Americans in the 1920s filled the nation with a sense of false hope. The ideas of the "American Dream" may have held a different meaning for each individual, but one similar goal was the American people's drive to become successful. Arthur Miller writes the Death of a Salesman in the 20th century to illustrate the common perception of success and how that obsession seemingly destroyed people. Miller illustrates the American viewpoint of success through the main character, Willy Loman, a salesman who spent his life striving to be personally popular and who desired to make a lot of money. Unfortunately, as Willy struggles to find his fulfillment, he projects his idea of success onto his eldest son, Biff Loman. Biff desired to free himself from his father's fantasies of success and instead, find his own meaning of success by being happy in the West. Miller helps signify the high values of success during the 20th century that Americans often internalize, and how that often led to tragic consequences in their lives. Death of a Salesman proves to be a complex love story between a man and his son, Biff, that ultimately reflect the American people's relationship with America. By utilizing contrast and repetition of flashbacks and by reflecting elements of irony, Arthur Miller successfully illustrates the tragic consequences of the American people idolizing unrealistic expectations in a high achieving society in 20th century America, through a man's relationship with his son.
To begin, Miller strongly utilizes contrast to emphasize Willy Loman's complex relationship with his son; moreover, it reflects the American's complex relationship with success in America. At the beginning of the play, Miller strategically illustrates the differences between Willy and his eldest son's point of view on their relationship. Willy discusses his concern for Biff to his wife and exclaims, "how can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? Biff is a lazy bum..." (Miller 5). However, he then contradicts himself by stating, "there's one thing about Biff—he's not lazy…" (6). Willy heavily criticizes Biff because he is frustrated that "in the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker" (6). He expresses his frustration not because he believes his son is lazy and a failure, but because he truly wants the best for him in being successful and therefore, happy. Unfortunately, Willy projects his frustration onto his son instead and does not convey his message very well. As a result, it creates a misunderstanding that sours their already wavering father-son relationship. Throughout much of the play, Miller illustrates the same misunderstanding nature between the two men through Willy's continuous efforts of pushing Biff into a mold of someone he is not: a "big shot," successful man. Willy and Biff's relationship is "the epitome of a society built on social performance and wedded to the idea of a transforming future" (Hooti & Azizpour 18). Biff's misunderstanding of Willy's love and desire for him to succeed is like both of their misunderstanding ideas of success in America in the middle of the 20th century. Willy's idea of success was molded into his son, and it comes from the emphasis of high social performance. In other words, he believes that success is the result of attractiveness and charm. Instead of Willy pushing Biff to work hard through education, he allowed his son to get away with anything, including flunking math in high school. As a result, Biff eventually developed a stealing problem and blamed his father for raising him into such an arrogant man; he was unable to take orders from anyone. Thus, it reflected on how he was unable to keep a stabilized job. "Miller… exhumes the ghost of our lost national character, probing our cultural ambivalence about identity and vocation and offering only uneasy resolution" (Fix 1). Both men struggled to chase their "American Dream" of becoming highly successful and making themselves known in the long run. Instead, they lost themselves and fell victim to the country's success rather than achieving their ideas of success, representing the "uneasy resolution." Like both men misunderstanding one another's an idea of success, many Americans also misunderstood what success meant to them. Miller further illustrates that statement by displaying how as hope and disappointment coexist, it becomes more and more difficult for Americans in society to move forth with their life without realizing how high people set expectations. He further portrays that Americans are like Willy Lowman; striving to become well-liked and make a lot of money, which, unfortunately, is not fulfilling because it is unrealistic. It is unrealistic because there is no such thing as someone who is well-liked by everyone around them. In addition, the more money someone has, the more money they will desire. For both goals, it drives people into a never-ending cycle of unfulfillment which ultimately leads to exhaustion and the inability to see reality for what it is. On the other hand, Biff snaps out of his father's fantasy, in the end, representing the ideal success that Americans should strive to have: happiness by finding one's self and not allowing others define who they are. Miller warns that the constant comparison through an American's daily life will eventually drive them away from their job, family, and happiness. Thus, Miller effectively illustrates the relationship between Willy and Biff, and how their ideas of success parallel to the dangers of American society and their ideas of success.
