Capitalism and the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, addresses the ongoing conflicts within one family.
However, he also uses the play to offer an indictment on the American capitalist system, and in it he exposes the potentially harmful and destructive myth built around the American Dream and the struggles to obtain it. The American dream is a representation of the struggles everyone is going through to achieve success in their lives. Through the protagonist, Willy Loman, Miller demonstrates everyone and their struggles.
Willy does not realize that he is living in a capitalist society and continues to use the wrong methods to attain success and accomplish his American dream. This never comes true though and the only way he can achieve it is by committing suicide.The settings in the story takes place in Boston, and New York City (Miller 1429). In the beginning of the play the setting is described as a stereotypical American household with items that include: a living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and over the bed, a silver authentic trophy stands (Miller,1429). The description of Willy Loman’s home is used to illustrates the American capitalist dream of home ownership. In particular, the “silver authentic trophy”(Miller 1429) represents competition within the American capitalist system. However, the setting description also includes “towering angular shapes behind it, surround it on all sides”(Miller 1429).
What Willy want most is freedom, but he is trapped in a society that is dominated by big buildings and business transactions. Miller uses the Lowman home to symbolize the pressure that is put on the individual by society.In the drama, Arthur Miller attempts to criticizes capitalism and societal values, which is seen in Willy Loman’s flashbacks with his children, Biff and Happy. Biff, Willy’s eldest son, holds out the football he stole and says, “Did you see the new football I got?” (Miller 1439), and states that he “borrowed it from the locker room”(Miller 1439). However, to readers the tone of this scene does not feel serious, because he laughs it off with Biff (Miller 1439). In doing so, Biff subconsciously learns that it is okay to steal for his own personal gain. The scene is significant because readers become aware of the similarities between the scene and capitalism, where people become tempted into performing immoral actions without having any regards for others. Later, in the restaurant, after Biff went to visit to Bill Oliver and doesn’t get a loan, Biff nervously tells Happy “I-Hap, I took his fountain pen”(Miller 1479) readers are made aware of Biff’s constant stealing.
He then goes on to say, “I don’t know. I just wanted to take something, I don’t know”(Miller 1479). The repeated words “I dont know”(Miller 1479), suggest that Biff felt nervous and unsure of himself. Biff’s difficulties when attempting to explain his actions to Happy indicate that stealing has become a subconscious impulse, which shows that he is unable to stop himself from from committing immoral-actions for financial gains.
Miller uses this scene to criticizes societal values and examine whether or not money outweighs moral virtues in a capitalist society.Arthur Miller also uses the character of Willy Loman to represent the dangerous myth built around the American dream. He is a living metaphor of what everyone with the American dream wants to achieve in life. Miller portrays Willy as a hardworking man who struggles to make a living while still fighting his inner imperfections. He lives in illusion that he is not who he really is. He fights to achieve something that is beyond his capacity. He however doesn’t realize that his approach to achieving the dream is wrong. He does not believe that success can be achieved through hard work rather a better personality.
His corrupted view of the American Dream is shown when he says, “the man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want”(Miller ). However, Willys distorted view of the American Dream is quickly subverted when he is fired by his much younger boss Howard, after working at his job for blah blah years. This pivotal moment of the play is crucial to readers because it shows Willy’s inability to adapt to change in a modern society. When Willy goes into Howard’s office to tell him that he would prefer not to travel anymore, Howard seems more interested in his new recording machine then Willy who is fighting for his job (Miller 1467).
When Howard leaves his office for a moment, Willy accidentally turns the recorder on and startles him enough for him to call Howard back in to help him shut it off (Miller 1467 ). The fact that Willy cannot even manage to work the wire recorder symbolizes his inability to keep up with the changing demands of society. Willy has followed “all the wrong dreams”(Miller) and must now face the harsh reality that his is no longer cut out to be a salesman.
