The Theme of the American Dream
The American dream is most often defined as being successful and financially stable. To achieve the American dream, one must work hard and sometimes people can be so focused on their goals that they can be causing pain, both emotionally and physically, without noticing. The play, Death of a Salesman written by Arthur Miller in 1949, presents a family of four that has many conflicts which stem from different views of the American dream. The play, Sweat written by Lynn Nottage in 2015, is about a group of friends who have many disagreements about their goals which eventually leads to the demise of their friendship. The theme of the American dream is also very prevalent in the play, A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry which presents the hardships of achieving the American Dream for the Younger family. The most notable themes, shared by these plays, is the apparent need for the American dream and the authors convey these themes through their use of dialogue and stage direction.
The authors use arguments between the characters to portray how being fixated on achieving success can blind an individual from the extensive amount of trouble they are causing. Within this the authors are also conveying that each person has their own concept on what they envision for the term “the American dream.” In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is father to Biff and Happy. Willy believes that being a salesman is the definition of the American dream and he has always pushed his belief onto his children. Biff does not want to be a salesman and his dream is to work on a farm which causes an ongoing dispute between the family. Biff feels torn because he cannot be what his father wants without sacrificing his own happiness. Eventually Biff begs his father to let him go by saying, “[crying, broken]: Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens? [Struggling to contain himself, he pulls away and moves to the stairs.] (106).” This quote depicts the turmoil that Willy Loman had caused his son Biff. Like every parent, Willy had hopes and dreams for his son that he became fixated on. This fixation cause Willy to be harder on Biff and made Biff feel like he was the problem because he couldn’t fulfill his father’s hopes.
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The play, Sweat, also has many disputes that arise from achieving the American dream. The character Cynthia had just been given a promotion which requires her to betray her friends and her son. Cynthia had to do her job and lock out the workers at the plant and this caused turmoil between their once close-knit group. After doing the task Cynthia said, “I thought they’d take the damn deal. You think I’m happy about this? I locked out my own son. I saw the hurt in his face. But you wanna know the truth, and this is the truth, maybe it’s for the best right? It’ll finally get him out of this sinkhole (91).” This quote shows how Cynthia wants the best for her son like Willy Loman does for Biff. Cynthia had to make a decision and it resulted in her son, Chris, being unemployed. She doesn’t want to feel bad about the things she has done so she is convincing herself that she did what was best for him because Cynthia knows that her son’s dream is attend college and be teacher. She is blinding herself from the reality that she is causing her own son and friends such turmoil. Each play displays how people tend to focus all their attention on the goal, that they do not notice the major issues that begin to arise once the problem is already out of hand.
Each play illustrates the difficult decisions that must be made and the amount of effort that it takes to achieve the American. In the play, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman has been a salesman for almost thirty-six years and his commitment has taken a toll on his mental health. Willy has been struggling and says, “I was driving along, you understand? And I was fine. I was even observing the scenery… And then all of a sudden I’m goin’ off the road! I’m tellin’ ya, I absolutely forgot I was driving. If I’d’ve gone the other way over the white line I might’ve killed somebody… I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts (4).” His family has had a hard time dealing with his health issues, especially his wife Linda. She says, “A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man. He works for a company thirty-six years this March, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away (40).” These two quotes show the reality of achieving the success of the American Dream. Willy Loman has been working for the same company for almost thirty-six years and it shows the commitment and exhaustion he has endured over the years. The first quote displays the effect that Willy’s exhaustion has had on his mental health. He has been working to the point that his mind and body are overworked and tired. In Sweat, there was a discussion between Cynthia and Tracey.
