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The American Dream: A Reflection on “The Death of a Salesman”

“We hold these truths, to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence). The American dream spawned from this strong statement found within the Declaration of Independence written in 1776. A simple summation of the premise behind the dream is the belief that, in America, no matter the situation in which a man or woman currently finds him or herself, there is always the opportunity for betterment if one is willing to work hard enough for it. This dream has spurned many to leave comfortable situations or to work themselves to death in order to ensure that they do everything in their power to better their lives and the lives of their loved ones. America has been touted “The Land of Opportunity” by the rest of the world for several generations. What happens, however, when the dream becomes all consuming? When the pursuit of selfish ambition overshadows the entirety of one’s life? To what end will one pursuing this dream go to ensure that he or she comes out on top?

One of the greatest plagues on American society today is the narcissistic attitude that permeates much of the American population. Society is primarily centered on the idea that every man, woman, boy, and girl has to look out for him or herself in order to get along in the current social and economic system that governs the global population. This belief has led many to show utter disregard to those whom they come into contact with on a daily basis. The population at large has become so completely self-centered that America is no longer the golden land of opportunity that it once was. Instead, it is the land of dog-eat-dog politics, economic strategy, and social order. This disease undermines the basic Biblical principles that this country was founded upon and common human decency which seems to be a commodity that is in extremely short supply in society today. Is this anything new, however, or has this desire and disregard been present within the historical societies of the world since the beginning of civilization?

There are many examples of societies full of self-centered citizens who show a general lack of compassion and love for those around them. There are many stories that highlight how people within these societies treat one another. One of the most well-known, however, is the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10: 30-35 within the pages of the Bible. The general idea of the story is that there was a Jewish man who was badly beaten by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. The man is then discovered and passed by a priest and a Levite, whom was a member of the Jewish tribe responsible for many of the religious duties within the Jewish culture. Basically, these people were the ones who were supposed to care for people and express God’s love; however, they passed him on the other side of the street pretending like he wasn’t even there. A Samaritan then came upon the beaten man. In the culture of the day, Jewish people did not consort with Samaritans as they were seen as half-breed people and tainted. This Samaritan, however, had compassion on the man whom he had found in the gutter. He then picked him up, treated his wounds, and paid for the man’s stay in an inn so that he could recover. He extended a helping hand regardless of cultural heritage and the predetermined prejudices of the participants. This idea of helping for the sake of helping, eschewing social or economic stigma, is so foreign to many in today’s society where advancement of self is the primary goal of life.

The narcissistic concept dominating society today is also highlighted within Arthur Miller’s classic stage production, The Death of a Salesman. The story centers around the final days of a lifetime salesman named Willy Loman and his descent into extreme depression. This journey is highlighted by several episodes of psychosis where Willy experiences lifelike hallucinations of moments and people from within his past. He actually interacts with these hallucinations throughout the course of the production even asking the ethereal representation of his older brother for life advice as the depression begins to take over. Willy, however, had not always been the depressed shell of a man that the audience experiences over the course of his last few days on Earth.

Willy’s life had been lived in the pursuit of something greater. He had spent his entire existence fighting in the trenches in order to better himself and his family, and he had done fairly well in that regard. In his prime, Willy was quite the salesman. He had opened new avenues and territories for his employer to sell merchandise which ended with the betterment of the entire company. Willy had done very well for his family. They hadn’t been extremely wealthy, but neither had they been poverty stricken. The bills had always been paid and there had always been food on the table. He lived a hard life spending many days and nights away from his family on the road, plugging away, always looking for the latest and greatest sale in order to support his family and further the reputation of his company. He had established a fairly nice niche for himself as his company’s “New England man” (2464). However, there was no way that Willy could sustain this pace forever.

The human body was created with the ability to sustain high levels of punishment, whether physical or emotional. However, every physical body and mental balance has a breaking point. Willy had simply taken as much as his body could handle, and his delicate psychological disposition was a direct result of the life of moderate success that he had experienced, giving way to a life of utter failure.

