SPOILER ALERTS FOR DEATH OF A SALESMAN AND THE GREAT GATSBY
I recently caught up on yet another honors paper that I neglected to do while I was swamped with homework after my concussion. I decided to read (and sparknote) the play "Death of a Salesman". Reading this play, I had much the same reaction that I did to the Great Gatsby. For the record, I did like the Great Gatsby, I just was not as enamored with the book as I was led to believe that I would be. In the Great Gatsby, I find myself trying to root on a good over an evil, in the form of Daisy and Gatsby. When this good ultimately fails, I find myself wanting some sense of emotional closure. It's not a happy book, but I suppose that it was never meant to be. The Great Gatsby reflects the 20's in more ways than the style of the times. The book itself is glamorous on the outside, full of colorful language and exciting details that enthrall the reader. However, when one gets to the end of the book, they see that the glitter on the exterior was a hollow shell, and the real message of the book is one of the hopelessness of ideals. Death of a Salesman is essentially the same message, but with a darker passage. Willy the salesman has tried to fulfill his ideal and hope of being a successful business man and provider for his family, but his mind fractures under the pressure and he goes insane before committing suicide. All said and done, junior English class has had a remarkably dark feel over the past year. That, or I have just had a more cynical approach to most of the topics presented.
As a Lutheran, one of the principle things that one is taught to separate is law and gospel, that which condemns and that which saves. Looking back, I realize that this year has been almost all law, condemning the American Dream, vice, and other naive fantasies, but almost nothing that has a theme of hope. The early works of T. S. Eliot are much the same, attacking the shallow, vain exterior of life and trying to expose an emptiness within. Many people say that Eliot lost his edge after converting to Christianity, and that his later works reflect that. I think that quite the opposite is true. Eliot, already cynical concerning the shallowness of materialism, found that, instead of a vacuum beneath the shell, there was something deeper. That breaking through to something deeper, not just a void of nothingness, is what keeps one from despairing in the face of what would seem to be a cruel, vain world of shallow interests. Keeping that in mind, I tend to be less depressed by books like these.
Though that was a long rabbit trail away from what I was meaning to post, I hope that it was at least a bit sensible. Here is my paper on Death of a Salesman, as I posit that a warped expectation of himself and others, formed by the American dream, led Willy to commit suicide. (I apologize for the formatting, I have not quite worked everything out)
Death of a Salesman shows how the American dream fractured the mind of one man to the point of despair. Using this man as an example of what ideals can do to one’s psyche, Americans should learn not to put all of their faith into reaching an ideal such as the American dream, for it is impossible. A warped expectation of himself and other, formed by the idea of the American dream, destroyed Willy’s life.
Over the course of Willy’s life, he strove to succeed in business the only way that he knew possible - by being well liked. “Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Willy wanted to be that epitome of a provider for his family, the wealthy, well-liked, well-groomed salesman who makes something of himself. Unfortunately, this idea of being “well-liked” is comparatively shallow when compared to actual love.
Willy’s wife, Linda, continually sees through Willy’s lies and self-delusion, but still stands by him steadfastly. She cares for him and for her family even Willy isn’t a good father. Unfortunately, Willy is forever striving for being “well-liked” and being helped ahead into his business. This is why Willy has his affair with the woman, who doesn’t love him, but likes him and pushes him forward in business. He is enamored with the fact that “she picked him”. The family component of the American dream is overridden by Willy’s dreams of success and wealth.
Throughout the play, various instances hint that Willy’s true passions lie not in being a salesman, but in working with his own hands. You can see this in his lament at the loss of space in his neighborhood when he says “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?”. Even then he wishes he was not a part of the urban life that he had chosen.
Willy also wishes that he had gone to Alaska with his brother Ben, saying to his wife, “God! Why didn’t I go to Alaska with my brother Ben that time! Ben! That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate! What a mistake! He begged me to go.” Ben found fortune working with his hands when he found a diamond mine, although Willy fails to see that this is a stroke of luck and not a product of Ben’s work.
Even when Willy is talking to his delusion of his dead brother, he tries to convince Ben that he goes hunting saying, “Oh, sure, there’s snakes and rabbits and—that’s why I moved out here. Why, Biff can fell any one of these trees in no time! Boys! Go right over to where they’re building the apartment house and get some sand. We’re gonna rebuild the entire front stoop right now! Watch this, Ben!” At one time in America, Ben would have been considered the ideal of a pioneer, just what a man should be, but now the paradigm had shifted to a new ideal, the salesman. Willy even stops his son Biff, who is much like Willy, from going out west and working on a farm.
Happy takes after Willy too, but in the way that he lies to others about his status. Willy is constantly inflating his commission to his wife, even though she knows it is a lie, and even turns down Charlie’s offer of a steady job because of his own pride. Willy even lies to his boss in a desperate attempt to retain his job saying, “In 1928 I had a big year. I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions”.
The ideal that Willy was so desperately trying to live up to forced him to lie to others and to himself until he eventually could not tell the difference between his lies and reality. He fantasizes about his dead brother, who had abandoned him like his father, and tries to live in a past that he imagines as so much better. Willy cannot cope with the fact that he has failed at every turn to live up to the standard that he has set himself. Though the American dream professes truth, Willy is so obsessed with his image that he lives in a world of lies and deceit. At the end of the play, Biff realizes this and says “I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.”
All of these factors led to Willy not being able to handle the state of reality and ultimately despairing and committing suicide. If a society places all of it’s hope in being able to achieve success based on how hard they work and material good, it will always end up coming to despair. Humans cannot achieve true happiness from gaining possessions and being “well-liked”, as Willy so desperately wanted to be. In Death of a Salesman, the American dream proves to be a shallow, unreachable ideal that the ordinary “dime a dozen” man can never fulfil. This perverted sense of an unreachable standard is what ultimately kills Willy.