The American Dream in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"

Presentation (Elaboration), 2002

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)

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I.) Definition: American Dream

II.) Definition: Salesman

III.) Willy Loman – a characterization

IV.) Willy’s relationship to the other persons in the play

V.) Bibliography

I.)Definition: The American Dream – MONEY, POWER, LUXURY

The American Dream is based on the ideology that everyone, no matter what his origins are, can be successful through his own effort and by cultivating his qualities.The old American Dream was about the desire of a land, where life should be better, fuller and richer for every man.

The old American Dream was in the minds of the early settlers, who fled from Europe to America. They left Europe, because of the monarchy, which was still suppressing the middle classes. They wanted to leave their past behind. They were fed up with the old, obsolete system. A poem, written by Goethe emphasizes the opinions about the people's past, which was mainly determined by the monarchs. The line: "You don't have decayed castles" embodied their hope and shows, that the old system is out of date. They preferred making a new start now; looking into the future, something which is still significant for Americans today.In America, there has never been any monarchy. That is why many people dreamt of America, where everybody should be free, equal and successful. They dreamt of a perfect society, where the origins should not matter and where everybody should be able to reach whatever he wants to reach. The opportunities should correspond to the own abilities and achievement and not to the circumstances of birth and position. In Europe, there has been a difference between people because of their social status, which cannot be gotten over.But it was very difficult for them to start a new life. That is why it is mainly described as a dream.Money played an important role, too. Not everybody could afford leaving Europe.The American dream was also laid down in the Deceleration of Thomas Jefferson, where it is expressed, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident rights of the individual.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

And even if they were not able to implement the grand desires they had, they could move westwards. Once there, they could make a new beginning. But soon the idea of a perfect society was perverted into the cliché "from rags to riches". The rank of a person should not be a barrier or influence the future of a person. A wishful thinking which stands for the motivating force of the American civilisation.

The American Dream is represented principally by three characters in the play:

1.) Willy’s father represents the pioneer spirit. In the days of the gold rush he leaves the family and goes to Alaska. Willy cannot become like him because the time of the pioneers belongs to a past epoche.
2.) Ben represents rugged individualism and sudden wealth. Willy, however, is not as adventurous as Ben. He lacks Ben’s daring and recklessness.
3.) David Singleman represents the success which is due to popularity and personal relationships, but like Willy’s father, Singleman belongs to another time. Moreover, it is not certainwhether respect, and comeradeship, and gratitude (page 87, line 3f.) of those days really did exist or whether they are only a product of Willy’s romantic view of the past.

II.) Definition: The Traveling Salesman

The American businessman is a character of big importance. He is a traveling salesman who visits his customers in many different cities. So he naturally gets to know many people of big firms with importance for the country’s wealth. The job of a salesman still receives a lot of attention. The salesman is to visit each city from a given list once, and returns to the starting point.

Willy Loman is one of these traveling salesmen. He has to travel around and sell things for his New York firm. He feels important for his customers and doesn’t realize that they are not interested in him as a person, but only in his goods.

He is forced to sell something to earn money. Without having sold anything he can’t afford his living.

The American businessman is typical for the realization of the American Dream. Everyone is able to become a good salesman and is able to earn as much money as he needs or as he wants to have.

III.) Willy Loman – a characterization

Willy Loman is the central figure of the play. An untalanted but energetic man gripped by the American Dream. Willy’s personality disintergrates as he moves into his sixties and his strength begins to fail him. He commits suicide in the hope of earning twenty thousand dollars in life insurance money for his wife and two grown sons. Over the course of the play, he is presented as a complex person who hides deep insecurity beneath a great deal of bluster and drive, relying on his handsome and athletic sons to compensate for his own sense of inadequacy. His willful hopefulness and exaggerated expectations betray him in the end by rendering him incapable of accepting himself or his children for who they are.

In the beginning Willy Loman seems to be a loser throughout. That shows us his telling name, too: Loman => “low man” is somebody who stands at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He is none of the successful persons he wants to be.

But Willy is not only a loser. He arouses our pity, because he works really hard, but doesn’t succeed in anything. It even gets worse when he is ruthlessly sacked. He dreams of doing something very important, that the whole world will remember for a long time. He is very afraid of being meaningless.

