The Dream of a Salesman

The ways in which individuals take responsibility for themselves or others.

The American Dream, though defined variously for each individual, is often equated to striking success in both one’s personal and financial life. For some, the American Dream can be so idealized that it becomes one’s only purpose in life. Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s modern play, Death of A Salesman, is the epitome of a man desperately trying to achieve his dream by taking responsibility for others. Willy, a hopeful but failing salesman, distracts himself from reality and his shortcomings through the responsibility he attempts to take for his family. His skewed perception his family, especially son, Biff, allows him to live vicariously through the idealized version of this relationship, and therefore maintain his world of idealism. Willy’s idealized self perception also makes it possible for him to escape reality, as the truth of his failure is too harsh for him to bear. Miller portrays the idea that a fragile individual will attempt to pursue their idealism through taking responsibility for others. This responsibility for others will allow said individual to maintain their idealism while still managing to have a purpose, and therefore keep dreaming. However, the fragility of the character along with the dreams they so desperately cling to will render them unable to truly take responsibility for those around them, and their world of idealism will ultimately disintegrate.


An individual will create a world of idealism in which they are able to take responsibility for those around them when they feel as if they have no purpose. Willy Loman is introduced to readers as a hardworking man, consumed by his longing to fulfill the “American Dream”. This dream is to be as successful in his career as he is in his family life, and leave a legacy for himself after his death. The extent of his idealism is extremely clear, as the Loman house is described as having “An air of the dream clinging to it”. From the beginning, the lines of illusion and reality have completely blurred together, and Willy cannot differentiate between reality and his dream world. His son, Biff, is failing as desperately as his father in regards to Willy’s dream. Biff’s attempts at working in the real world have proved to be unsuccessful, and he is now back living with his parents instead of making a life for himself. In Willy’s eyes, Biff is still his golden-boy from high school, about to choose between scholarships for the upcoming college year.  Instead of accepting the truth of reality, Willy attempts to take responsibility for his son by pushing his ideals onto Biff. This responsibility allows Willy to have both purpose and a meaningful relationship – no matter how false the relationship really is. Because Willy is able to take responsibility for Biff in his idealized world, he ignores the responsibility to take care of his own mental state, which is seemingly irrelevant to him. Therefore, when an individual believes he or she is able to take responsibility for others, it solidifies a sense of purpose and self-worth in their mind. One is able to believe in the idealized version of oneself when they believe in the idealized versions of those around them. It also becomes clear that Willy is unable to let go of the past, a time where the prospect of the future was bright, clear, and exciting for both himself and his son. Furthermore, we as readers are introduced to “The Woman”, who is never named, but represents the illicit affair Willy had in his younger days. His failures are now not only present in the workplace, but also in his marriage with wife Linda, who “not only loves him, but admires him.” Though Linda believes Willy is taking responsibility for her and his family, our exposure to “The Woman” allows us to understand that Willy is only able to really take responsibility for others in his idyllic world. He is unable to take responsibility for his wife when he is unable to take responsibility for himself. This inability to take responsibility stems from both one’s ignorance of reality and the act of escapism, which has blurred the lines for Willy between reality and illusion.  


In an attempt to save their world of idealism, one begins to desperately try and take responsibility for others when reality begins to invade this dream world. It becomes clear to readers that Willy is unable to cope with reality once he is no longer contradicting himself, but existing in a world of memories. One could argue that Willy is starting to understand his failures, but attempts to escape these failures by turning them into success in the form of Biff. Though initially Willy idolized his son, he is now grooming Biff to be the version of himself that he never could be. Willy truly believes that he is taking responsibility for Biff and for Biff’s future by pushing these ideals onto him. He so desperately wants Bill to have the life of a salesman, with all the honour, pride, and responsibility that Willy believes comes with the job. He even goes so far as to push Biff to interview for a job with one of his old employers, Bill Oliver, for a job in which is completely undereducated and ill-equipped for. When realism begins to seep into the cracks of an idealized world, one clings to the relationships around them in order to maintain their illusion. Relationships, in many cases, are built by the idea of responsibility. The ability to be responsible for one’s family is one of the most important facets of the American Dream, which is perhaps why Willy is holding onto it even tighter now.  If Biff is able to have the job that Willy had, and become the man Willy was never able to become, Willy’s life and dreams will not have been in vain. Nevertheless, the unforgiving light of reality is held to Willy’s face even more as he begins to recall the one event that destroyed his successful and responsible relationship with Bill. Willy keeps having fragmented flashbacks of Biff “flunking math” by “only four percent”. This memory reiterates Willy’s inability to take responsibility for his son’s life and future, as Willy was too focused on the future success of his son to worry about the present. Furthermore, reality sets in even more when Willy is fired from his job after working for 25 years. His young employer tells Willy that he is “tired” and should come back after taking some time to rest. This is when Willy’s idealism begins to disintegrate just enough for him to slip into a state of paranoia. He ignores this fact and simply puts all his energy into taking responsibility for his family as best as he can. This ignorance and lack of awareness of reality is able to work as long as an individual can take responsibility for those around them.


When the harsh light of reality hits an individual consumed by dreams, they are forced to understand their inability to take responsibility for others, which destroys their idealism and shatters their identity. The coping mechanism of escaping reality into a world of idealism worked extremely well for Willy until he was no longer able to take responsibility for his son. Biff, the epitome of Willy’s idealism, becomes the light of reality that destroys his father. Biff finally breaks the news to his father that he will never be the man Willy wants him to be. Instead of maintaining the ideals that Willy had so intricately woven, Biff instead tore them down in one fell swoop of reality. He admits to his father that he would never be able to get the job Willy had set him up for, and that his lack of higher education made it almost impossible for Biff to attain the American Dream that Willy holds so close to his heart. Once again, Willy escapes from the situation in a frenzy, desperately looking for seeds to plant in his barren garden. This garden is a symbolic representation of Willy’s unfulfilled life and dreams – his lack of responsibility, wealth, happiness, and disjointment in his family. He says, crazed, that he “Needs something in the ground”., which refers to him having some physical representation of a legacy to leave behind. Willy refused to die without having attained some semblance of his dream. When Biff took away Willy’s ability to take responsibility for another individual, he took away all of WIlly’s purpose and self worth. For idyllic individuals, the ability to take responsibility for another can be so heightened that it represents a world of idealism. An inability to take responsibility results in a disintegration of illusion, and a brutal confrontation with reality that fragile individuals cannot bear. It is clear that Willy knows his life is coming to an end when he has a conversation with his brother, Ben, who he hasn’t seen in years. This hallucination is so vivid that it blurs into Willy’s conversations with both Linda and Biff, who are trying to bring him back into the real world. Willy has no way of differentiating between the two worlds, and the only way out of his failures and broken dreams is through the certainty of death. Willy Loman’s death was perhaps one of the most tragic in literary history, for he did not die the death of a salesman that he so wholeheartedly desired. When his ability to take responsibility of others was taken from his grasp, so were his dreams and ideals. At his funeral, readers are able to finally understand the reality Willy was running from. It was one with no prosperity, no real admiration, and a lack of the honour built his life searching for.


In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the author portrays the desperate pursuit of attaining the American Dream through the character of Willy Loman. Willy creates an idealized world in which he is able to attain these dreams – one where he can take responsibility for his family which he so loves and respects. However, when the ability to take responsibility for others is taken from an individual, their world of idealism will also crumble. Therefore, when a fragile individual attempts to maintain a world of idealism, they will often do so through taking responsibility for others, which allows them to have some semblance of pride, self-worth, and purpose.

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