After Cynthia had to lock out her friends from the plant, they had run into one another at their favorite bar. They tried to talk about the events that had happened, and Cynthia said, “I thought they’d take the damn deal. You think I’m happy about this? I locked out my own son. I saw the hurt in his face… and Tracey replied “I looked for your eyes. Just gimme something. Cynth. A little look, to let know it’s okay, but you wouldn’t even fucking look at me. (91-93). This quote shows the reality that of choosing the American Dream over the ones that you love. She had been committed to the company since she was out of high school and has never left since. She chose her own success over her friends/family and this dialogue shows how she had to choose to abandon them to be successful. A Raisin in the Sun also depicts the years of hard work that is needed to achieve one’s goals. In a scene, Walter list the jobs that his family has worked to be able to earn the money for house that they have bought. He says, “ I mean—I have worked as a chauffeur most of my life—and my wife here, she does domestic work in people’s kitchens. So does my mother. I mean—we are plain people … (Really like a small boy, looking down at his shoes and then up at the man) And—uh—well, my father, well, he was a laborer most of his life… (146-147). ” This quote shows the amount of work that each person in the Younger family had to contribute to make their dream of owning that home, into a reality. Generations of the Younger family have had to endure backbreaking work in order to become closer and closer to achieving their American Dream.
These plays outline just how important it was to achieve the American dream and how having barriers from achieving the dream can lead to one’s downfall. Throughout the play, Death of a Salesman, Willy’s mind has been deteriorating to the point that he has considered taking his own life. His wife and son believe that once the boys are successful in their careers, Willy’s health will improve. Until there is a meeting between Willy and Howard, his boss. Willy went to request a change in his location and it ended with Howard firing him. Howard said, “I don’t want you to represent us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now…. I think you need a good long rest, Willy (63).” This made Willy feel like a failure because he was unable to achieve his American Dream. Later on, Biff let him know that he loved him, and Willy was happy for a moment but still felt despair. The play shows how he obstacle between Willy’s dream lead him to his demise. Willy lived for his son’s and to achieve his goal of being a successful salesman.
After Willy had been fired and reconciled with his son, he believed that he had nothing left to live for and took his own life. In Sweat, Jason had visited his mother Tracey once he had got out of jail. He needed to borrow some money because he had none himself and he discovers that his mother’s unemployment has caused drastic problems. Tracey gives him money and lets him know that she needs to be paid back right away. He takes the money but ends up giving it back to her because he feels that she does not want to help him. Tracey says, “Fine. Give it here. (She grows antsy. She needs a fix. Jason extends the money, and she snatches it from him desperate.)” Jason replied, “Jesus, look at you…. How the fuck did this happen? (120).” Tracey was on her way to achieving her goals with the help of her continuous commitment and work at the factory.
After Tracey was laid-off and unemployed her life took a turn for the worst. Her son was in jail and she was alone. She eventually became an addict because she had nothing else. These situations of these plays are similar to that in A Raisin in the Sun. Mama had given Willy the money to invest in his liquor store business with his friends and the money gets stolen by one of his friends. Walter shows another example of being fixated on the American dream can lead to their downfall. His mother gave all the money, including the money that was to be put in the bank for Beneatha, and in that one second it is was all gone. All of these plays display how once people have been driven off of the pathway to their American dream it feels as if their whole life has been for nothing and this can lead to their downfall.
The American dream is always depicted as this beautiful image but the amount of work behind it is rarely talked about. People tend to focus on the destination and not the journey like they focus on the American dream and not the efforts. From reading these plays, the reader is able to understand the reality of American dream and all that it entails. The authors use of stage direction and dialogue are able to carry their ideas to the reader that the American dream is much more than the ending. With the American dream individuals have to make huge sacrifices and make big decisions. Sometimes it entails choosing between one’s own success and their friend/family relationships. The characters show how people tend to not notice the trouble they are making until it is too late. They try to make excuses to justify their decisions. They also depict how once there are unexpected obstacles put between oneself and their dream, it can lead to their demise. People tend to feel that they have put in all of their efforts in, to only come out with no success. After reading these plays, we are able to see and understand the full journey of achieving the “American Dream.”
- Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: a Drama in Three Acts. Random House, 2002
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. Penguin Books, 2016.
- Nottage, Lynn. Sweat (TCG Edition). Theatre Communications Group, 2017.