburban neighbourhood, indicating his success, but his voiceover reveals that looks can be deceiving.
The symbol of his imprisonment is present in metaphorical bars created by windows and text on a computer, making him feel “dead already”. Similarly, Willy feels “boxed-in” by the “towering” apartments over his “small, fragile-seeming home” where it is not possible to grow seeds, a recurring motif of opportunity and a proof of labour for Willy’s lost dreams of success. In American Beauty, Angela is a symbol of Lester’s lost adolescent dreams which he pursues to regain his life, sacrificing his family and the disjunction between reality and his dream.
Material possessions become increasingly prominent in the time of industrialisation which pressures Willy to always be in a “race with the junkyard” because his financial situation cannot afford the “well-advertised” items. In contrast, Lester’s home is immaculate with roses appearing in each shot to symbolise the false beauty and material “stuff”, such as the couch, that becomes “more important…than living”. The ultimate sacrifice of the American Dream for Willy and Lester is death. Willy’s suicide achieves his dream of providing something for his family.
The insurance policy is a “perfect proposition” for Biff to “be ahead”, reflecting Willy’s unchanging “phony” values of popularity and wealth and that “he never knew who he was”. Lester’s death occurs when he realises his real dream of his family in the framed photo. The slow camera pan from Lester to the wall reflects a peaceful death in his epiphany, feeling “nothing but gratitude” that he has achieved understanding of his errors. The individual’s decision to pursue the American Dream in American Beauty and Death of a Salesman is dependent on personal values and capability to sacrifice these values to attain the standards of society.
A change in patriarchal values brought about by the movement of culture shows the various ways in which females are affected by the American Dream and the inevitable sacrifice in pursuing it. In Death of a Salesman, Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream inevitably affects his family. Linda is the eternal wife figure who appears to possess little personal dreams, while Willy works in the urban industrialization of New York. Linda is affected by the female repression in the 1940s, “with the wash” and playing the “maid” to the males in the family.
The recurring image of her “mending” her stockings is symbolic of her patience and duty as a housewife. In contrast, the role of women changes in American Beauty, where success becomes an ambition for both genders. Carolyn is the embodiment of the American Dream and its preoccupation with materialism. Her fixation with the “image of success” is exemplified in the zoom of her perfect red rose and Lester’s satirizing of her matching “pruning shears” and “gardening clogs” as the representation of the facade she creates. Her need to “live that image” that her company sells causes her to forgo her duty as a mother and a wife.
Lester mocks her treatment of Jane as an “employee”, and their marriage as “just for show”, reflecting the extent of how the American Dream has influenced her personal life which results in the sacrifice of familial relationships. Linda, on the other hand, maintains her emotional life in the play, but her role in supporting Willy and his dream overrides her role as a mother. Linda humours Willy for his self-respect, but reprimands her children, calling Happy a “philandering bum”. Both women’s error of roles inevitably leads to the breakdown of family ties.
Carolyn’s value of material possessions over “living” is evident when Lester nearly spills beer on the “four thousand dollar” sofa upholstered in “Italian silk” representing the overtaking of consumerism as the means of happiness. Likewise, materialism is a growing trend in the urban industrialized setting of Death of a Salesman, apparent in the accretion of household appliances such as the refrigerator, washing-machine and vacuum cleaner. The American Dream prospers through advertisements, in which Linda succumbs to the “biggest ads” for the new fan-belt, representing the increased demand for mass production.
The quest for the American Dream and its shallow values compel the individual to sacrifice personal bonds and desires to attain the material and consumer benefits it offers. Sacrifice is also the inevitable consequence of rejecting the values of the American Dream to pursue personal dreams. In American Beauty and Death of a Salesman, the children’s rejection of the Dream arises from the resulting dysfunction of their families. Willy fails to be a role model for Biff who thinks of him as a “phony little fake” with a “phony dream”, emphasizing how the projection of Willy’s false image has become his reality.
Biff is “finding himself”, admitting that he is only a “dime a dozen”, the very opposite of Willy’s “magnificent” hopes for him. Biff rejects the American Dream when he realizes “I know who I am” and pursues his dream of working on a ranch, where “nothing’s more inspiring”. In American Beauty, the dysfunction of the Burnham and the Fitts families ultimately brings Jane and Ricky together. Jane is a marginalized “typical teenager” who witnesses her parents’ sacrifice of the family to pursue the “phoney” dreams of suburban success.
Carolyn slaps her for being an “ungrateful little brat” for not appreciating “their own house”, reflecting Carolyn’s prioritization of values; something that Jane and Biff fail to understand, whose rejection of Willy’s hopes appears as “spite”. Biff and Jane differ from Ricky, who becomes the catalyst of the film as Lester’s “personal hero” when he gets high on the job, reflecting a “confidence” maintained by the actor’s stillness and intensity. Ricky is the most ‘together’ of the characters because he knows that there is “no reason to be afraid” if he can find beauty in the dead bird and Jane.
However, Ricky is repressed by his ex-Marine father puritanical values on “faggots” and discipline, represented through the low-angle shots of the Colonel looking down on Ricky, symbolising his authorisation. Ricky and Jane’s outward appearances of black dress symbolise the colour of youth rebellion which contrast to Angela’s fashionable appearance and her appearance in “Seventeen” magazine, a social symbol of the Dream’s consumerism. The three are also contrasted as “freaks” versus “ordinary” people, with the implication that the former is better because it allows the freedom of individuality.
The rejection of the American Dream can be socially and personally freeing, but the freedom can only come about through the sacrifice of dreams, such as a happy family. Death of a Salesman and American Beauty tell the stories of the different stages of the prospective American Dream and its provision of false aspirations for individuals to pursue. This, however, is only possible with the individual’s sacrifice of a personal value in order to attain the social expectations of the 1940s and 1990s America.