Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman addresses Willy Lowmans struggle to maintain his identity in the face of narrowing hopes that he or his sons will ever achieve their American Dream. 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 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.
Willy’s failure to succeed is partly due to his own personal flaws, but it is also due to the cultural values that shape his life. Willy is a salesman. His job requires that he appear confident and self-assured. This facade protects him from the inevitable indifference of reluctant buyers. Ironically, Willy’s facade is his first and most important product. He has to successfully sell himself before he can sell his product line. Willy’s primary problem is that he cannot separate himself from his professional role. Therefore, a buyer’s rejection of Willy’s sales pitch constitutes a personal rejection.
It threatens Willy’s view of himself, as he conflates his personal identity with his professional role. Willy is obsessed with being “well liked. ” In part, his obsession is due to his fusion of his professional role with his identity. The consummate salesman is a favorite of the buyers. He performs his role so well that he blurs the lines of friendship and business relationships. In doing so, the consummate salesman all the more effectively seduces the buyer into purchasing his products. However, Willy has bought his own sales pitch, so he regards his professional contacts as “friends.
Their indifference to his sales pitch hits him even harder since their rejection constitutes a personal attack. He regards being “well liked” as a measure of his success because he has bought his own sales pitch. Not being liked constitutes both a personal and professional failure. Willy believes in the American dream of certain fame and fortune. Within the logical framework of this dream, the individual need only strive forward to the future with a can-do attitude of confidence in order to enjoy the fruits of fame and fortune.
Therefore, Willy regards the failure to succeed as the result of a personal flaw rather than a flaw in the American dream itself. In order to preserve his identity, Willy cannot acknowledge his failure to acquire the fame and fortune promised by the American dream. He cannot admit doubt or insecurity because a good salesman always remains confident, and the American dream promises success to the confident, eager individual. Death of a Salesman addresses Willy’s struggle to maintain his identity in the face of narrowing hopes that he or his sons will ever fulfill his dreams.