“He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him any more. No one welcomes him. And what goes through a man’s mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn’t he talk to himself? Why? When he has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it’s his pay?” (2485).

In Willy’s mind, his life was over. He couldn’t sell. He could not provide for his wife. He couldn’t even make a pay check anymore because the ungrateful firm that he worked for had taken away his salary. “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” (2485). Willy was done and he knew it. However, no man as optimistic as Willy Loman would give up without a fight. He had hope. At the Christmas party in the prior year, Howard, Willy’s employer, had told Willy that he might be able to find him a place in the New York office so that he could get off the road and continue to provide for his family. Willy took this offer to heart; however, the character that Howard portrays in the remainder of the story suggests that he had just said this to Willy flippantly or in jest. Unfortunately, Willy was not in on the farce.

Willy walked into Howard’s office to ask the biggest favor he had ever asked of anyone. He knew that he had to get off the road, but he was a man of great pride. He did not want to ask for a hand out, but, by God, Willy felt like this company owed him something. After all, he was their New England man for thirty-six years. Thirty-six years! After that long, one would think that the company would be loyal to their man, but, at this point, the audience is presented with a first-hand example of the narcissism that is ruining our society and destroying the people within.

Willy, full of steam and gusto, laid it on the line for Howard, but his employer was so absorbed in himself and his silly new voice recorder that he hardly paid attention to the man baring his soul before him. Howard paid him little to no heed and when he finally did understand what was going on, he had the nerve to dismiss Willy from his position.

How can a man, who dedicates his entire life to a company, be thrown under the bus, dismissed like a piece of unusable trash that had served its purpose, but is no longer of any worth? Since he no longer profited the company, it was acceptable to first take his salary, then his pride, and finally to destroy his livelihood. This is the problem that society perpetuates today. Gone are the days of loyalty and respect. Greed, bitterness, self-absorption, and hate have moved in to occupy their spot within American idealism. Willy sums up the problem of lack of regard for people beautifully when he states, “You can’t eat the orange and throw away the peel−a man is not a piece of fruit!” (2496).

Willy knew that he was done, but he knew that if his sons could just get themselves on the right path with the right backing, that they could really make something of themselves. They could attain the dream that Willy toiled for thirty-six years to see to fruition but of which he had fallen short. Finally, he had it straight in his head. He knew that his boys could make the dream come true if they only had the money to get it started. Fortunately, Willy had a $20,000 life insurance policy. “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive” (2505). He knew that his death would be the ticket to his boys’ success. With great satisfaction, Willy, pushed up against a wall with nowhere to turn, ended his own life in a self-inflicted intentional car accident.

The question that bears asking is, “What truly pushed Willy to his life ending decision?” Was he left with nowhere else to run? Did he have a way out? Was it love for his boys and his desire to see them succeed? Or was he a victim of the bigger picture? Does the idea of the American dream put too much pressure on Americans to succeed?

America is by far the most overworked nation on the planet. The desire for success is so great, that many fall to the wayside as they cannot move fast enough to keep up with the pace of society or push back hard enough to deal with the overwhelming pressure that the American dream bestows on all who fall under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. The simple truth is that the American dream is not going to change anytime soon, but Americans need to reevaluate the values and methods that are used to attain a level of reasonable success. The time for a return to the values of loyalty, honor, and respect that originally defined America is at hand. Every person has value, and every person deserves to have common courtesy extended to them regardless of their economic or social status. American society will continue to morally and socially degrade until a mass of people stand up and declare that we can no longer eat the orange and throw away the peel. We have to realize that people are not worthless commodities to be thrown to the side and discarded after their assumed purpose has been fulfilled. Narcissism must die and community must grow. When will we realize that a man is so much more than a piece of fruit?

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. “The Death of a Salesman.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2462-2526.

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