For all his life he has dreamt the dream of big success - the American Dream. His key to success seems to be very easy: “Be liked and you will never want” (page 34, line 9f.).

To be liked and personal contacts, he thinks, are the most important factors to become important:

“Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. […]

Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interests, is the man who gets ahead.” (page 34, line 2ff.)

Willy is longing for recognition. He loves talking about big plans he will never make come true. In Ben he finds someone to talk about his dreams. He admires him and takes his advice as very important for his life:

“Ben, am I right? Don’t you think I’m right? I value your advice. […] We’ll do it here, Ben! You hear me? We’re gonna do it here! (page 93, line 1ff.)

Willy is trying to peddle his sons in a pathetic archetype of the American Dream of success.

Willy is lyer and betrayed in one. He tells his sons that he could “park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own.” (page 31, line 24f.)

Reality and dream are very far apart and sometimes even Willy can’t differentiate between both of them. He is full of contradictions: “Chevrolet, Linda, is the greatest car ever built” (page 34, line 23) he says happily after coming home. But only a few moments later, angry about the crash he shouts: “That goddamn Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car!” (page 37, line 9ff.)

He betrays himself permanently. And if somebody tries to make him see this, he takes the offensive and reacts aggressively. This is often in situations of confrontation with Biff, but also when he feels that Charley doesn’t take him serious: “Goddamn you, put up your hands! […] Who the hell do you think you are, better than everybody else? You don’t know everything, you big, ignorant, stupid… Put up your hands!” (page 96, line 1ff.)

Willy’s thought of manhood is influenced of the idea of the strong, hard pioneer. A man has to be sportive, otherwise he is “a worm like Bernard” (page 42, line 17). Willy is proud that his sons are “built like Adonises” (page 34, line6).

But Willy feels that these are not the standards which society is built on.

All in all Willy has never been anything else than an average man. Not less, but nor more. His undoing is that he doesn’t admit his own mediocrity.

IV.) Willy’s relationship to the other persons in the play

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Willy’s relationships to the other persons in the play change throughout the play. There are those situations in the past and those in the present. Willy’s relations in these situations are different. It becomes clear that he has developed throughout his life. This becomes clear in his behaviour and his thoughts about other people:

In the past:

Biff – Biff and Willy feel idolatrous love for each other.

Happy – Happy and Willy feel love for each other.

Linda – Linda loves Willy unquestionedly. Willy just feels sympathy for his wife and betrays her with another woman. He lies to her about his financial situation and his job.

Ben – Willy admires Ben. He is jealous about Ben’s adventurousity and brave.

Charley – Willy feels contempt for Charley because of his success.

Bernard – Willy feels contempt for Bernard because he gets better grades in school than Willy’s sons.

The Woman – Willy betrays his wife. He has an affair with another woman.

In the present:

Biff – there are extreme tensions between Biff and Willy at present time.

Happy – there is almost no relation between Happy and Willy. They just feel indifference and estrangement for each other.

Linda – Linda loves Willy unquestionedly throughout the whole play. Willy doesn`t really love her, but feels sympathy and addiction.

Ben – Ben is Willy’s imaginary interlocutor and advisor. Willy is addicted to him and always wants to know how Ben thinks about his plans.

Charley – Charley fells pity for Willy. He knows about his situation and about his financial dependence of himself.

Bernard – Willy admires Bernard and his success in the business world.

Howard Wagner – He is Willy’s boss and knows that he is not good for the firm’s situation. Willy doesn’t do a good job, so he fires him recklessly.

V.) Bibliography

- Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman Stuttgart 2002
- Angela Einberg er: Lektürehilfe zu Arthur Miller’s Death of a Saleman, München 2000
- Brian W. Last: York Notes – Notes on Death of a Salesman London 1980
- Harold Bloom: Bloom’s Notes: Death of a Salesman Broomall 1996

VI.) Materialien für das Referat

1.) Transparency: list of unknown words
2.) Transparency: Willy’s relationship to the other persons in the play

9 of 9 pages


The American Dream in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"
University of Education in Schwäbisch Gmünd
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
474 KB
American, Dream, Arthur, Miller, Death, Salesman, Literature
Quote paper
Nadine Heller (Author), 2002, The American Dream in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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