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“Death of a Salesman” and “Raisin in the Sun”

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Since the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies, Americans developed an unordinary dream. It was a vision held by many who believed that through hard work, courage, and determination they could achieve a better life for themselves; this was the American Dream. Unfortunately, the hard hits from the Great Depression and the two World Wars brought the need for immediate economic prosperity. It diverted the people of the 1950s from adhering to the traditional work ethic, and pinned their hopes on what they perceive as “easy” money. Willy Lomen, from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Walter Lee Younger, from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, were portrayed as victims of their quest for the American Dream. Their pursuit for the illusion of the Dream rather than the reality and their unwillingness to give in due to their pride resulted in devastating failures and the findings of their true identity. Willy and Walter’s illusion of the American Dream could still be seen today as addicted gamblers spend their time in casinos.

Although both Willy Lomen and Walter Lee Younger were victimized due to their false interpretation of the American Dream, the ways the characters went about in trying to fulfill their twisted Dream was different; Willy, on one hand, focused on being well liked as the key to obtaining the American Dream, while Walter believed in the idea of a scheme. Arthur Miller, playwright of the Death of a Salesman, described Willy Lomen as a traveling salesman who continued to encounter frustration and failure as he struggled to accomplish his idea of the American Dream. Although Willy had good intentions, his tragic flaw was that he focused only on the appearance of the American Dream and never on the reality, the work ethic, on how to achieve it. He even told his sons, Biff and Happy, that he would be more successful than Uncle Charley one day because Uncle Charley was not well liked.

WILLY: … I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more.

HAPPY: Like Uncle Charley, heh?

WILLY: Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not – liked. He’s liked, but he’s not – well liked. (30)

Willy believed wholeheartedly in what he considered the promise of the American Dream–that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business would indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. However, as years passed, Willy finally became a victim of his Dream. He never became successful. In fact, he had to borrow fifty dollars from Charley every week, the very man who he criticized; in addition, he told his family that it was his salary. When Willy was fired from his job and needed money to pay for insurance, he once again turned to Charley for help. Charley explained to Willy that the bottom line of business is selling and buying, not being liked. Charley was successful because of lifelong hard work and not because of the illusions of social popularity and physical appearances. Instead of being on top of Charley, Willy never succeeded in anything, his pitiful actions allowed the readers to sympathize for him regardless of his corrupted interpretation of the American Dream.

Because of his pursuit for the “superficial” idea, Willy brought about his own downfall and defeat. Similar to Willy, Walter Lee Younger was also a victim of his quest for the American Dream through his skewed understanding of it. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry portrayed Walter as a typical African-American man who worked as a chauffeur most of his life, struggling to support his family. He hoped to live a life that all the rich people lived and enjoyed, like the people he serviced, and improve the life of his family. It was a dream of financial security and comfortable living, the American Dream. However, through desperation and the need to get rich quick, he developed different ideas and schemes, which obscured his vision of the Dream. One such scheme was to invest money from his father’s life insurance policy money, which was worth $10,000, in a liquor store with his friends. As soon as he invested the money, his so-called “friend” left town with it. The result of the scheme led to the break down of Walter, who was traumatized by such scam. “Willy!… Willy… don’t do it… Please don’t do it… Man, not with that money… Man, please, not with that money… Oh, God… Don’t let it be true… Man… I trusted you … Man, I put my life in your hands… Man… THAT MONEY IS MADE OUT OF MY FATHER’S FLESH.” (128)

Destitute and guilt-ridden, Walter faced his family and reported the destruction of their future aspirations. Walter was a victim because he lost all the money his father worked so hard to attain in a single moment, along with all the dreams he had built up in his lifetime. Mama, lost all trust in him, and he had proved to be a failure not only to himself, but also to his family. Walter wanted the best for his family and he believed the liquor store would have provided him the financial security needed to boost them out of poverty. He measured the success of a man by the amount of money and possessions he had. Walter’s methods of achieving his goals and ideals were somewhat irrational. He was so concerned with becoming self-employed that he did not really think about the consequences, which could be imposed on his family. Walter also failed to realize that the chance for an African-American to make it in the business world was slim. He really thought that during a time of struggle for the African-Americans, he could have opened a liquor shop and provided his family with happiness. Such illusion led to his victimization of his quest for the American Dream.

Although both characters, Willy and Walter, had good intentions, they failed to accomplish the Dream they had envisioned. They agreed that emphasize on material wealth was a measure of success and happiness. They both realized their flaw at the end of the play and suffered from their illusion of the Dream. Willy never became successful because the way to the top was not to be will liked, but through hard work, therefore, he committed suicide to cope with his failure. On the other hand, Walter’s foolishness and gullibility led him to the loss his family’s money and also to his breakdown. Even though both characters suffered from their illusion of the American Dream, there were stark contrasts between how they dealt with their flaws. Willy’s way of coping with his misery was by not dealing with it. He made a choice of killing himself because his pride and stubbornness could not allow himself to accept the fact that in the 1950s, the business world did not benefit those who were socially popular.

