The Death of the American Dream

Thoughts on Arthur Miller’s classic Americana drama “Death of a Salesman.”

I keep a stack of classic American literature near my desk. It’s my way to pay tribute to those who walked these United States before me. It’s also a means to expose myself to different genres and writing styles.

Death of a Salesman” is written as a script for a theater play by infamous playwright Arthur Asher Miller. It centers around a middle-aged traveling salesman, Willy Loman, who is mentally disintegrating over his failed attempts to achieve the American Dream. The play’s structure is fluid and shifts abruptly between past, present, and ongoing or concluded stages of his life. I understand this to be used as a stylistic technique to demonstrate the mental breakdown of the main protagonist, Willy Loman, as the play unfolds. While this style is potent to make a point, it struck me as disruptive to my reading flow. Scripts require the reader to factor in the playwright’s scene interpretations, which adds a layer of complexity that I didn’t particularly enjoy.

The play is divided into two acts. Neither act has a headline, so bear with me as I label them:

Act 1: Willy’s Dreams Fade Away
Act 2: Willy’s Descent Into Delusion

Willy appears to suffer from burnout after a failed business trip. When he seeks to alleviate his pain by scaling back on work-related travel, he fails to convince his boss and gets himself laid off. This fuels his deteriorating mental state, which clings to the illusions of material success and his lack thereof. His overwhelming nostalgia makes him compare his children’s failures with his own, creating a deeply strained relationship with his sons that eventually culminates in confrontation and disappointment. It ends, of course, in tragedy.

This was a challenging read. Piecing together the puzzle that is Willy Loman’s mind is no easy feat, but, I think, it’s an analogy of the challenges we face in our own lives. The play reminded me of the actor Jim Carry’s father, who took a job he didn’t like to support a life he didn’t enjoy only to be let go at the age of 51. Arthur Miller described, in quite a similar fashion, this tragedy of our society that most of us live sad lives of quiet desperation to emulate, integrate, and do as we are told. It’s a cautionary tale and a bleak reminder of the stoic truth that death isn’t in the future but we die a little bit every day. Is it really worthwhile to spend your life living other people’s dreams? Death of a Salesman, like it or not, is an impetus to shift your thinking towards finding and pursuing your values and prioritize meaning over comfort.

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