Arthur Miller’s Ideas about ‘The American Dream’
Arthur Miller himself once stated that the play is tricky to categorize because none of its characters stand up and make a speech about the great issues which he believes it embodies. This is also a problem for anyone who would attempt to develop a clear idea about what messages Death of a Salesman attempts to deliver and consequently it is often advised that exploring any inconsistencies or complications is more beneficial than trying to explain them. As with any question one of the most important factors is personal interpretation; in this case perhaps rather than try to understand to what extent Arthur Miller wanted to explore American ideals in his play, a student could talk about their own engagement with the text or what has been suggested by critics from various schools of thought in the larger literary world.
Toward the end of the second act, Willy screams ‘the door of your life is wide open’ towards his son, Biff. Ordinarily, these are words of encouragement however in this context they are used as a threat; the ‘American Dream’ of equal opportunity has been twisted by consumerism into a necessity for self-improvement and success. The idea that self-worth can be determined by social standing is one which originated with Protestantism and it could be suggested that Willy lives in a society which embraces this concept and, indeed, that it is perpetrated by individuals such as Willy who cannot conceive of a value system which operates beyond the boundaries of a social matrix.
How it works
Furthermore, the way in which he sells himself to others, (lying to Linda about the amount he earns, calling himself a ‘big shot’ in front of his son, and the insistence that he is not ‘a dime a dozen’), could be interpreted as a criticism on the dehumanizing effect of capitalist society; as Willy himself says ‘a man ends up worth more dead than alive’. When this was mentioned to Arthur Miller he pointed out that Charley, a capitalist, is the most ‘decent’ human being in the play. I do not think that knowing exactly what occurred in the playwright’s mind as he wrote Death of a Salesman is as important as having the ability to explore the material and develop your own understanding.
In this particular case saying that Arthur Miller uses Willy as a mouthpiece for his own ideas about ‘The American Dream’, while a perfectly valid opinion, would miss out on the opportunity to explore the complex nature of the relationship between father and son, the small quotes which demonstrate various aspects of their personalities, the social forces and personal reactions which motivate each member of the Loman family and of course the various possible critical interpretations provided by such details.