The American Dream is the idea that with hard work and perseverance, anyone can succeed in America, the land of opportunity. However, as time went by, the idea of the American Dream came to mean working to buy material possessions, and no matter how hard someone works, there is always more to buy. As people struggle to achieve the American Dream, companies downsize and fire people who have given their lives to that company. Capitalism in America causes a very few people to gain wealth while the rest of society just continues to struggle.
The unforgettable Willy Loman and his family demonstrate the dangers and downright destructive forces of capitalism. Willy Loman has simply unrealistic expectations of his own life and his family members. He does not face his own flaws and just cannot seem to get ahead. Willy Loman shows the dangers of getting too wrapped up in the very values of capitalism such as the idea that money equals character and material possessions defines self-worth.
As Willy continues to be unsuccessful, he feels more and more inadequate and depressed. He is courted by the grand idea of the American Dream without understanding that it is almost unattainable for many. He suffers from this system as well as his own inability to change the dream or to cope with the unrealistic nature of the dream. Capitalism kills his American Dream.
Willy raises his children by transferring his own unrealistic version of the dream to them in myriad ways. Willy’s focus in raising his children is that they be both attractive and popular. By raising his children this way, they never learn any skills that will sustain them in life. In fact, they learn really the opposite of capitalism in making the effort to get ahead.
Biff, who thinks he is above it all because he is so popular and well-liked that he doesn’t devote any time to schoolwork and ends up flunking high school math. He doesn’t make it up in summer school so he cannot go to college. He actually ends up stealing from his boss, and is basically floundering in the world. He, like his father, always has grandiose ideas about success. Happy, on the other hand, turns out another way. Happy believes that Bill Oliver (the boss Biff stole from) will lend them money for one of their half-baked plans about selling sporting goods. He is completely unrealistic and has no ambition. Happy is well-liked, especially by women, but spends all his time trying to “score.”
No effort is devoted to actually getting a job or being self-sufficient. Because Willy is so focused on the idea that his children will achieve the American Dream, he teaches them horrible values. When Biff steals a football, Willy praises him. When Biff flunks math, he ignores the fact that Biff cheated. He pumps up their self-esteem so much that they cannot hold down jobs. They cannot seem to stoop to taking orders from anyone. And Willy cannot seem to avoid making these false promises to them.
For example as he tells his boys, “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates a personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. “Willy Loman is here!” That’s all they have to know and I go right through.” (Miller 33) However, he is a salesman for the same company who lets him go without a second thought, as he becomes less useful to them. Willy is not preparing his children for a world of capitalistic corporate downsizing and such.
He pumps his children up for life but goes way too far in avoiding the truth. When Biff talks about working for Bill Oliver, he says, “How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and –I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life had been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.
I was a shipping clerk” (Miller 104). In this quote Biff summarizes the idea that Willy has filled them both full of hot air, to the point that they cannot even live in the “real” world. Biff cannot even admit that he was only a lowly clerk and so he ends up getting angry and stealing from his own boss. Willy has not allowed the boys to truly see reality.
Another capitalistic idea presented is that everyone must work and work in this world to provide for their families, to keep them in the newest things. However, people never really get to see the benefits of all their hard work. As a society, most families are in debt for everything they “own,” and they never get to see the end product of that. As Willy says, Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody left to live in it” (Miller 15).
By the time Willy works enough years in his life to pay off the house and the stuff in it, the kids are grown and he is on the verge of retirement. And as he says, “I gotta be at it ten, twelve hours a day” (Miller 37). He works so hard to provide for his family but never actually gets to spend time with them because he is always working to pay for all that stuff. In a capitalistic world, things are made to be replaced and to keep their owners paying on them. “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it is broken. I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last leg (Miller 36).
The same idea is expressed again by Willy in talking with Linda about the refrigerator. They are discussing the expensive General Electric which functions well versus the cheaper Hastings model that they bought. “Whoever heard of a Hastings refrigerator? Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the care and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac.
They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up” (Miller 73). Like the products that are all around him, Willy is also used up himself, and his company will prove this by letting him go after his dedication all these years.
The idea that everyone must work really hard and advance their way up the ladder in order to make a good living is also presented. “To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future” (Miller 22).
Ben and Charley are both presented as foils to this idea, and Willy is depressed that he does not live the lifestyle of either of these men, but he “missed the boat” so to speak. These men both kind of “luck” into things as is often the case in a capitalistic society. Many times, it makes no difference how hard one works or how liked he is or anything else; it is about being in the right place at the right time.
People can be discarded in this capitalistic world when they no longer serve their “purpose.” Willy is fired after devoting his life to the company with the horrible epithet of capitalism, “business is business.”(Miller 80). Willy has given his adult life to sales for this company, and when he is no longer “useful” to them, he is fired. “[Y]ou can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit!” (Miller 82)
The Wagner Company has sucked the life out of him and then fired him, discarding him like a useless piece of orange rind. “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” (Miller 56).
Linda is making a statement to America here about the way workers are treated in such a capitalistic society. When everyone wants to “get ahead,” humanity is lost. Willy is a person, and he deserves to be treated like one. “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” (Miller 56).
Humanity is lost. Workers should have pensions for devoting their lives to a company. As he says to Charley, “you end up worth more dead than alive” (Miller 76). His life insurance policy left to his family will provide better for them than he ever could. This again, is the sadness of many corporate lives when they have reached the end of their “usefulness” according to the powers that be.
Willy even has grandiose ideas about his own funeral and his importance in this dehumanized world. Willy has given his life for the business, and feels that his funeral will be spectacular. All the people he sold to will be there. People from all over New England will attend because he was so well-liked but in reality, no one attends—his family and Charley.
In all, Willy Loman was destroyed by the capitalistic society. Capitalism kept him working in a job to “keep up with the Jones’” he was able to buy all the things that society sells to us with the idea that they are indispensable. He devotes his life to his job in sales, never spending much time with his family because he was always on the road. In the end, what does he have to show for it? Nothing. His boys are not productive and suffer from false illusions of their own. He kills himself so that his life insurance policy will provide for his family. Arthur Miller provides this play is a kind of indictment on the way the world is progressing today, particularly America. He provides Willy Loman as a sort of tragic hero who wants to hold to some of the “old” ideas but is continually beaten down by the new trends. Capitalism kills the American Dream.
Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman, Penguin Books, Middlesex England, 1949.