Escaping the Shackles of Modern Society
Throughout the history of drama production, the underlying message meant to be conveyed has been interpreted in many ways. Terrence Smith and Mike Miller argued that “The purpose of drama is not to define thought but to provoke it,” suggesting that plays are not used to spell out a one-sided topic, but rather are meant to evoke further speculation from all angles upon a specific subject. While witnessing the plot unfold amidst the play’s dynamics, the audience has the opportunity to revisit and ponder over the presented topic via a new perspective. The play “provokes” thought, stimulating the minds of the audience to ponder and reflect upon topics. During the 1950s, a time in American history marked by conformity and reformation, the concept of the American Dream, or achieving financial stability and social prominence rose to popularity in the swiftly moving nation. Playwrights Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry’s Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun, respectively, provoke this idea of the monetary-focused American dream in the context of a capitalist society.
Death of a Salesman takes place in the late 1940s, a time in which capitalism reigned and corruption remained prevalent. The play unravels the evolution in the attitude of son Billy Loman, who slowly emerges from the oppression of his father’s pressures of idealized success. On the other hand, A Raisin in the Sun follows the journey of Walter Lee as he spirals into disillusionment upon his financial mismanagement. Through characterizations of Biff Loman and Walter Lee as adverse and disillusioned, Miller and Hansberry provoke further thought on how society’s induced stereotypes of success cripple their identities, ultimately demonstrating that the quest for materialistic endeavors absent of independent values corrupts an individual’s innate self.
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Miller depicts Biff as adverse towards Willy’s pressurizing delusions of affluence to demonstrate how Willy’s dreams shackle his son’s freedom to realize his own identity, implying that dreams molded by society’s expectations and grounded on superficial materialism funnel into the loss of self. Post high school, Biff assumes various jobs in an effort to become the stereotyped businessman satisfying his father’s dream. However, upon coming back home, he releases his frustrations, exasperated that he had spent the last “six or seven years…trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on the that subway on the hot mornings in summer…To suffer…when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella.” (Miller 22). When recounting his previous jobs of a “shipping clerk,” “salesman,” and “businessman,” Biff is resentful towards the confinement Willy’s dreams have locked him in. As he realizes that despite his laborious efforts to fulfill his father’s projected visions, he still only held a “measly manner of existence,” Biff becomes frustrated by not only his father’s constraints, but also by the pursuit of economic wealth. Miller portrays “summer,” a term usually associated with liberation and independence, as “hot” or stifling to signify the oppression of Biff’s desire to live life freely, because “all [he] really desire[s] is to be outdoors,” in which the “outdoors” symbolizes Biff’s “desire” to live his own life devoid of his father’s imposed dreams.
Thus, Miller contrasts the “outdoors,” independent of capitalism influences, against the suppressive, materialistic-based dreams of Willy. Miller also comments on capitalism, evoking thought on how it is an institution of brutal competition, where the only means to survive is to “get ahead of the next fella.” Towards the end of the play, Biff finally manages to resolve the tug-of-war between his father’s visions for him and his own desires. After failing a job interview, Biff disputes with Willy and recalls how he “stopped in the middle of that building and…saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy?” (Miller 132). In a sudden epiphany, Biff breaks free from the shackles of Willy’s dream and embraces his own. He recognizes that he doesn’t want to “become what [he doesn’t] want to be”–what Willy wants for him. With the “pen” symbolizing his father’s yearn for Biff to mold into society’s stereotype of a businessman, Biff finds his situation “contemptuous,” and that he is making “a contemptuous, begging fool of [himself].” He wonders “what the hell am I grabbing [the pen] for?”; he suddenly realizes his identity and purpose in life. Biff yearns to “stop,” do “the things that [he] love[s] in this world,” and be able to enjoy “the work and the food” and have “time to sit and smoke.” Having been shackled for his entire lifetime by his father’s wishes, Biff is finally able to break free to question his father’s overbearing authority, “Why can’t I say that, Willy?” and to realize “I know who I am!”–an independent individual with aspirations beyond succumbing to the materialistic American dream. Consequently, through Miller’s characterization of Biff, we can see how Biff is able to transcend his father’s oppressive aspirations for him to find his true self, thus illustrating how materialistic dreams funnel into the loss of self.
