Many today long for the idyllic lifestyle of the typical 1950s family. Nostalgia piqued by the simplicity, structure, and easy way of life presented in films, literature, and family anecdotes, they sit at their computers, high rises and telephone poles looming overhead, wishing for a time when life was easy and uncomplicated—when dreams could be achieved with only a bit of optimism and hard work. In his poignant drama Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller shatters this image, harshly critiquing the warped interpretation of the American Dream present in the 1950s through the story of his protagonist Willy Loman. Through this tragic hero, Miller sheds a harsh light on both the lengths a man will go to achieve the version of the Dream with which he is inundated and the misfortune that befalls him should he do so. In order to fully understand this critique, one must first delve into the definition of the 1950s American Dream and second into the character of Willy Loman as he sacrifices his health, his life, and his dignity for the sake of success as defined by his country.
How can one define the dream that earned such harsh criticism from Miller and others of his time? Ever-evolving entities, the American Dream and its foundational principles in their postwar state were molded firmly around highly specific forms of materialism and celebrity culture. According to David Kamp, such materialistic specificities included home, car, and television ownership, often with the addition of a college education for children. Although each of these commodities represented a certain level of “comfort” for the traditional family, they also incurred a sizable amount of debt which simultaneously detracted from that comfort and added stress to everyday life. Such stress surfaces often in Willy Loman’s exclamations—for example, “My God, if business don’t pick up I don’t know what I’m gonna do” (Miller, 1035). The ever-present concern of financial wellbeing, in the Loman’s case, often risks overshadowing the luxuries of American living. While these stresses, along with the severely misplaced values and fetishized characteristics adopted by individuals such as Willy, were accessories to the Dream’s downfall, the underlying principles were, in theory, quite noble. Perhaps this is best explained in an article from The Daily Beast by Keli Goff, wherein she uses the words of James Truslow to provide a historically relevant definition of the American Dream:
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Thus, although material possessions were an acknowledgeable component of the Dream, what mattered most was an individual’s embrace of his or her “best self” (qtd. in Goff). Unfortunately, a competitive mentality and a collective desire for recognition overtook this once individualistic pursuit, leading Willy Loman and those of his time on a desperate scramble to become the “number-one man” (Miller, 1099). When the desire to be one’s best was trumped by the desire to be the best, the achievability of life satisfaction suffered greatly, for Americans could no longer feel as at peace with their place in life as they once had. Thus, they found themselves squaring up with the daunting, and at times damaging, task of not only achieving material comfort but coming out on top as well, Arthur Miller’s protagonist embodying this struggle to its fullest extent.
At the focal point of the play is this man’s failing physical and mental health, which is a consequence of his incredibly taxing job. From the first lines, Willy is “tired to the death” (Miller, 1020). This exhaustion not only results in physical discomfort (Miller, 1021) and difficulty focusing on the road (Miller, 1021) but more devastatingly in his ever-increasing detours from reality (1030). While depression is never explicitly mentioned in the context of the play, its role in Willy’s lack of life satisfaction and ultimate demise is apparent. A study by Johannes Siegrist concludes that “there is solid evidence of a prospectively established association of an adverse psychosocial work environment (high demand and low control; high effort and low reward) with depression” (118). With the high level of pressure placed upon employees such as Willy Loman and the low level of workplace value and job security, it is no wonder that depression could overtake those who have devoted their lives to the America’s workforce. Pointing out this inflated view of industriousness in which excessive amounts of work and personal sacrifice are simply viewed as a part of life, Miller directly criticizes his own society for its failure to maintain this balance in its standards for everyday living. If stress, depression, and physical demands had not weighed so heavily on Willy, his story may have ended much differently.