Next, Miller implements Willy's repeating flashbacks to illustrate how much he values Biff, and how that further demonstrates the values of the American life in the 20th century. Willy constantly reminisced the "good days" where Biff was a huge football star and their relationship was perfectly intact. In addition, Willy even has flashbacks to the moment where he was caught seeing another woman. Miller also displays how Willy is constantly seeking out to highly successful people and asking them what their secret to success is, so he can further help his son. All three highly repetitive scenes represent Willy's journey in illustrating his love for Biff. "Willy's flashbacks could be his attempt to remember a pivotal year in his family's history—1931 or 1932, football star Biff's senior year of high school, during which he discovers his father's adulterous relationship with the woman in Boston..." (Cardullo 1). Miller repeats this scene to illustrate the guilt Willy had felt ever since Biff found out about his father's cheating relationship. To Willy, ever since that day, their relationship had begun to fall apart, and misunderstandings stood in the way between their communication. However, Willy fails to understand another aspect contributing to their wavering relationship: the false sense of success Willy places on Biff. Their relationship became very distance which is clear from the flashbacks Miller incorporated to show the audience the distance between them. Miller represents how their distance is similar to how unrealistic ideas of success ultimately drives the American people farther away from their happiness. Miller emphasizes Willy's guilt by showing the audience how often he has flashbacks to the happy moments in his life before the incident, and Miller illustrates how Willy felt like Biff held that moment against him ever since. However, this is not fully the case. Although it was a major turning point in their relationship, what truly bent their relationship was also from the high expectation that Willy had set for his sons and his inability to be a good example to them. With Willy constantly thinking to the past, he is unable to break free and move forward into the future and have a better understanding of his sons and set a more realistic expectation. This parallels the American society at the time in the sense that so many people during the early to focus so much on ideas of success through the past before the Great Depression, that it often led to fantasy rather than a realistic sense of success. To see a play from a third-person perspective that reflects American life, it creates a powerful reality check in their values and aspects of their mentality in American life. It shows that fulfillment is not achieved purely by high status and wealth. There is a theme of success that drives people mad because the idea within the society now becomes an idea of comparing the idea of success to the past and using their status to compete with one another. Through this, there is not much room to be happy or fulfilled.
Lastly, Miller incorporates irony throughout his play to further demonstrate the love he has for Biff and how that reflects the American people's destructive expectation of success. From the very beginning of the play, Miller helps illustrate Willy as delusional as he constantly tries to talk to people who seem to not be there. Willy lives in his own mind at times which confuse people around him, especially his family. Because he was so focused on this aspect of making his sons into something more than just ordinary people, he instead, could not live in the present. He seemed stuck in the fantasy of his idolized version of success and ends up talking to himself about the past. This is ironic because it demonstrates how his inability to be present, ultimately drove many people away from him, including his sons. The major ironic element would be how Willy died for his sons to achieve his "American dream." He felt like he would be more helpful to his family if he were dead. Instead, it brought pain to his family who did not want to see him leave the world. His death is also ironic because he had to sacrifice his whole life to work towards a high status, and yet, he ended his life. Although he may have thought of his death to be beneficial, by dying, he was not able to truly live through the American dream. His love and sacrifice for his sons reflect the struggle of Americans in a high achieving society. By dying, he exemplifies to the Americans the lengths that people would have gone to achieve a higher status. No matter how long Willy or his sons had worked, they were unable to become their idolized version of success. Thus, it reflects such a complicated relationship because the love of the father to his sons is like the American people's love and desire for success in America: seemingly unfulfilling and never-ending. Willy felt the need to do something more to prove that he loved his sons, just like how his sons felt like they needed to live up to their father's standards which were set up by the high expectation of American standards. However, to Willy's family, he had already done more than enough, by providing for his family and working for over thirty years in his job. "Miller's plays are not exclusively about individuals, but more precisely, are about humanity and human societies with all their contradictions and complications" (Martin 4), he helps show that just like Americans in society, many people often exhaust themselves trying to chase the never-ending goal of a higher status. That is, during that time, the idea of success differed for a lot of people, and it seemed that most people had no end to the "American dream" and it ultimately exhausted them, making it feel impossible to achieve or be acknowledged. As a result, it drove people away from one another and ultimately, away from a sense of fulfillment and happiness.
Through Arthur Miller's powerful play, Death of a Salesman, a powerful message is relayed to the American people during the 20th century. To this day, the idea of the "American Dream" and the idea of establishing one's legacy, continues to reign over people's heads. Although much of society has reformed and new standards are created, the ideas of success remain the same: people still strive to be well-liked and to have endless amounts of money. Thankfully, America now has more resources, such as this play, to further help represent the dangers that are caused by fantasizing and creating unrealistic expectations upon oneself and their own relationships around them. Miller helps warn against the idolization of success and the damages that are done through Willy's misunderstood love for his son. He effectively illustrates the dangers the American people face through Willy and Biff in his play. By contrasting their misunderstandings for one another, presenting the significance of Willy's flashbacks, and incorporating ironic elements, Miller helps illustrate to Americans how one's delusions can often lead them astray from fulfillment in life that does not only lie in wealth and status. Death of a Salesman serves as a reality check to many Americans in finding fulfillment through reality and their existing relationships.
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