American Dream in “Death of a Salesman” and “The Great Gatsby”

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Updated: Sep 11, 2023
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Over 25 million people immigrated to the United States during the 1920s in order to achieve the magnificent American dream. Although many people believe there is a classic version of the American dream that consists of gaining money and success, the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald describe them in two different manners.

In Death of a Salesman, one interpretation is that the dream can be accomplished, but it is very difficult, and people can even die trying.

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Contrarily, The Great Gatsby emphasizes the idea of money exemplifying a person’s success and that the American dream is unattainable. Fitzgerald and Miller used their works to reveal differing thoughts about the American dream by illustrating the obsession characters have with their success, the role of a main character’s death, and the represented symbols throughout both works. 

In the works, the two authors emphasize that the characters Ben and Gatsby are obsessed with their current success. In Death of a Salesman, Ben brings up that he walked into the jungle when he “’was seventeen’” (Miller, 48) and came out only four years later, declaring “’by God [he] was rich’” (Miller, 48). Moreover, Ben’s journey is described as hard work which must be done by hand. Additionally, the reader learns about Ben’s work ethic as he has been working for four continuous years. From this, it can be understood that in Miller’s eyes, the American dream can be completed, but that it will not come easily to anyone who strives towards it. 

Conversely, Fitzgerald displays his opinion about the American dream when a “lady enthusiastically” (Fitzgerald, 104) proposes for Gatsby to “’stay for supper’” (Fitzgerald, 104), even though the invitation is evidently sarcastic to everyone who has old money. Despite Gatsby having plenty of money and throws frequent parties, he never achieves upward mobility between the classes of new money and old money. This shows Fitzgerald’s clashing belief that people will never be able to fully attain the American dream, including the contribution of social acceptance from others as seen with Gatsby’s obsession with success. 

In addition, the authors also reveal their ideas about the American dream by including the role of Willy and Gatsby’s deaths. Before Willy commits suicide, his brother Ben tells him how “’The jungle is dark but full of diamonds’” (Miller, 134). While this quote might seem insightful, it foreshadows Willy’s death as Willy contemplates going in search for the diamonds in the dark jungle, which is a metaphor for Willy claiming the insurance money by killing himself. Once Willy dies, Linda lets her boys know “’[They’re] free and clear’” (Miller, 139) as they have just finished paying the mortgage for the house. 

From the context, an understanding can be drawn that finishing the payments for the house symbolizes the American dream for the Loman family. In this case, Miller shows the reader that the American dream can be attained, but that it may come with sacrifices or even death. Unlike Miller, Fitzgerald shows the impossibility of reaching the dream. After attempting and failing to gain money by working hard, Gatsby decides to partake in an illegal approach. While Tom and Gatsby are quarreling, Tom reveals to everyone about Gatsby’s “drug stores” (Fitzgerald, 134) and how he sells “grain alcohol over the counter” (Fitzgerald, 134) to make a profit. Shortly after, Fitzgerald reveals Gatsby in unable to achieve the American dream because George Wilson shot him. In contrast to Willy’s family attaining the dream, Fitzgerald states that Gatsby would never reach the American dream, even with illegal practices, shown through his death. 

The final way the authors’ opinions are expressed through their works are with the symbols of diamonds and the green light. While Ben and Willy converse about Biff and Happy’s meeting with Howard, Willy states his belief that the boys will get money for the idea they propose. In response to this, Ben tells Willy he will not get the money with “an appointment at all” (Miller, 134) and instead “A diamond is rough to the touch” (Miller, 134). This insinuates the idea that Willy will not be able to get the money he needs to support his family and pay his mortgage so easily, which is his idea of the American dream. Instead, Miller is commenting how he will need to use his hands and work hard, as deduced by the description of the diamond being rough, if he wants the possibility of accomplishing the dream. 

On the other hand, Nick from The Great Gatsby explains that “Gatsby believed in the green light” (Fitzgerald, 182) that constantly “recedes before” (Fitzgerald, 182) them. He also mentions that even though “It eluded [them] then” (Fitzgerald, 182), they “will run faster” (Fitzgerald, 182) tomorrow and “stretch out [their] arms farther” (Fitzgerald, 182) to catch the green light.

Unlike Miller, Fitzgerald shares his opposing idea that the American dream is unattainable. This can be comprehended from Nick mentioning they can never catch they green light, which symbolizes success, no matter how hard anyone tries. From the two symbols, it can be seen how different Miller and Fitzgerald’s opinions are regarding the plausibility of attaining the American dream. 

Through Ben and Gatsby’s obsession with their current success, the role of Willy and Gatsby’s deaths, and the symbols of diamonds and the green light, more can be learned about Fitzgerald and Miller’s opinions regarding the possibility of the American dream. It is important to understand how different people viewed the dream along with what it took to finally accomplish it as this would open more opportunities. Furthermore, it can lead to much more discovery not only about the specific works, but also the lives of the authors and how they reason.

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American Dream in "Death of a Salesman" and "The Great Gatsby". (2021, Apr 29). Retrieved from