World War I officially ended in 1918, followed shortly after by the Great Depression in 1929. The time period between these times of difficulty held essentially no hope for the American society. Gertrude Stein dubbed the American authors of this time period who rejected the previously held mainstream ideas of the nation and focused on criticisizing American ideals “The Lost Generation” (Juan).
Incorporated amongst this assortment of authors, Arthur Miller portrays the flaws and human downfalls of the “American Dream” based on the social and economic state of the nation during this time period in his play Death of a Salesman as protagonist Willy Lowman strains to achieve popularity, status, and wealth. Willy Loman, the average American, yearns to achieve wealth, status and happiness. He desires the typical American Dream.
Once thought of as the opportunity to work one’s way up through the ranks to success through difficult manual labor, the American Dream has become somewhat like an unwritten version of the Bible-adapted through one’s own view points, goals, and desires (Idaho Business Review). Throughout the years the American Dream evolved into less of a moral lesson advocating hard work and more into a yearning for success through happenstance good fortune (Juan). Willy aspires to greatness through the approval of others (Phillips 20).
Miller reiterates Willy’s insatiable thirst for public approval throughout the play with his constant repetition of being “well-liked” and his obsession with dying “the death of a salesman” with many guests attending his funeral (Miller 1446). Willy maintains a severely skewed perspective pertaining to the American Dream without ever reaching his goal. Willy does not work his way from the bottom, toiling his way to success; he wastes his time in a dead end career with no tangible reward. A direct line from Death of a Salesman shows Willy’s incorrect perspective.
Just after Willy loses his job after thirty-four years of commitment, he reduces himself to beg a loan from Howard. While conversing Willy says, “I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well-liked, that nothing…” (Miller 1499). He trails off, leading the reader to the obvious assumption as to the end of his thought process: Willy believes these attributes lead to success and happiness. However, Willy has not achieved happiness at all; instead, he lives a life of lies and artificial facades.
The American Dream fails Willy, leaving him unsatisfied and constantly desiring more like many Americans during the difficult economic situation following the First World War (Moss and Wilson 110). Miller exaggerates this flaw of the American Dream throughout Death of a Salesman to allow readers a clear depiction of the similarities between the play and their own lives. The Loman’s incurrence of debt exemplifies one such obvious parallel. Credit maintained a significant role in the American lifestyle of the nineteen twenties which often led to similar situations of debt for American families (Phillips 19).
Desire for the ability to exude wealth and happiness became more important than actually accomplishing these goals (Moss and Wilson 110). People could suddenly portray an image of perfection on their peers leading to higher status and regard (Moss and Wilson 111). The problem with such plots ironically mirrors that of the American Dream. Once one reaches a higher status due in large to the products acquired through massive amounts of credit, incurrence of debt must continue in order to maintain the wealthy appearance.
This cyclical event occurs to this day; fiscal irresponsibility runs rampant throughout the United States as families splurge to convey an image of superiority before realizing the expanding cloud of debt hanging ominously above their heads (Moss an Wilson 112). Turmoil defined the American economy post World War I, yet another factor influencing thematic writings of the era. Miller insinuates the problems associated with the American Dream, practically denouncing the label held by America as an opportunistic country (Juan).
The simple truth remains that not everyone can make it to the top no matter their work ethic, dreams or desires. Along with the rest of the “Lost Generation” of writers, Miller portrays a vividly realistic story to convey the faults of the time’s popular beliefs (Idaho Business Review). Miller creates Willy as a superficially static character who develops in complexity as the play continues. This facade of normalcy overlies many universal human problems and turmoil, disregarding era (Moss and Wilson 112). Each character within the play portrays realistic traits that epitomize each amily role stressed in the twenties. Linda, the wife, stays home and takes care of the children, mends the stockings, cooks and cleans. Biff and Happy, the sons, adore their father and yearn to achieve greatness. Happy wants to continue in his father’s footsteps much like a father son apprenticeship popular in the nineteen twenties (Phillips 110). Death of a Salesman perfectly portrays the way of life for the mainstream American family during the time period of its writing (Phillips 17). Miller associated his criticism of the American Dream through exaggerating miniscule aspects of everyday life.
Family roles, the desire to be well-liked, and the facade of wealth and happiness all lend evidence to refute the mainstream idea of the American Dream (Moss and Wilson 111). Hard work may play an integral role in the ability to rise from nothing to the top of the corporate ladder but luck, social standing, ancestry, and other factors also play a part. Not everyone will achieve wealth, fame, or status but this fact of life should not inhibit happiness. No demarcation of happiness lies on the border of the upper class; it remains attainable to absolutely anyone, despite circumstance.