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.
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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 of American culture. Moreover, the dialogue of the play is littered with American slang: lazy bum, gee, Pop, fella, babe, flunk, and knock 'em dead. The dialect is likewise American: coulda, oughta, woulda, and gotta. Therefore, it is important to read the play as a commentary on American values as well as an examination of one man's mental decline.