Understanding Arthur Miller

'Dreams are what you wake up from' (Raymond Carver). What do you understand by the idea of the 'American Dream' and how do you see it as having been challenged by American writers?

Dreaming of wealth, success and fame is something everyone in this world has had a vision of; these dreams can simply be seen as illusions of our imaginative minds, or objectives that one may strive for in order to be successful in life. This essay will focus on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Miller's Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman and Gatsby are both characters dominated by the American dream which destroys both of their lives. I will focus on how both of the protagonist's dreams come from an illusionary past, and how one character tries to repeat their past, whereas the other attempts to create a new dream. I will discuss the way in which the American Dream is portrayed in both texts, and will determine what both authors try to do with the situations and characters they present in them. Willy and Gatsby characterize failures in their attempt to fulfil the American dream. The fact that not one author illustrates a character being successful in achieving their dream, can in many ways verify the challenge of the American dream both authors put across through their characters and the life that they lead. By illustrating no success and only failure could possibly be a way in which both authors confront the American Dream. I will develop and expand on this idea in more depth, and explain why and how I feel Millers Death of a Salesman, and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby are challenging texts on the idea of the American Dream.

In Fitzgeralds 'The Great Gatsby', the central character Gatsby dreams of something which he spends all of his time and liveliness trying to rebuild. His past is shown to be one of the happiest times of his life, and he continually speaks of trying to gain something back from this past. Although there are several themes which are presented such as love, money and reality, the main focus is clearly shown to be on the American Dream, and the downfall of those who attempt to try achieving this way of life. The characterization of Gatsby is a well representative figure for all Americans as he is shown to devote his entire life to achieve his dream. Nevertheless, he is shown to miserably fail and make it come true at the end; he misunderstands what the true meaning of the American Dream is just like most people do in reality. All characters presented in this text are, in one way or another, attempting to achieve a happier and better life for themselves and their families. The characters are shown to be grouped into two categories, the well-heeled upper class and the deprived lower class. Though the main character is only trying to make his life better, the American dream he is trying to achieve is ultimately ruined by the insensitive reality of life itself.

In addition, The American Dream certifies prosperity and self-achievement as it rewards for hard work and dedication. Gatsby himself is a complex symbol of the corruption of the American Dream; he is a passionate fantasist who searches to fulfil his goal in life by making his wealth as a gangster. He does not change much in the course of the novel as his entire life is devoted to the accomplishment of a dream that is contradictory with the harsh realities of society. At a very early age Gatsby gives his word to marry Daisy the love of his life; however his lack of wealth leads Daisy to another better off man. Gatsby believes that he could win Daisy back with wealth, therefore wanted to go away with time in order to destroy the years Tom and Daisy both had together, "I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before. She'll see..."[1] Gatsby's romantic disregard for reality changes the American Dream with his dream that love can be brought back if only he could make enough money. The corruption of Gatsby's dream by adopting materialism as its means with affection and youth as its purpose is due to the corruption of the American Dream. Fitzgerald is shown conveying this Dream as being twisted towards pure greed and selfishness. Due to this misunderstanding of what the American Dream really is and what it stands for, we are exposed to the downfall of Gatsby's life and his failure in trying to accomplish his objectives and dreams.

Dreams are generally illusions which show an individual what they really want in life, some people use these dreams in order to challenge themselves and strive to make them come true. Sigmund Freud a psychologist commented that: "...the dream, like every complex psychic product, is a creation, a piece of work which has its motives...dreaming has a meaning, like everything else we do."[2] Historically, a dream corresponds to the image of having faith and believing. Throughout the text, Fitzgerald conveys how dreams are destroyed, no matter what the dream may consist of, whether it is wealth, rank, or even happiness it is demolished in one way or another. We as the readers are shown the failure of the American Dream, it is illustrated as being unavoidable in a sense that nothing can be as perfect as anyone could imagine. The Buchanan's and Tom's characters both indicate readers to feel and view that without hopes and dreams life would be empty. The American Dream is something every person works for throughout his or her entire life, although it is admirable, it is unattainable to achieve everlasting contentment. It is revealed to be just a dream and nothing more, Gatsby makes it clear no matter how hard you strive to achieve your goal, you just can't seem to reach it. Fitzgerald also states that when on the path of trying to achieve the American dream, some tend to lose the main focus and forget what it was they were really aiming for; the author evidently challenges the American Dream in this text by showing the negative aspects and closing off the positives through the characters life and situations.

