What aspects of post-war American society are reflected in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”? “Death of a Salesman” is a critical view of post-war American society, focussing on the paradoxical enduring influence of “the Dream” and the capitalist boom. This is paradoxical as the dream and capitalism have very different ideals underlying each other, but are grouped as similar – “Death of a Salesman” illustrates this with brutal accuracy, and shows how confusing both ideals can be disastrous.
The disparity within the dream, especially in the face of reality, is one which is examined at length in “Death of a Salesman”, and which is illustrated chiefly through the play’s protagonist, Willy, a man caught up in the dream, who can’t cope with reality. Even in the opening stage instructions, which state “an air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality”, there is an implication of desperation in the dream (“clings”), and of a conflict with reality.
The danger of the dream and it’s influence is only too apparent throughout the story, which cruelly shows the flaws in the dream, for example, by contrasting Willy and Charlie’s parenting. Willy mocks the “anaemic” Bernard, who is academically successful but unpopular, instead encouraging his children to chase sporting success and popularity – “be well liked and you will never want” is the message he gives them. The statement is dripping with irony, as the audience are aware that Willy himself is not “well liked”, and he merely creates the illusion of this with a tissue of lies built up around himself.
One of the main differences between the dream and reality is the worth placed on personality, which Willy misestimates completely – he possibly realises he is not “well liked” and wrongly attributes his lack of success to this, though hates to admit it. This is not really the reason why he is unsuccessful, though – the reason is far more to do with Willy’s misconceptions about the world, as pointed out by Charlie; “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that”.
By believing entirely in the American dream, to an extent the early capitalist dream, Willy cannot accept that things change and business does not work like that. Another issue brought up by Miller is the side of the dream which demands victory; Happy sleeps with the fianci?? es of those doing better than him in the company he works for, as he cannot compete with them in business (“that’s the third executive I’ve done that to”); both Willy and Happy feel the need to exaggerate all of their achievements, in order to appear ahead of the competition.
This need for victory is another pillar of the dream, and again is damaging to the people who subscribe to it. Using Willy as the example again, he needs victory but despairingly claims that “the competition is maddening” – it is like a desire he can never satiate, as he is unsuccessful. This would be alarming enough, but it is made worse when we realise that the desire would not be satiated even if he was successful, as outlined by Hap when talking of an executive; “… he built a terrific estate on Long Island… lived in it for two months, and sold it, and now he’s building another one.