The Death of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2023
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When others demand that we become the people they want us to be, they force us to destroy the person we really are. It's a subtle kind of murder; the most loving parents and relatives commit this murder with smiles on their faces. -Jim Morrison, in an interview for Creem Magazine.

A parent is burdened with the vital but imposing task of shaping their children into a valuable member of society, a challenge that not everyone is up to. The prospect of raising another human being can be a daunting one, and some people do the job poorly; instead of creating an asset to society, they create a burden. In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a selfish parent who produces problematic children by "demand[ing] that [his sons] become the people [Willy] want[s them] to be" and "destroy[ing] the [people his sons] really are”. In addition to showing preference, an action that has the potential to devastate a person, he feeds lies to his sons and impresses his own dreams upon his children. Thus, Willy's selfish and unskillful parenting causes his sons to lead unhappy lives.

Miller makes it clear that the negative effects of Willy's incompetent parenting manifest in his sons at an early age. Even when his boys are high school students, Willy blatantly displays his preference for Biff over Happy. By constantly praising Biff while barely giving Happy a second glance, he causes Happy to yearn to be treated as an equal by his father. Happy is always jostling for attention and constantly interrupting conversations with "I'm losing weight, you notice, Pop?" only to be brushed aside (Miller, 1976, I, 33). His desperation to be noticed leads him to take Willy's side against Biff.

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When young Biff steals a football, Happy, thinking that Willy would disapprove, scolds Biff with hopes of gaining his father's approval. However, Willy praises Biff instead, declaring that "coach'll probably congratulate [Biff] on [his] initiative" (ibid, 30). Even years after graduating from high school, Miller shows that Happy still sees his brother as the apple of his father's eye and does everything he can to try to make Willy love him. Happy subconsciously tries to mirror the person Biff was when they were kids in an attempt to gain his father's approval. He copies young Biff's confident manner about girls, claiming he has access to "plenty of women" and that even though he "don't want the girl[s], and, still [he] take[s them]" (ibid, 23, 25).

He resents his older brother for being more loved than he is, but does not recognize that the source of his innate dissatisfaction with his own life is, in fact, his father and not Biff. He defends his father to the end, refusing to believe Biff when Biff tells Happy that their father "had the wrong dreams" and "never knew who he [Willy] was" (ibid, II, 138). Happy's constant strain for approval from his father also leads him to become equally desperate for praise from other sources. At his job, he endeavors to "show some of those pompous, self- important executives over there that [he] can make the grade" (ibid, I, 24). After living in the shadow of his brother for his entire life, Happy is finally starting to appear as the successful brother, but the damage done to his self-esteem by his father when he was a kid is irreversible nevertheless.

Willy's affection for Biff leads to repercussions for Biff as well. Willy is so caught up in Biff's high school football stardom that he fails to see a potential problem beginning to take root. He blows Biff "so full of hot air [that Biff] could never stand taking orders from anybody" (ibid, II, 131). Willy encourages young Biff to cheat and steal, always blaming someone else for Biff's failures. When Willy finds out that Biff has failed, the first words that come out of Willy's mouth are "you mean to say Bernard wouldn't give you the answers?" (ibid, 118). Furthermore, Willy tells his boys to steal wood from the construction site nearby, bragging to Charley "you shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds a money" (ibid, I, 50).

As a result, later on in his life, Biff burns through his jobs, losing them because he consistently steals things from work. His kleptomaniac tendencies prevent him from ever holding down the kind of job that his father expects of him; instead he wants to work "out in the open" (ibid, 23). However, because he has always been conditioned to believe that he wholly deserves the life of a well-dressed, white-collar man like Bernard, he undergoes a crisis when he "realize[s] what a ridiculous lie [his] whole life has been" (ibid, II, 104). Willy's constant praise of and near-obsession with his oldest child not only ruins his son, but also dashes any hopes that might remain for Willy to see his dream of a successful family realized.

Willy is ultimately disappointed by his sons' unexciting lives. When Willy finds out that Bernard is staying with a friend who has a tennis court, Willy sees this as a symbol of incredible importance, saying with reverence "Don't say. His own tennis court" (ibid, 91). Willy does not find out that Bernard is arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court until Charley brings it up, but once he discovers this fact, he is shocked that Bernard would not advertise such a fact and exclaims to Charley that "[Bernard] didn't even mention it!" (ibid, 95).

Next to Bernard, Willy's children seem painfully insignificant and unimportant. Wondering where he had gone wrong in their upbringing and desperately wanting to fix the problem, he turns to his now-deceased brother Ben in his delusions, even though Willy is resentful that Ben was rich and successful when he himself was not. However, because of Ben's success, Willy finds himself resorting to asking Ben for his advice, confessing "I'm afraid I'm not teaching [my sons the] right [way]" and asking, "Ben, how should I teach them?" (ibid, I, 52).

His jealousy is likely the driving force behind his desperation for successful children; after seeing many of the young people around him grow into seemingly perfect embodiments of "The American Dream,' such as Bernard, Ben, and Howard, Willy is disappointed that his sons don't achieve the same accomplishments.

The Loman family's situation is not unlike the story of many other middle- and upper-class families in modern society. Willy's two sons, Happy and Biff, each have their own problems, but the root of each lies in Willy and his ineffective parenting skills. He permanently damages Happy's self-image and ability to have healthy relationships with others by displaying too much affection towards Biff. This favoritism, in turn, causes overconfidence and thieving habits in Biff and prevents Biff from being able to act on his former, teenaged potential. When Willy's desperation even outweighs his resentment for his successful older brother, Miller proves that Willy does, in fact, value the financial success of his sons as his primary priority, as opposed to their happiness or their emotional stability.

This is directly contrasted by the life of Harvey Specter in the television drama Suits. Harvey is a handsome, multi-millionaire attorney who made his money by becoming "the best closer in New York City" (Korsh, Pilot). He lives the kind of life that Willy obviously dreams for his sons; simultaneously a witty playboy and a cunning lawyer, Harvey comes in to work in an expensive suit every day and makes millions of dollars winning cases for powerful and famous clients. Harvey's troubled family history eventually catches up with him when a spiteful rival attorney digs up information about his adulterous, sex-driven mother.

However, Harvey's positive and loving relationship with his father is ultimately what fans the flame of ambition in him and allows him to become the successful lawyer he grew up to become, unlike Willy Loman or his sons. The directly contrasting experiences of the Loman brothers in Miller's play and of Harvey Specter in the television program respectively prove that a father figure can make or break a potentially very successful child. A parent should always value the happiness and well-being of their son or daughter over their child's financial or commercial successes; failure to do so will only cause the hinder the child and destroy any chance they had of becoming the billionaire businessmen that their parents wish of them.

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The Death of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. (2023, Apr 20). Retrieved from

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