By Natasha K Lennon
The idea that the highest aspirations and goals of an individual can be achieved from the opportunities present in the United States of America is demonstrated in what we know as the American Dream. The American Dream is an equal opportunity to gain prosperity in all aspects of life (lecture notes). These ideals, such as self-reliance and rugged individualism, are often a combination of financial success and material prosperity. The play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller models many American characteristics and depicts an American family where we gain insight to the many traits they personify. The main character, Willy Loman, pursues the American Dream with what he believes is demonstrating the traits necessary to achieve success, but he refuses to face the reality of his flaws and desperate situation.
In the play, we encounter the distinct character of an American family in their daily life. It is about an American nuclear family of four who had dreams and aspirations in life and how those dreams are tempered with the means of survival and challenges they faced. The main character, Willy Loman, aspired to be a successful salesman but was fired by his boss Howard after twenty-five years for lack of sales. During his career as a salesman, Willy constantly chased success and wealth but fell short on many occasions. It is Willy’s self-reliance, insular existence and his wallowing in regret over the frontier fantasy that keeps him from attaining the success he desires.
Willy Loman felt entitled to prosperity and upward mobility but boasted a failed flaw of self-reliance. A self-reliant character refers to the dependence of one’s own power and resources rather than leveraging the help of others (lecture notes). Willy exhibited this behavior despite the overwhelming evidence that he needed assistance. Lack of success in Willy’s job left Willy’s family carrying debt balances forward and resulted in barely meeting minimum payments. The line “Don’t forget to ask for a little advance, because we’ve got the insurance premium. It’s the grace period (1254)” suggests that Willy needed help keeping his finances afloat. Willy’s neighbor Charley saw Willy’s struggles and offered him a job, but Willy turned him down. Evidently, the opportunity of getting a job with Charley would have provided more stability for Willy’s family. Instead, Willy Loman declined the offer and depended on the success of himself although he was unemployed. Willy often thought highly of himself and praised the career of a salesman. The line “a salesman cannot hit rock bottom” suggests that Willy refuses to admit that he’s struggling and suggests that he lives in a bubble where he hides from his own reality.
Self-reliance is a characteristic that Willy Loman takes pride in and refuses to be dependent despite the situation. It appears to be a trait of his father and his successful brother Ben. Willy proudly boasted about his father and his siblings stating “We’ve got quite a streak of self-reliance in our family (1259.)” When Willy was being fired, his boss Howard bluntly told Willy to let his sons help and Willy stated, “I can’t throw myself on myself on my sons. I’m not crippled” (1260).
Even though Willy often speaks of his children retiring him, he never wants to throw his life’s burden and be totally dependent on them for what he considers his responsibility. Willy Loman was financially deprived and was only affording life’s necessities based on installments. The line “Work a lifetime to pay for the house; You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it” suggests that there is a financial strain and a life-long cost to some material prosperity, a cost that required more than what Willy had and it placed a financial strain on the family. Despite Willy’s underwhelming sales success and his struggles being unemployed, Willy showed self-reliance “on steroids.”
Willy Loman’s wallowing obsession with his fantasy of the frontier and the lack of rugged individualism are the reason he remained stagnant. Willy Loman was fixated on the success of his brother Ben through the frontier but failed to realize that those days are bygone. Ben lived the ideal success story that every American wants of achieving surplus. Ben was very successful, and his success came from his move to new horizons. During Ben’s career, the days the frontier of Alaska existed, Ben grabbed that opportunity to a become a success story. The lines “Why didn’t I go to Alaska” and “The man knew what he wanted and went out to get it” (1239) shows Willy’s obsession and “He begged me to go” shows Willy’s wallowing regrets. Through the frontier, Ben had “tremendous opportunity in Alaska,” and he was an over achiever with financial success and material prosperity (1241). Willy constantly blamed himself as he knew that Ben’s move “was a success” but failed miserably at realizing this was now a fantasy (1239).
Willy Loman’s chase for success was futile, as he lacked the characteristic of a rugged individual to achieve. Rugged individualism is a trait that had the potential to propel him to attain his dreams regardless of the obstacles he faced (lecture notes). Willy Loman prided himself on self-reliance, but in reality, he was broke and simply lacked the heart to survive by any means. Ironically, Ben described their father as a very “wild-hearted” man who was a “great inventor”
that hustled selling his flute across many states including Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and all the Western states (1243). On the other hand, Willy was a soft and weak-minded individual who lived in regrets and ultimately decided suicide was his way out (1282). Willy also blamed his lack of success on immigrants disregarding the idea of “America as a Melting Pot.” He claimed “There are too many people here” and “That’s what’s ruining the country” and even stated that he can “smell the stink from that apartment house”, implying that because of the influx of immigrants “the competition is maddening” (1227). The American Dream is meant to be an equal opportunity for all people. However, Willy Loman’s statement was selfish and racially inclined because of his disconnection with the American Dream and the prosperity to which he felt he was entitled.
The United States of America is referred to as the land of opportunity, a place where prosperity is in the reach of all its people. A place that many people around the world move from the comfort of their homeland to start afresh and to take a chance at the American Dream. The United States hosts immigrants from all races and social backgrounds, motivated by making a better life for themselves and their families. Think of the Irish or Jews who came to New York City. They depended on each other and each demonstrated the spirit of endurance, persistence and personal motivation. These are successful immigrants who never would have advanced by making excuses, wallowing in self-pity or not facing the reality of their current situation. Unlike Willy Loman, these immigrants rely on each other to help to propel them to upward mobility. They exerted rugged individualism but do not cancel out reliance on loved ones and their community for success.
Self-reliance really means to dig deep down inside and muster the courage to face challenges. It does not require one to reject the help of others along the way. We see in Willy Loman his refusal to face reality or accept help from a prospective employer or his family. Ironically, he looks down on the very immigrants who truly understood and put into practice the values of the American Dream. While the perfect American life is not a given fact that awaits all people, a successful life can be achieved with a rugged individualism that does not exclude the help of others.
Miller, Arthur. “The Death of a Salesman.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 9th edition., Gen Ed. Robert. S. Levine., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1221-1288.
Partridge, Jeffrey. “American Character” English 222 Capital Community College, Class lecture. Feb 26, 2020
Course: ENG 222 American Literature II, Spring 2020
Assignment: Literary Analysis
Instructor: Jeff Partridge
Instructor’s comments: Natasha Lennon’s essay on Willy Loman and the American Dream is well-organized and clearly argued and supported with evidence from the play, Death of a Salesman. I especially appreciate the way she develops the immigrant perspective in the latter parts of the essay, building off hints in Willy’s harangue against the growing urban population that he feels is physically crowding him in and financially crowding him out.
Photo credit: Death of a Salesman, 2013 by SarahSierszyn. Licensed through Creative Commons.