He did not want to admit to his family, especially to his sons, that he was wrong because he was the one who fed them the false sense of the American Dream that ultimately led to their unsuccessful lives. Willy discovered that his true identity was not the successful, well liked man that he thought he was at the beginning of play; rather, he learned that he was just like any average American who was struggling to provide his family with a good life. On a different perspective, Walter learned that he did not lose his American Dream because he still had his family who loved him. He resurrected his Dream when he took the money offered from Mr. Linder, by not moving into the house in Clybourne Park.

He found out that his role was to fight for racial equality and be a good husband, son, and father for his family. He kept his pride and gained his trust back, therefore, Walter should be highly-praised for his action under the condition he was in. If Willy and Walter realized that their ways of reaching the American Dream were impractical, then they could have saved themselves from the misery they put themselves in. Although both men failed, they learned their flaws and found their true identity, and did what they thought was best to deal with their mistakes. Willy and Walter’s false interpretations of the American Dream were not the only reason to why they were victimized.

Willy Lomen and Walter Lee Younger shared the characteristic of refusing to give in due to their pride, yet the difference between their rebuffs to yield was that while Willy held on to the illusion of the American Dream, Walter realized what was real, and finally freed himself. Since his sons were still little, Willy would always criticize Charley and his son, Bernard, for not being well liked therefore they would not be successful. However, as time passed, Willy proved to be wrong because Bernard grew up and became a successful man who argued in Supreme Court cases while his “well-liked” sons were unable to hold a steady job, and at the same time as Charley still had his business, Willy was unemployed. This took a hard hit on Willy, so when Charley sympathetically offered him a job, Willy rejected him.

CHARLEY: …Now listen, Willy, I know you don’t like me, and nobody can say I’m in love with you, but I’ll give you a job because – just for the hell of it, put it that way. Now what do you say?

WILLY: I – I just can’t work for you, Charley.

CHARLEY: What’re you, jealous of me?

WILLY: I can’t work for you, that’s all, don’t ask me why. (96-97)

Even though Willy’s rejection of Charley’s job offer stemmed partly from jealousy of Charley’s success, the main reason was because of his pride. There had always been rivalry competition between the two families. Willy stubbornly imprinted the ideal of social popularity would lead to success, so when Charley offered him the job it contradicted his idealistic notions about business relationships because Charley and Willy did not like each other. By rejecting a well paying and secure job, Willy was able to hold on to his belief and not give up his pride, which was the only thing he had left. His stupidity left him jobless and ultimately led to his self-destruction. Similar to Willy, Walter was also victimized by his inflexibility to bend his pride under crucial occasions. Walter constantly reminded his family that he was the man of the house. His pride for his Dream, to own the liquor shop, blinded him from the consequences and caused him to stubbornly refuse to listen to anyone’s opinions.

When Walter told his wife, Ruth, about his big Dream, Ruth’s indifferent attitude towards it angered Walter. “That’s it. There you are. Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs. Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work. Man says: I got to change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say – Your egg is getting cold!” (34) Walter was offended by anyone who was not supportive of his investment. By being prideful, and not coming to his senses, the effect of the unexpected scam was worse than it could have been if he listened to his family’s suggestions. He was so sure of himself that he did not even bother to put his sister’s money in the bank.

Due to his ignorance and lack of adamant for his pride, he lost all of his family’s money. Although both Willy and Walter shared a strong pride in their Dream, the difference between them was that Walter learned to let go, while Willy continued holding on to it until his death. Willy’s high and mighty conception of himself stopped him from taking the job offer. He was not willing to succumb even in a time of necessity because he took pride in his Dream and did not see the flaw in it. However, Walter realized his mistake after losing his family’s money, and he was able to move past his pride for the Dream and focus more on the reality, fighting racial discrimination. Because of their strong will for the American Dream, they ignored the consequences of their actions and ultimately ended in failure.

Willy and Walter represented the Americans of the 1950s who failed to recognize the reality of the American Dream was. They did not realize that people were capable of succeeding if they worked hard and were dedicated to both their professional and family life. Failing to acknowledge the importance of hard work in achieving the American Dream ultimately led to the Willy’s tragic death and Walter’s break down. Willy and Walter’s illusion of the American Dream could still be seen today as addicted gamblers spend their time in casinos, hoping that one day they would be able to strike it rich without any hard work, even if it meant that it would have a negative effect on their families. Thus, in order to prevent tragic from occurring, people need to have realistic ambitions and not be so egotistic at times when they should be succumbing to the situation.

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