Another play which deals with 'The American Dream' as a central focus is, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. The text illustrates the dream "...as the "ore" from which Willy fashions the ideological armor he uses to disguise and deny his psychological problems..."[3] The text reinforces readers to deal with the failure of the American Dream and the effect it had on the Loman family, and how it ruins Willy's life, and also destroys Biffs'. It is clear to identify how Fitzgerald and Miller both strive to show failure in both of their texts. By doing so, the writers of the two texts challenge the American Dream by focusing on an illusion which only exists in ones dreams. The fact that both authors focus on the negative points that come across when trying to strive for the dream, illustrates the challenge they foreground in both storylines. If one author had portrayed one of the characters as being successful, they would be conforming to the dream as being something attainable. However the fact that not one author conforms to this dream, brings across the challenge they have of the idea of the American Dream. By focusing on serious problems that the reader can relate to, Miller connects us with the characters facing life changing predicaments.In America, anyone with some talent and some brains could be a success, or so Willy Loman believes. Miller's Death of a Salesman tells the story of a man who seems predestined for disappointment, though he tries his best to succeed. Willy Loman is a symbol for the regular individual who tries and tries, but is somehow unable to accomplish the "American Dream" of success and status. Miller himself stated that: "...we are struggling with forces that are far greater than we can handle, with no equipment to make anything mean anything".[4] Both Willy and Gatsby are passive to failure; they are shown to be characters who cannot achieve what they want. Both writers Fitzgerald and Miller are shown challenging the American Dream as they show the Dream as something that is un-achievable. The statement by Carver that states, "Dreams are what you wake up from", seems to be true and dominant through out both texts. Equally both Willy and Gatsby spend their entire lives trying to achieve their dream however are unsuccessful. It is shown to be just an illusion, something that can not be made reality. Both writers challenge the American Dream by stating it is impossible to achieve. This is evident through the two central protagonists of both texts illustrating the high aims they both possess and the downfall they both undergo in the process.

Miller combines the typical tragic hero with the ordinary American individual. The result is the antagonistic hero, Willy Loman. He is a simple, unsuccessful salesman whose only goal in life is to become a respected and triumphant in his field of sales. Social class is a major factor in Death of a Salesman, Willy believes that success comes from being well liked and popular and has tried to a great extent to inspire his beliefs on to his two sons Happy and Biff. While raising Happy and Biff and trying to inspire his "American Dream", Willy fails to teach his sons any common sense of good principles, leading them down to what he feels is the wrong path. At one point, Willy defends Biff for stealing only because he is a remarkable football player. "Loaded with it. Loaded! What is he stealing? He's giving it back, isn't he? Why is he stealing? ... I never in my life told him anything but decent things."[5] The fact that Willy defends his son, shows us as the readers, how he himself has forgotten the true meaning of good values. He does not tell Biff he has done wrong, in fact makes it seem as though he has done right. Willy's lack of judgement conveys how the American Dream has corrupted his mind, he fails to tell and show his sons what is right from wrong. Miller illustrates that the impact of the American Dream has had a bad effect on Willy's mind; the corruption has taken over and made him forget what the true meaning of life and family actually is. As a salesman, Willy is a failure and he tries desperately to make his sons never end up like him. As a result, he loses his mind and his grasp on reality.

