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1. WHAT'S HAPPENED TO THE AMERICAN DREAM?
Historically the American dream meant a promise of freedom and opportunity for all. A new frontier lay open and anyone who worked hard could expect to have a happy and prosperous life. Today, however, we think of the American Dream in a less idealistic way, as the instant business success of those who are ruthless or lucky. The critic Harold Clurman wrote, "Instead of the ideals of hard work and courage, we have salesmanship... a certain element of fraud-the accumulation of profit being an unquestioned end in itself."
We Americans seem to feel we deserve money and material things as our birthright. Advertising reinforces our desire for possessions, often making us want things we either don't need or can't afford. Then when we don't have enough money to buy everything we want, we feel cheated somehow.
Willy Loman is a perfect example of someone who feels betrayed because he can't achieve the financial goals society has conditioned him to strive for. He worships the goddess of success, but he doesn't have the talent or the temperament to be a salesman, his chosen career. When he fails as a salesman, no other measure of success-the love of his family, his talent as a carpenter, and so on-can comfort him. He believes that a person who fails in business has no right to live.
Biff opposes his father's attitude. He chooses to be poor, if necessary, and to do the things he loves, rather than sacrifice his freedom in the mad pursuit of money. This disagreement between father and son provides the central dramatic tension of the play.
Happy wants business success and follows in his father's unhappy footsteps to try to get it. The neighbor, Charley, is content with modest wealth. His son Bernard chooses a different path, achieving professional and financial success in law, a field to which he's temperamentally and intellectually well-suited. All these characters have chosen their own ways of responding to the American Dream.
It's important to remember as you read the play that it's not a criticism of salesmanship itself, but of the pursuit of money as an end in itself.
2. LYING, EXAGGERATING, REVISING
Because he doesn't want to face his failure, for years Willy has been lying to himself and to others, fantasizing and fooling himself into a false vision of his own popularity. This erroneous view of himself, or "false pride," as his boss calls it, gets in the way of Willy's relationships.
"Who am I?" is a question we all ask. Willy, whose father and older brother went away when he was very young, has always felt insecure about how he should be conducting his life. Most of the time he covers up his feeling "kinda temporary" about himself with boasts of "hot air" (as Biff calls it). Only when he's deeply in trouble does he ask advice-"what's the secret?"- from Ben, from Charley, from Bernard, all of whom have achieved the financial success he longs for. If Willy could have accepted and made the most of his good qualities, he might not have struggled all his life to fit into the wrong mold. Note that Willy forced this mold not only onto himself but also onto his sons, causing them the same confusion over identity.
4. UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
All during the course of the play, Biff is trying to come to terms with, and ultimately rid himself of, his father's dreams and expectations. Willy expects him to be great in business because he was great in sports. Believing that Biff has all the makings of a success, Willy sees his son's failure to amount to much as a deliberate act of "spite." In turn, Biff feels his father is "mocking" him.
5. NATURE VS. THE CITY
Willy's father was a wanderer, a pioneer, a maker of flutes, and a musician. Willy's older brother Ben was an adventurer who lived in Africa where he got rich on diamond mines and invested in Alaskan timberland. Willy's sons were strong and skilful athletes in high school. All of these people, including Willy himself, have an affinity for the outdoors, for physical skills, for a happy-go-lucky, carefree existence.
Early in his career as a salesman Willy would drive through the beautiful countryside with the front windshield of his car open. He would come home to his garden and the little house he was fixing up, and play with his sons. But soon the city closed in on them, tall apartment buildings blocking the light from reaching the garden. At the same time Willy's financial demands closed in on him, overpowering him with the necessity for making money. Biff says that men like them should be doing carpentry work out in the country. In spite of Willy's objection that "even your grandfather was better than a carpenter" (note the value judgment), the expression of Willy's true nature is the flute, "telling of grass and trees and the horizon," as the stage directions say.