On the other hand, in A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry depicts Walter as disillusioned by his circumstances to illustrate how his financial shortcomings have crippled his morals, provoking further thought that materialism can possibly corrupt an individual’s self-confidence. In the play, Walter Lee uses his father’s life insurance money to pursue his dream to start a business. However, when he learns that his business partner has betrayed him and vanished with his portion of the investment in the liquor store, he becomes disillusioned and makes excuses that in this time and age, society delineates between“who gets and who don’t get…you know it’s all divided up. Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the ‘tooken.’ I’ve figured it out finally. Some of us always getting ‘tooken.’…you know why…’Cause we all mixed up. Mixed up bad. We get to looking ‘round for the right and the wrong…trying to figure out ‘bout the wrong and the right of things all the time…And all the time, man, them takers is out there operating, just taking and taking.” (Hansberry 141). Following his bankruptcy, Walter spirals into disillusionment and begins to spin philosophical excuses to alleviate the heavy guilt over losing his money, which to Walter, is akin to the loss of his social status and part of his identity.
He attempts to use fate as a scapegoat and hypothesizes that people are “divided up” in society between the “takers” and the “tooken”, and that “we are mixed up,” in which the “takers” attain their dreams and the “tooken” do not. Walter ascribes the disparity between the two to his belief that the “tooken” are “mixed up,” and are confused between what is “right and wrong,” rationalizing that those who face failures or difficulties suffer from directional confusion. Seeing that he deems himself a “tooken,” it can be witnessed his self-justified disillusionment of his own standing in society. As Walter begins to indulge in self-reassurance to trade his morals for “what counts in this world,” he loses sense of what is “right and wrong” in the quest of monetary satisfaction. Similar to how Biff was pressured to succumb to the “desires” of his father, society has pushed Walter to drift from his morals in an effort to pursue materialism and become a “taker.” Later in the play, we observe a progression of Walter’s disillusionment–an evolution from moral degeneration to cultural and identity betrayal.
When facing Mr. Lindner, an orthodox white man against the Youngers moving into his homogeneously white neighborhood, Walter mimes on his knees to his family his planned response: “Mr. Lindner…that’s your neighborhood out there! You got the right to keep it like you want! Just write the check and–the house is yours…just put the money in my hands and you won’t have to live next to this bunch of stinking n******…I’ll just get down on my black knees…A-hee-hee-hee! Oh, yassuh boss! Yasssssuh! Great white–Father, just gi’ ussenn de money…we’s ain’t gwine come out deh and dirty up yo’ white folks neighborhood” (Hansberry 144). When comparing Walter’s stance from the beginning of the play and even from his initial unraveling disillusionment to now, Walter has noticeably brushed aside his cultural identity in hopes of monetary gain. To the Youngers, the new “house” is a symbol of new possibilities, a better life, and upward social mobility. By exchanging the “house” for “money”, Walter is uprooting his responsibilities towards his family and demolishing their future and aspirations as a family in place of potential materialism. So strong is Walter’s disillusionment of society and thirst of money that he resorts to mockery of his own culture, feeding into stereotypical lingo such as “A-hee-hee-hee!” and “Oh, yassuh boss! Yasssssuh!” and self-deprecation as seen in “stinking n*******” and “get down on my black knees.” For money, he is willing to forsake his identity and culture as an African American to please the superiority complex of white society. Capitalistic society has robbed him of his identity; Walter has grown to become a mere walking shell served to fit the stereotypes set by society, similar to the walking stereotype of a respectable businessman that Willy had tried to push onto Biff. All in all, it can be seen how the stereotypes derived from capitalist society ultimately erased Walter and Biff’s identities as a consequence of their materialistic motives.
Through characterizations of Biff and Walter as adverse and disillusioned, respectively, playwrights Miller and Hansberry showcase the peril of a dream based purely on materialism and subsequent loss of identity. Yet, both individuals ultimately evolve and reach a level of independence no longer handcuffed to modern stereotypes; Biff reaches an epiphany about his self-worth and decides to pursue his own path unshackled by the visions of his father, while Walter reestablishes his identity and place as an African American in society. In a capitalist society increasingly outlined by financial strength, social status, and greed, these two plays propel further thought into the underlying message of the American dream beyond materialistic pursuits.