Ultimately, all of the psychological struggles inflicted by these factors culminate in Willy’s death, his very existence laid on the alter of material gain (Miller 1097). If 1950s culture so adamantly insisted that happiness and material wealth were inextricably linked, why did Willy’s life end in his sacrificing one for the other? On a much larger scale, how similar was the plight of individuals within the same demographic? The US Census Bureau lists the suicide rate for men ages 55 to 64 as 43.6 out of every 100,000 individuals, a number that has steadily declined in subsequent years. Could this heightened statistic be indicative of the collective feeling of hopelessness in men entering their later years? As Ben, the brother who often haunts Willy’s visions, eerily repeats, “The jungle is dark and full of diamonds” (Miller 1096), implying that death need not be feared due to the wealth that emerges from it. This “better off dead” mentality that ultimately claims Willy’s life provides the ultimate display of materialism in America, for not only were men willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health for material gain, but their very lives when financial destitution seemed eminent. While Miller is using this fact to point out America’s misplaced values, might he simultaneously be calling for more socialistic policies to be enacted so that a “safety net” could be provided for adults reaching the end of their working years? Perhaps, he may argue, such tragic ends could be averted should American families be provided with a means of income aside from a life insurance policy when their breadwinners are physically and mentally spent.
Without this sense of security, a man who has poured his life into a company, only to be discarded when he is no longer useful, is often left with utter hopelessness. Willy says it best in the line, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit” (Miller 1063). In highlighting the materialism of 1950s America, Arthur Miller suggests that human beings in the workforce have, too, become materials—objects—to their employers. Clark Davis explains that “leaders of emerging corporations in the early twentieth century made enormous demands on their employees. Employers expected from employees nothing less than total commitment” (330). Prioritizing the success of the company above the well-being of its workers, corporate leaders embraced the very attitude which Willy Loman protests: the throwaway commodity culture. This mentality leads to Willy’s growing sense of insecurity as he continuously measures himself against successful members of the company, watching as age and wear drain him of value to his employers. “I talk too much” (Miller 1036), “I joke too much” (Miller 1036), “I’m fat” (Miller 1036), “I’m not dressing to advantage” (Miller 1036), he criticizes himself, pointing out every superficial quality which might be impeding his success in his job. When a man must worry about his most surface-level traits determining his monetary success or failure, the skewed mindset of employers, consumers, and employees is brought to light. Through his many examples within Willy Loman’s life, Miller calls for a realignment of values and a sensical standard of dignity for the working man, asserting that the workforce should be a place where merit and humanity are valued above appearance and air.
These objectifying and materialistic aspects of the 1950s perception of the American Dream are where Arthur Miller finds most fault. When Americans become so inundated with materialism that they begin to objectify each other, voices such as Miller’s must be heard, and changes to the collective mindset must be made. At its heart, the American Dream is noble and true, something all Americans can and should strive towards in their individual ways. However, when the pursuit of status and material wealth leads to the sacrifice of health, life, and dignity, the true goal of the American Dream must be revisited, for which of these sacrifices could truly lead to happiness?
Davis, Clark. “‘You Are the Company:’ The Demands of Employment in the Emerging Corporate Culture, Los Angeles, 1900-1930.” The Business History Review, vol. 70, no. 3, 1996, pp. 328–362. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3117241. Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.
Goff, Keli. “The American Dream is Dead, and Good Riddance.” The Daily Beast, 7 Jul. 2014. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.proxyvc.vcccd.edu/docview/ 1649007966?accountid=39859. Accessed 27 Nov. 2018.
Kamp, David. “Rethinking the American Dream.” Vanity Fair, vol. 51, no. 4, Apr. 2009, pp. 118. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.proxyvc.vcccd.edu/docview/ 201112240?accountid=39859. Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. The Norton Introduction to Literature, Mays, Kelly J., 2017, pp. 1018-1099.
Siegrist, Johannes. “Chronic psychosocial stress at work and risk of depression: Evidence from prospective studies.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 258, pp. 115-119, 2008. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.proxyvc.vcccd.edu/pqrl/docview/214160427/5FBFAFD59F64F2EPQ/4?accountid=39859. Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.
United States Census Bureau. “Section 2. Vital Statistics.” census.gov. 16 Jul. 2015. United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2006/compendia/statab/126ed/vital-statistics.html. Accessed 19 Nov. 2018.