Study Guide

Death of a Salesman Visions of America

By Arthur Miller

Visions of America

Act One
Happy Loman

HAPPY [enthralled]: That’s what I dream about Biff. Sometimes I wanna just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that goddamned merchandise manager. I mean I can outbox, outlift and outrun anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those petty, common sons of b****es till I can’t stand it anymore. (Act 1)

Though Happy prefers a more primal form of competition, he cannot let go of the idea that success comes from the businesslike competition of the American office place. Like Biff and Willy, he longs for a simpler life, but is trapped within the hamster wheel of American capitalism.

WILLY: That is a one million dollar idea.

LINDA: Marvelous!

BIFF: I’m in great shape as far as that’s concerned!

HAPPY: And the beauty of it is, Biff, it wouldn’t be like a business. We’d be out playin’ ball again…

BIFF [enthused]: Yeah, that’s…

WILLY: Million-dollar! (Act 1)

While Biff and Happy are interested in finding work that is tolerable, Willy is fixated on ensuring that the boys find a lucrative profession likely to lead them down the path to success and greatness. Is Willy so bad for wanting this? Are Biff and Happy so bad for wanting to be… happy?

Willy Loman

WILLY: Now all you need is a golf club and you can go upstairs and go to sleep. [To Ben] Great athlete! Between him and his son Bernard they can’t hammer a nail. (Act 1)

Willy, like his sons, feels better able to compete in the physical sense than in the economic realm central to the American way. What's interesting is that this is one of the few things that Willy isn't delusional about. His boys are better at sports, and he is good at building things. Has Willy simply pursued the wrong American Dream for his entire life? Would he have been happier as a laborer rather than a salesman?

WILLY: There’s more people! That’s what’s ruining this country! The competition is maddening! Smell the stink from that apartment house! And the one on the other side… How can they whip cheese? (Act 1)

Willy insists that his family's lack of success is due to population growth and not his faulty vision of the American Dream. Do you think this is true? How much has increased competition made the American Dream harder to accomplish?

WILLY: You and Hap and I, and I’ll show you all the towns. America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own. This summer, heh? (Act 1)

Willy's characterization of the American people as kind and virtuous to anyone who is personally attractive demonstrates his utter faith in his twisted version of the American Dream. Willy is a slave to the delusional idea that he is in fact the poster boy for that dreamthat he has "made it."

WILLY: Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff— he’s not lazy.

LINDA: Never.

WILLY: [with pity and resolve]: I’ll see him in the morning; I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time. (Act 1)

Willy's reflections suggest complete faith in the notion that in America, anyone who works hard and is personally compelling is destined to succeed. Beyond that, they have a right to succeed. By the end of the play, however, it becomes apparent that that isn't necessarily true.

WILLY: What’s the mystery? The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich! The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress! (Act 1)

Willy's insistence that finding success is as easy as wanting it reveals total faith in the idea that he can get rich quick. It's interesting that his brother actually made his fast fortune in Africa rather than America. We wonder how this computes with Willy's faith in the American Dream.

Ben

BEN [chuckling]: So this is Brooklyn, eh?

[…]

BEN: Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska, William. Surprised you’re not up there. (Act 1)

The American West is portrayed as a land of opportunity waiting to be tapped. Willy is haunted by the fact that he didn't accompany his brother to Alaska. It seems like sometimes he feels that this missed opportunity is the thing that robbed him of a chance at the American Dream.

Biff Loman

BIFF: Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future. (Act 1)

Biff struggles with the competition inherent in the American way, but still holds it as a truth that he must take a path unpleasant for him in order to succeed. It seems that he longs for a life that's more simplea working-class lifestyle that his father sees as beneath him. Interestingly, though, throughout the play Willy seems to long for simpler things as well, like growing things.

Act Two
Charley

CHARLEY: Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out their in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling backthat’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory. (Act 2)

Charley's characterization of a salesman really applies to all dreamers, to all dreams of finding opportunity and success in America. This speech from Charley seems to help elevate Willy to a truly tragic figure, who represents the many failed dreams that have happened in America.

Ben

BEN: You’ve got a new continent at your doorstep, William. Get out of these cities, they’re full of talk and time payments and courts of law. Screw on your fists and you can fight for a fortune up there. (Act 2)

The American West is depicted as rife with opportunity and prosperity, an ideal place to pursue the American Dream. In a way, it's a much more basic version of the same dream that Willy is following. In the West, however, the fight is man vs. man and man vs. nature.