The American Dream is an idea that originated from the Pilgrim Fathers and has remained in the American society. It is the belief that America is the land of opportunity where everyone can be “great”. The word “dream” is in fact probably the best way to describe the problems that Arthur Miller can see in this belief. The word “dream” can suggest something wonderful to look forward to achieving, or, it may imply that something is only a dream, something that is impossible to achieve. We can see Miller believes “dream” to mean the latter of these interpretations when we see the character Howard in Death of a Salesman.
It is implied through the way that he disregards Willy’s past loyalty to his company, that he has only achieved his dream of success through moral compromises, and therefore, that few achieve the dream without doing this as well. The American society however, seems to support the first definition of the word “dream”. They have certain claims to self-perfection that are absent in a large part of the world: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume”, Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. Others tend to accept far greater, that conditions of life are hostile to man’s pretensions.
It is thought that if they live by this dream, that there is a natural order in favour of them and that everyone can succeed. Willy supports this idea and relies on being “well-liked” in order to succeed, rather than working hard and having ability. So convinced is Willy of the rightness of this doctrine, that he raises his sons by it and, without intending to, he subtly undermines their moral character, turning one into a lecher and the other into a “bum” and a thief. Thus Miller demonstrates how such great self-confidence that the American Dream can produce, can have adverse effects on young people.
Although the dream used to be one about self-fulfilment, it has become perverted by materialistic concerns so that it is now a dream of financial success; exterior wealth measures a person’s success. Miller seems to appreciate the original idea of the American Dream as he shows through Willy’s flashbacks of good times, that the past was “golden”, as he himself describes. It is how people interpret the idea of the American Dream now; that if people live by it there is a natural order in favour of them succeeding; that is essentially the problem.
This view that society has, makes it seem that success is easy to achieve, and so there is disgrace in failure and people feel there is a need to succeed. Such pressures that the individual can feel, due to society’s “laws”, can have tragic results. Miller’s demonstration of this is through Willy, who ultimately finds himself a victim of such pressures of the American Dream. His downfall derives from both his personal failure in relation to his values and from the values themselves.
He shows, through the way in which he lives and dies, the latent self-destructiveness of a society in which false advertising corrodes not only business lives, but also personal relationships. Willy believes he must be professionally and financially successful, have a secure family life and have strong friendships. Due to society’s pressures, he tries to be the person that he thinks other people want him to be: “for his customers, the dignified drummer; for his sons, the firm yet indulgent and all-protective father; for his wife, the ever-dependable breadwinner,”-Blooms.
He feels he must sell himself, must respond to the demands of others and must make an impression in order to be “well-liked”, and therefore, successful. However, when he realises that he cannot do all this and has not achieved what he had hoped for, he no longer has the ability to battle against these pressures, and is finally destroyed by his commitment to them: he thinks as he has not achieved his view of success, imposed on him by the American Dream, that he is better off killing himself.
So we see the complexity of these two problems of the American Dream: there are tragic results when people feel they have failed, due to the pressures of the American Dream, yet it seems that the idea that everyone being able to easily succeed, the American Dream, is what has prevented them from succeeding in the first place.