Themes of Disillusionment in the American Dream, Betrayal, and Abandonment in "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller
"Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller's best play created in 20th century, is noted for its effective portrayal and illustration of the American life in the character of its tragic hero/protagonist, Willy Loman. Set at a time where the so-called "American dream" is fulfilled by every Americans during the 1940s, "Death of a Salesman" reflects the dreams of material progress that every American had dreamed of -- thus leading to the rise of the middle class, and eventual economic growth in the country.
Given this historical context, it is remarkable that "Death" offers a different facet or perspective in discussing how the concept of the "American dream" has become a reality or illusion for the society. As in the case of Willy, despite the progress that most Americans had experienced during the said period, there are also people who experienced failure, attributed to either external factors or individual faults, or both. What the "Death" brings into light, ultimately, is the emergence of the themes of disillusionment in the American dream, betrayal, and abandonment, which are dominantly expressed in the father-son relationship between Willy and Biff.
This paper discusses and analyzes the following themes as reflected in the relationship of Willy and his family. Willy's subsistence to the American dream, this paper argues, led to his and his family's eventual disillusionment in life. In addition to feelings of disillusionment, Willy's family, especially Biff, felt feelings of betrayal and abandonment, in the same way that Willy had been betrayed and abandoned by his dreams for a successful life with his family. In the texts that follow, these important themes are discussed thoroughly, citing passages or lines from Miller's "Death" and critical literary essays about the play.
The first theme is the eventual disillusionment that Willy and his sons experience as the father enters old age, and Biff and Happy, as independent adults, already expected to become productive individuals in their community. The most pivotal event in the play is Biff's realization of his and his father's illusion of the American dream. Biff's self-realization and acceptance of his true self -- that is, what he wants to be and do in life -- serves as a wake-up call for Willy, who literally harbored dreams of achieving the American dream. The following exchange between Willy and Biff supporting this point is illustrated as follows:
BIFF: And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody!...I had to be boss big shot in two weeks, and I'm through with it!
WILLY: Then hang yourself! For spite, hang yourself!
BIFF: No! Nobody's hanging himself, Willy!...I saw -- the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world ... Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be ... making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can't I say that, Willy?
WILLY: The door of your life is wide open!
BIFF: Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!
The blatant display of disrespect by Biff towards his father shows the gradual loss of regard that occurred as the relationship between the two diminished. This demonstration of disrespect signifies Biff's self-realization that he will not be able to succeed in life following his father's dreams for them (his sons), subsisting to the belief that "personality makes the day" and not skill, ability, and industry -- characteristics that are evident only in the characters of Howard and Bernard, the anti-thesis of Willy and Biff Loman.
Indeed, Biff's self-realization signifies his regard for his self-worth, which is " ... dependent on his father's conception of success and manhood and on his father's approval" (Ribkoff, 2000:2). Thus, through his self-realization, "Biff demonstrates his ability to separate from his father and, consequently, his ability to empathize with him" (8). It is notable that in the same way that Biff relies on his father for building his own concept of his self-worth, Willy is no different from his son, since he, similarly, relies on his brother Ben and on material wealth and personality as his key towards achieving personal success.
Unfortunately, Biff's exclamation that he and Willy are "a dime a dozen" speaks the truth and reality about the Loman family, along with the realities of other American families as well. That is, the American dream is signified in every American family who dreamed of having a materially-wealthy and -- successful life; that every family experiences failure in the "American dream." However, it is vital to understand that Miller wants to illustrate that despite the failure and disillusionment that happens when the American dream fails to materialize, there are other avenues in which people and families can achieve their dreams -- that is, not the "American dream" way.
Thus, the theme of disillusionment resulting from failure to achieve the American dream in the Loman family is buffered by Biff's realization of his self-worth and ambition in life independent of his father's influence. However, as Biff enriches his personal development in life, Willy fails to find and realize his self-worth, resorting to committing suicide in order to spare himself from losing the respect from his family, which had been lost when he turned out to be a failure as a father, husband, and a salesman -- not only of material goods, but of the American dream as well. In effect, Willy " ... kills himself in order to preserve his dream of being "well liked" and a successful father and salesman ... " (8).
The theme of betrayal is also pervasive in the characters of "Death." Betrayal is embodied in Willy Loman, who had betrayed his family by committing adultery, and who was also betrayed by his ambitions, in his insistence to follow and pursue the American dream.
Willy as the betrayer is illustrated in his adultery, a betrayal that his son Biff witnessed, which ultimately became the cause of the latter's disillusionment of the respectable image his father had built for himself. Willy's reprimand towards Biff's uncalled-for visit in the hotel he was staying in shows the presence of guilt and betrayal he did for his family: "[n]ow listen pal, she's just a buyer ... Now stop crying and do as I say. I gave you an order. Biff, I gave you an order!" This line from the play is vital in the development of the story, for this exclamation from Willy will be the last time Biff will follow his father's "orders." Witnessing his father's betrayal to his mother, Biff finally acknowledges the reality that his father, like any human being, is susceptible to committing mistakes, and hence, an imperfect person struggling to make a place for himself in the world.
Thus, as Parker (1969) asserts in his analysis, Biff realizes that his father's betrayal is his own doing and not a product of circumstance or another individual, as Willy wants to believe so. For Biff, " ... Willy was to blame because he lacked self-knowledge, because his dreams were all the wrong dreams, because he let himself be caught in an inhuman system" (105). This statement speaks true of Willy as the betrayed individual, who loyally believed in the 'magic' that is the American dream.
As the "betrayed," Willy expresses his frustration of not being able to achieve his dreams in life towards his sons, Biff and Happy. He feels betrayed by his sons because they did not possess the fervent belief that he has on the American dream that people can succeed in life simply by having n excellent personality and being "well-liked" by other people. However, his feelings of betrayal against his sons are unfounded, and as the audience realize, Willy Loman's failures are his own doing, without realizing it. Ardolino (1998) argues, Willy's illusion of the American dream, of successful life achieved through charisma and being well-liked, "blinds him to reality and fills him with arrogance ... Willy's psyche drives him to suicide which he insanely believes will result in his apotheosis" (2). Thus, Willy becomes both the betrayer and betrayed, an occurrence that results to the emergence of the theme of betrayal, solely embodied by the character of Willy Loman in "Death."
There is strong manifestation linking Willy's disillusionment with his perceived betrayal of his sons and society against him. This is because his staunch belief in himself and his sons -- that is, his "self-delusion and moral confusion," made him an individual who is in touch of his dreams and illusions, and not with his reality (Centola, 1993:1). This makes him socially handicapped, not only eliciting an image of a failure to other people, but also to his own family and although he does not acknowledge it, to himself…
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