The fact that Howard fires him with no remorse is to Willy like, “eating the orange and throwing away the peel”(Miller ). However, Miller demonstrates that is exactly what a man is when you put a dollar sign next to his name. Arthur Miller uses Willy to represent the ways in which men are used and then thrown away when they are no longer of use. Howard represents the machine of capitalism, that grinds you up and spits you out. In fact, Miller choose to make his main character, Willy, a salesman, because it is symbolic of capitalism. In the second act of the drama, In Willys final meeting with Howard, Willy tells him that joy of being a salesman comes from being “remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” (Miller 1466 ). He then goes on to say that when the old remember salesman died “hundreds of salesman and buyers were at his funeral.
Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that” (Miller 1466). Here, the word “and” is repeated, which suggest that Willys list of benefits is endless. This creates the idea that the life of a salesman is perfect.
This perfect deception of a salesman is later brought up when Willy tells Ben about his idea of committing suicide. He says “Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire!”(Miller 1491). However this image of Willys ideal salesman is later contrasted with a bleak image of the actual funeral after Willy’s suicide. Linda asks “Why didn’t any come? (Miller 1497) and “But where all all the people he knew? Maybe they blamed him”(Miller 1497). Therefore, the contrast between Willys ideal image of a salesman’s life and the depressing truth suggest that the many components of a capitalist society are over-romanticized. Charley responds to Linda by saying “Naa.
It’s a rough World, Linda. They wouldn’t blame him (Miller 1497). Granger Babcock, arthur of ” What’s the Secret? Willy Loman as Desiring Machine” writes that “the system of value that the play represents permits no true relationship between men; it permits only isolation through competition”. Similarly, Charley suggest that the relationships formed in a business are shallow and superficial. There is no true relationship between colleagues but only competition. Ironically, one of Willy’s reasons for committing suicide is seen after Biff cries for him. Willy contemplates suicide and asks Ben “Can you image that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?” (Miller 1496). Readers become aware the Willy partly commits suicide for financial reasons.
Arthur Miller criticizes the capitalist attitude when Willy comes to the resolution that financial prosperity is worth more than his own life. He also goes on to say “Imagine? When the mail comes he’ll be ahead of Bernard again! (Miller 1496). Again, Miller portrays the capitalistic idea that having more money than someone makes you better than them. Therefore, Miller takes a disapproving stance towards capitalism.
The sense of helplessness in the face of the power of society suggest that society will make the financial decision of the fate of the individual. Yet, even though Miller criticizes capitalism, he does not tell readers any clear suggestions for correcting the problems of capitalism. Indeed, Arthur Miller suggest that these problems are difficult to correct and are deeply rooted in society, as seen when Howard shows his recording device to Willy. Willy hears Howard’s son saying ” ‘It’s nine o’ clock, Bulova watch time. So I have to go to sleep” (Miller 1464). Most readers would know that Bulova is a watch company. Helge Normann Nilsen, Arthur of the critical essay “Marxism and the Early Plays of Arthur Miller” writes, “The capitalist also control most of the culture life of society and the media, spreading their conservative political views. No institution or aspect of society can escape this influence”.
Therefore, the fact that Howard’s son has memorized part of a watch commerical shows that the advertising found in capitalist society is very persuasive, and even young members of society have been affected by it. In doing so, Miller suggest that capitalism problems are hard to correct because they are so deeply rooted in society. Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about the life and troubles of a elderly salesman. However, upon further examination, readers realize that the drama was written with the intentions of enlightening readers about critical issues in society and the struggles to obtain the American Dream. Works CitedBabcock, Granger.
“‘What’s the Secret?’: Willy Loman as Desiring Machine.” Contemporary Literary Criticism Select, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 6 Dec. 2017. Originally published in American Drama, vol. 2, no. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 59-83.
Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman.” Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. 6th edition. edited by Charters, Ann and Samuel Charters.
Bedford, 2013. pp. 1427-1498.Nilsen, Helge Normann. “Marxism and the Early Plays of Arthur Miller”. Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. 6th edition. edited by Charters, Ann and Samuel Charters.
Bedford, 2013. pp. 1502-1506.