The American Dream in "Death of a Salesman"

What is the American Dream? It depends on which character you ask

Death of a Salesman
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (center) as Willy Loman on Broadway. Mike Coppola / Getty Images

What is the appeal of the play "Death of a Salesman"? Some may argue that it is the struggle of each character's pursuit of the 'American Dream,' which is one of the central themes of the story.

This is a valid point because we see each of the Loman men following their own versions of that dream. Willy has a completely different definition than his brother Ben. By the end of the play, Willy's son Ben has dropped his father's viewpoint and redefined his version of the dream.

Maybe it is that pursuit which draws directors to produce the play every year and why audiences continue to flock to the performances. We all have an 'American Dream' and we can relate to the struggles in realizing it. The true wonder in "Death of a Salesman " is that we can relate and that we can feel what the characters are experiencing because we have all been there in one form or another.

What Does Willy Loman Sell?

In the play "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller avoids mentioning Willy Loman’s sales product. The audience never knows what this poor salesman sells. Why?  Perhaps Willy Loman represents Everyman.”

By not specifying the product, audiences are free to imagine Willy as a seller of auto equipment, building supplies, paper products, or egg beaters. An audience member might imagine a career linked with his/her own, and Miller then succeeds in connecting with the viewer.

Miller’s decision to make Willy Loman a worker broken by a vague, unfeeling industry stems from the playwright’s socialist leanings. It has often been said that "Death of a Salesman" is a harsh criticism of the American Dream.

However, it may be that Miller wanted to clarify our definition: What is the American Dream? The answer depends on which character you ask.

Willy Loman’s American Dream

To the protagonist of "Death of a Salesman," the American Dream is the ability to become prosperous by mere charisma.

Willy believes that personality, not hard work and innovation, is the key to success. Time and again, he wants to make sure his boys are well-liked and popular. For example, when his son Biff confesses to making fun of his math teacher’s lisp, Willy is more concerned with how Biff’s classmates react:

BIFF: I Crossed my eyes and talked with a lithp.​​

WILLY: (Laughing.) You did? The kids like it?

BIFF: They nearly died laughing!

Of course, Willy’s version of the American Dream never pans out.

  • Despite his son’s popularity in high school, Biff grows up to be a drifter and a ranch-hand.
  • Willy’s own career falters as his sales ability flat-lines.
  • When he tries to use “personality” to ask his boss for a raise, he gets fired instead.

Ben’s America Dream

To Willy’s older brother Ben, the American Dream is the ability to start with nothing and somehow make a fortune:

BEN: William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!

Willy is envious of his brother’s success and machismo. But Willy’s wife Linda is frightened and concerned when Ben stops by for a brief visit. To her, he represents wildness and danger.

This is displayed when Ben horses around with his nephew Biff. Just as Biff starts to win their sparring match, Ben trips the boy and stands over him with the “point of his umbrella poised at Biff’s eye.”

Ben’s character signifies that a few people can achieve the “rags to riches” version of the American Dream. Yet, Miller’s play suggests that one must be ruthless (or at least a bit wild) in order to achieve it.

Biff’s American Dream

Although he has felt confused and angry since discovering his father’s infidelity, Biff Loman does have the potential to pursue the “right” dream – if only he could resolve his inner conflict.

Biff is pulled by two different dreams. One dream is his father’s world of business, sales, and capitalism. But another dream involves nature, the great outdoors, and working with his hands.

Biff explains to his brother both the appeal and the angst of working on a ranch:

BIFF: There’s nothing more inspiring or – beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. And it’s cool there now, see? Texas is cool now, and it’s spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not getting anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old. I oughta be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home.

However, by the end of the play, Biff realizes that his father had the “wrong” dream. Biff understands that his father was great with his hands; Willy built their garage and put up a new ceiling. Biff believes that his father should have been a carpenter, or should have lived in another, more rustic part of the country.

But instead, Willy pursued an empty life. Willy sold nameless, unidentified products, and watched his American Dream fall apart.

During the funeral of his father, Biff decides that he will not allow that to happen to himself. He turns away from Willy’s dream and, presumably, returns to the countryside, where good, old-fashioned manual labor will ultimately content his restless soul.