Throughout the story, Willy often has flashbacks of the discussions that he and his brother Ben had; Miller includes this in the present and the past very adequately, it blends into the play nicely creating an emotional yet effective surrounding. These flashbacks illustrate Willy's defeat of reality from the world. When Willy and Charley play a game of cards, he has a flashback of him and Ben. As a character, Ben represents the opportunity that Willy did not take and all the wealth that he failed to notice. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman examines Willy Loman's fight to hold on to his Dream that is rapidly slipping away from his grasp. "Willy Loman's values are very much those of contemporary society...his only hubris is in believing the propaganda of a success-oriented society."[6] His failure causes anxiety for readers as most of us can readily identify with him. In society we all feel, more or less, that we must sell ourselves, and must make a good impression in order to be not just liked, but as Willy puts it well liked. Loman embodies a distinctive American individual who takes a journey to pledge his proposal for success. Although not all individuals in the world are salesmen, most of us share Willy's dream of success. It hits us as readers when we are presented with Willy's failure as we feel the connection that he has with this dream. Miller allows the dream to dominate the story as Willy's whole life is shown to revolve around it. The concept of the American Dream is challenged through both the authors' portrayal of the failure of both protagonists Gatsby and Willy. The fact that both texts present failure as its main theme, we are forced to come to a conclusion that the American Dream is just a dream. Both texts show a life of luxury only to exist in ones dreams and trying to achieve this in reality is simply a waste of time. This is a message which is clear to identify throughout both texts and creates a un-confirmative social milieu for both characters in the societies which they live.

In conclusion Miller and Fitzgerald both evidently demonstrate the failure of the American dream in their texts. Miller implicitly tells us that man is not a piece of equipment, but has feelings too. Therefore placing all the values on materials is wrong, the whole situation is summed up in Biffs observation who on his fathers death says, "He had the wrong dream, all wrong". The Dream is revealed to be just a dream, something which cannot be accomplished by the characters in both texts. Both American writers keep in mind that achieving the American dream is exceedingly difficult, you need to come over countless obstacles in life to become a successful individual. In many ways I agree with Raymond Carver in his statement that "Dreams are what you wake up from", I can firmly state that both writers challenge the American Dream by presenting the two focal protagonists ending in failure and being unsuccessful in their struggle to become successful. Both writers allow readers to feel and put themselves in the central characters roles, for example in Death of a Salesman Miller commented in an interview that: "because the central matrix of this play is...what most people are up against in their lives...they were seeing themselves, not because Willy is a salesman, but the situation in which he stood and to which he was reacting".[7] Both writers state the harsh realities of life, it challenges the dream in a way which makes readers think and feel the emotion of both characters and their failure. The fact that success is not attainable is a challenge itself along with the American dream.


  • Fitzgerald, Scott Francis. 1998. The Great Gatsby, Oxford University Press
  • Griffin, Alice. 1996. Understanding Arthur Miller, University of South Carolina Press
  • Jung, Gustav Carl. 2001. Dreams, Routledge
  • Miller, Arthur. 1952. Death of a Salesman, News Of the World
  • Rich, Martin John. 1996. The success ethic, education, and The American Dream, SUNY Press
  • Tyson, Lois. 1994. Psychological politics of the American dream: the commodification of subjectivity in twentieth-century American literature, Ohio State University Press
  1. Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Oxford University Press, 1998, 110
  2. Carl Gustav Jung, Dreams, Routledge, 2001, 3
  3. Lois Tyson, Psychological politics of the American dream: the commodification of subjectivity in twentieth-century American literature, Ohio State University Press, 1994, 64
  4. Alice Griffin, Understanding Arthur Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1996, 35
  5. Arthur Miller, Death Of a Salesman, News Of the World, 1952, 41
  6. John Martin Rich, The success ethic, education, and The American Dream, SUNY Press, 1996, 53
  7. Alice Griffin, Understanding Arthur Miller, University of South Carolina Press, 1996, 35

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