Death of a Salesman: A Critique of the American Dream

Written by Vipasha Bhardwaj

James Truslow Adams first coined the term ‘American Dream’ in his The Epic of America (1931). He defined the American Dream as the pursuit “of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world” .This vision evinced from the values demonstrated in Thomas Jefferson’s (1776) The Declaration of Independence which highlighted people’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. So Americans were looking for renewing their lives and establishing a better future. Although they were positive in nature, these interests were not without negative impact on the lives of people. It lead to extreme focus on materialism, perfection and fantasy on the expense of humanitarian and realistic values. Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman provides a vivid commentary on the American Dream. In the play, Miller criticizes the American materialism, and the self-delusion that people were afflicted with. His critique is not directed at the American Dream as such; rather it targets the greed that some people show in demonstrating their dreams for wealth and health. This is essentially provided through the character of Willy Loman, whose failure was mainly because of his illusion and pursuit of perfection. Death of A Salesman narrates the story of Willy Loman, a salesman who, as a common man, has his dreams for prosperity and wealth. However, in having his own deluded version of the American Dream, Willy fails to cope with the changes in the business atmosphere after World War Two. Rather than coping with these changes, Loman sticks to traditional models represented in his father, who presents the ideals of tradition business. In this sense, Willy tries to apply the principles that his father holds to a modern environment that no longer believes in these principles. Prior to the time of Death of A Salesman, the American society was characterized by a strong sense of individualism . As Jim Cullen argues, the American society celebrated people “who, with nothing but pluck and ingenuity, created financial empires that towered over the national imagination”. However, by the time the play was published, and the in the wake of the industrial progress that was witnessed, America was witnessing a radical shift in social and economic values. There was a considerable level of shift from individualism to social conformity. However, some groups, who lived in the frontier, clung to the old model, stressing the values of individualism on the expense on conformity.

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