Miller’s Portrayal Of American Life Through The Character Of Willy Loman

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The American Dream is the unwavering belief that any person, no matter their class, religion or origin, can achieve prosperity and upward mobility. The American dream is believed to be acquired through sacrifice, hard work and risk taking but reality proves it to be a pursuit rather than a definite outcome. The American Dream is categorized not by materialism but rather on a dream of the social order where every person can fulfil their goals and dreams.

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The story follows the final 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life, where he lives out his present and past through the occasional arrival of dreams and recollections as he faces his inability to accept the reality of his life. As the story is set between the years 1945 to 1949, we see how greatly affected the Loman’s are by the concept of the American Dream post World War Two and how they accept the changes of their modern-day society.

Arthur Miller focused much of his play on the influences of historical realities implemented in America. During the Great Depression in America, the stock market lost 90% value and wages fell by 42%. Before the Great Depression, the Loman’s were financially successful but, in the present, we see the devasting effects of the Great Depression as Willy struggles to achieve financial and emotional stability. Post WWII saw an unparalleled period of economic prosperity in America due to an increase on industrial production markets as a result of the war. Nevertheless, Poverty was still prevalent because of high inflation. After the Great Depression, the Loman’s were never able to recover and eventually succumbed to financial instability.

In the novel, American culture was shown to be a society that held an excessive amount of importance on money, possessions and social acceptance, it being a symbol of status. As a result of this, Willy Loman lies about his monetary security. After WWII, Americans experienced an influx of mass communication media which encouraged them to conform to American values and beliefs of society, creating a false sense of identity. As the US appeared to be a ‘superpower’ after WWII, they felt a need to prove capitalism’s superiority over communism. Miller reflects the thinking of the Cold war era through Willy as he struggles to be well liked, resulting in his absent sense of identity. A Man’s inability to accept the change that revolves around his life is the main premise of the play, Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller’s play reflects the standard thinking of everyday Americans during Post WWII through his distinct characters in order to express his views on American culture. Arthur Miller uses language to express his view on America where the idea of the American dream threatens an Americans identity and sustenance. He uses a range of techniques, symbols and motifs in his language to express this idea on the supposed meritocratic society incorporated into America.

Arthur Miller presents the disillusionment associated with the American Dream, indirectly referring to it in his play. In the play, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, the main character, is shown to exhibit an unjustifiable arrogance. “Be liked and you take me for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know, and I go right through”. In this passage, the recurring theme of being “well liked” is demonstrated. “Oh, I’ll knock ‘em dead next week. I’ll go to Harford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me”. An Idiom and a motif are the literary devices presented in this passage. We see the idiomatic Americanism through the non-literal, ‘’I’ll knock ‘em dead’’ and the motif through, ‘‘I’m very well liked’’. This is used to emphasize Willy’s direct connection to American culture and to his misperception of the dream acquired from that culture. Through the passage, we also see Willy contradict himself through his insecurity, spotting a juncture of him isolating himself from the illusion of the American Dream. This evinces to the amount of arrogance, egotism and insecurity Willy exudes with his simplistically figmental idea of imminent success in regard to the American Dream.

1949, the time in which Death of a Salesman was written, saw the rise of consumerism, economic prosperity and the continued ongoing futile belief in the American Dream, which eventually became the destruction of the Loman’s livelihood. Symbols and recurring themes are used to expose the futility of this dream throughout the play. Willy’s ideology, that he transferred to his son, Biff, encourages the eventual failure of both their ‘thought of’ careers. “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That’s why I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises”. This text contains a simile as Willy compares his sons to being Greek Gods. Willy’s twisted ideology reflects in this extract as he believes superficial appearances are more important than hard work. Miller uses this simile to articulate Willy Loman’s mental instability, where it conflicts with the standard beliefs of the American Dream. “I didn’t exactly steal it! That’s just what I’ve been explaining to you!”. Biff being fed Willy’s unrealistic ideology, resorts to the idea that he has the inability to do no wrong. This results in his kleptomaniac nature. From a young age Biff was always motivated to do as he pleased by the influence of Willy. Miller shows the reality of Willy’s ideology as he struggles to keep up with payments. “Other men – I don’t know – they do it easier”. Willy and Biff, living on the basis of being well-liked made him eventually struggle more than his thriving peers. Miller reflects through Willy the interminable struggle to create success in a younger America, which only justifies the futility of his dream.

Arthur Miller wanted to bring life into the desperation and aspiration of American life through his main character, Willy Loman. Through this work, he wanted his audience to feel pity and a sense of relation on the Loman’s.The play reflects the hardships faced by not only a salesman but of other workers who lived through the Great Depression and a world war where the ‘meritocratic’ American dream threatened livelihoods. He wanted to tell the story of an ageing salesman who was unable to sell, and coupled by his mental illness, commits suicide at the end. He had based Willy Loman on a Miltex salesman named Schoenzeit and much off of his own competitive uncle, Manny Newman. Miller believes a salesman is always ‘riding on a smile and a shoeshine’ and by thinking this, wanted to manipulate the tempestuous mind of Willy Loman, where the concept of time is never consistent. Fitzgerald, an author of the Roaring 20s created The Great Gatsby, a story on the progressive downfall of Jay Gatsby as he fails to obtain the American Dream. Miller’s Death of a Salesman is very similar as Willy Loman chases the dream but also fails. Both Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman make illogical and desperate decisions in order to grasp this symbolic dream. In contrast, Fitzgerald characterizes Gatsby’s purpose as a journey to achieve personal fulfillment while Willy Loman’s is one of material wealth. Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of the American Dream while Willy Loman represents an Americans incessant strive to achieve it. Nevertheless, Willy Loman is a man who creates an obsessively unhealthy relationship with the dream. This obsession eventually leads to a false sense of identity and to his untimely death, and just as Biff puts it,” He never knew who he was”. We close the final chapter, knowing Willy never would secure the Dream he spent his whole American life desiring.

16 August 2021

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