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

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

“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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The Pursuit of Purpose: Reflection on “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

October 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Snows of KilimanjaroMan has been pursuing purpose and the meaning of life since the beginning of creation. As society has advanced technologically, this perennial struggle has not changed. Each generation seeks to prove the worth of its great struggles and triumphs hoping to make some great impact on the future of Earth that will somehow stand out among the countless generations that have come before and will come after. This struggle is no different and is often reflected by the individual members of these generations. The desire to be remembered for great accomplishments is seeded deeply within every person who has walked the planet throughout history. In the story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the desire of the human heart to be remembered by future generations and to be satisfied as one enters the twilight of life is highlighted as Harry, robbed of physical capability by a gangrenous wound, looks deep inside himself and recounts his personal struggle between integrity and decadence, as well as the lingering difference between leaving a lasting, positive legacy and obscurity.

It had begun as a journey to rediscover who he was. This African safari was supposed to remind Harry of everything that he loved and everything that he had been in the glorious days of his past. This was to be a safari teetering between hardship and luxury reminiscent of the distant past, but with many of the comforts of his present situation that his rich wife afforded. Perhaps, he was trying to rediscover his muse, but what had begun as a journey of rediscovery had come to a screeching halt and pulled up to the station of utter tragedy. Why hadn’t he treated this silly little scratch with iodine? How did such a small nick turn into a gangrenous life threatening wound? Why hadn’t he forsaken this blasted safari in the first place? These were the questions that Harry pondered as he lay on his cot feeling the very presence of death stalking him, hunting him. Something had drawn him back to the African continent. Was it death? Was it God? Harry was not sure of what or who had drawn him back to the Dark Continent, but now that he was firmly in its terrible grasp, he pondered the implications of the life he lost−the trade that he had made in order to secure his present situation of fiscal security and comfort. Like the leopard climbing Kilimanjaro forever frozen in place on its noble quest, Harry had set out on a quest of his own to ascend the House of God and find the part of him that he had lost and desperately sought to regain. Now he found himself in utter desolation surrounded by a wife that he didn’t love, an inept guide, and the presence of an oddly familiar hyena. What had led him down this path?

Harry was a writer. He was a good writer. Ironically, though, Harry hardly wrote. In one of life’s most tragic twists, he had surrendered the creativity that was most important to him in the pursuit of the decadent, easy life. “She didn’t drink so much, now, since she had him. But if he lived he would never write about her, he knew that now. Nor about any of them. The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and repetitious” (2256). As Harry lay on his cot, the implications of his life washed over him like an uncomfortably hot summer wind, causing him to seek within himself the answers that he thought he could find on his ill-fated safari. Why hadn’t he written? Why had he compromised his talent and cheapened the love and aspiration of his life? “What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil” (2248). Compromise is such a terribly wonderful concept when used within the bounds of a relationship. It is the fuel that keeps love’s fire burning brightly and balanced. But when used in relationship to one’s morality or life aspiration, the word compromise has a much more ominous and deadly meaning. When Harry chose to compromise all that he deemed important, which was his God-given talent for writing, he lost himself irrevocably. He had effectively committed mental and spiritual suicide because he had lost not only what was vitally important to his mental well-being, but in actuality he had lost everything that made him who he was.

As he lay on his cot, reveling in the emptiness of his life, he began to recount the stories that he had meant to tell. Wave after wave of regret washed over him as he tried to put the pen to paper one last time as death silently stalked, its weight becoming more and more tangible with each passing moment. He tried to remember. He tried to remember and write as fast and as furiously as possible, but it was not enough. Harry then realized the futility of his effort. His life was wasted. Now they would never know. The world would never know the story of Williamson the bombing officer or the half-wit chore boy because Harry chose to compromise who he was created to be instead of clinging to integrity and the pursuit of his life’s purpose. Death then made its final approach and settled its weight on Harry’s chest stifling any chance at redemption.

This story has grave implications for the reader. There are several themes that run throughout the course of the story, but the most salient theme by far is one that despises the compromise of one’s created purpose to pursue personal indulgence. Each person is created with a purpose. “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (New International Version, Jer. 29:11). Harry had lost his desire to accomplish his purpose. Hemingway uses this story as a parable of sorts to caution the reader to never deny the purpose for which you have been created. This is seen within the story time and time again as Harry reminisces about his past. The regret of not writing his stories comes bubbling through in his final moments of life. Hemingway’s overarching theme is to be true to oneself and live without regret.

Another important theme that can be gleaned from the story has to do with the internal struggle within the heart of mankind to find balance between compromise and notoriety. Every person has a desire to leave a lasting mark on the generations to come. Some will have a greater footprint than others, but the desire to be remembered exists in the heart of every member of the human race. The interesting fact of humanity, however, is that although everyone desires to leave their mark, few actually have the drive to ensure a lasting impression. Harry is the epitome of this condition. He embodied the talent needed to leave his mark on the literary world, but due to needless self-indulgence and the pursuit of easy living, his potential will be forgotten. In the final moments of Harry’s life, he ponders what his legacy will be and how his legacy would have been changed if he would have put his talent as a writer to good use instead of trading it for a lavish life of comfort and debauchery. This is again another caution from Hemingway to the reader to live each day like it is your last with no regret and to use what you have been gifted with to leave a positive impression that makes life better for future generations.

The simple truth of this life is that material possessions pass away with time and the only thing that matters when death begins its slow dance, is the sum of what an individual has done to better the life of those that have been put into his or her path and that he or she has stayed true to the purpose that God has set forth for life. Heed the warning of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It is better to be forever frozen on a mountaintop as a monument to the pursuit of life’s purpose rather than to stalk the plain in comfort and decadence, fading into obscurity and leaving this life with unfulfilled dreams and very evident regrets.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2243-2259.

Zondervan NIV Bible.  Fully rev. ed.  Kenneth L. Barker, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.  Print.