Symbolism of the American Dream and Time in the Death of a Salesman Argumentative Essay

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Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a modern day tragedy, fitting Aristotle’s definition quite neatly. It possesses all the necessary elements: human sufferings with a certain sense of audience fulfillment, a sad story which represents a character with a tragic flaw leading to their downfall. In addition, in traditional tragedy, the main character falls from high authority and often it is predetermined by fate, while the reader experiences catharsis. Dramatically speaking, the play represents Arthur Miller’s desire to modernize the tragedy as defined by Aristotle.

Aristotle believed that tragedy portrayed the downfall of noble person, such as a king, whose fall from grace was the result of a tragic flaw—generally hubris. Miller, on the other hand, believes that tragedy is not solely the province of royalty, as it also belongs to the common man— in this case the “low man,” as in Willy Loman. Death of a Salesman is a tragedy because this literary work has the main characteristics of the tragedy genre. In this play, the main character Willy Loman possesses such traits and behaviors that lead to his downfall, and the audience experiences catharsis. Willy Loman as a real tragic hero comes to the decision to commit suicide because of serious financial problems of his family. The audience receive catharsis at the end of a play due to said suicide.

Miller uses symbolism to achieve this catharsis, using the symbolism of time and the American dream. The use of symbolism in the play helps the reader to experience catharsis, the overall aim of a tragedy. Time is very important for all the characters involved, through the use of Willy’s flashbacks primarily. The symbolism helps the reader to connect to the play and connect to the tragic aspects, to finally achieve a cathartic effect at the end of the play.

For Biff, time is something he wishes he hadn’t wasted in his youth. By wasting his time on petty things (for example, instead of re-taking his failed math final, he expresses remorse over his father’s affair), Biff throws away his chances of playing football at the University of Virginia with a full scholarship, a rare oppurtunity. We later feel sympathy for Biff as we see Bernard, who he often made fun of, now extremely successful as a lawyer. This foil of Bernard has a profound effect on the reader with the symbolism of the American dream—how did Bernard achieve success, while Willy has worked just as, if not harder, than Bernard? Willy also comes to this conclusion, as we see in Act XX when he asks Bernard,”…?” These two symbolic devices provide the effect of the reader feeling pity, which is central to a tragedy.

For Willy, time plagues him. His flashbacks cause him many problems, such as worrying his family. Willy revisits the past not to sink into happy memories, but to analyze himself and understand where his life went wrong. His flashbacks are hardly comforting flights into idealized past times. Rather, they are harrowing journeys for both Willy and the reader. These flashbacks also cause the reader to feel pity, as well as fear, because they fear the effects of Willy’s flashbacks on those who are close to him.

When Willy thinks about the old days, he remembers making light of Biff’s thieving, demeaning Linda about mending her stockings, his affair with the woman, ignoring Biff’s mistreatment of young women and Bernard, sidelining Happy, etc. Willy is introspecting in his flashbacks, such as when he regrets that he did not join his brother Ben, instead choosing to remain at home because he believed he could achieve wealth by climbing the corporate ladder. These flashbacks have the potential to elicit feelings of guilt from the reader. Time is not an escape for Willy, it is a chain that binds him to the past and taunts him relentlessly, reminding him of missed opportunities and personal failings.

Willy’s tragic flaw stems from the fact that he has misinterpreted the American Dream. The American dream in this play symbolizes the overarching goal of wealth for Willy, and thus his hubris as well. For Willy, the success of that dream is dependent on appearance rather than on substance, as seen by his admonishment of himself for being “fat” and “very foolish to look at”. Willy is disgusted with himself for being fat, and this is where he assumes his business problems lie—in appearance, not in substance. Willy is also convinced Biff’s outer appearances can lead him to success, reminiscent of the fact that in high school,” they used to follow him around in high school…” and “When he smiled at one of them, their faces lit up.” It his snobbery and blind faith in the American dream that leads to his downfall.

Here, the reader can seem themselves represented in this situation, as this is a common human flaw—the petty entitlement of people, who cannot fathom why they do not possess something they have ‘earned’ (or cannot understand the root of their problem as they stick their head in the sand) and the insatiable desire for wealth– at least Willy is working hard in this case. Willy toils his life away and does not even achieve success—he believes that for his son Biff to succeed, he needs money, so he commits suicide, even though Biff knows in his heart that happiness is not dependent upon wealth and that success entails working at an enjoyable job—and for Biff this means working outdoors.

Biff comes to this conclusion in Act II, and is angered Willy cannot understand it, as Biff shows when he proclaims “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy?” For Willy, success means wearing a suit and tie and making a lot of money—in short, it means having pride, or hubris. Hubris is Willy’s fatal flaw, his ultimate undoing.

Having Willy as a tragic hero helps to cement the play as a classic tragedy. Willy is all that Aristotle’s tragic hero is: he has a hamartia, his hubris, and pity is elicited from his undeserved misfortune and the reader feels the emotion of fear because this misfortune could possibly befall them in similar situations. The reader relates to many of the struggles faced by Willy Loman, such as the constant perseverance partnered with the lack of reward, which leads them to fear possible situations as the ones Willy deals with.

In the end, the reader finally achieves catharsis. They wipe their brow, glad that such an event has not happened to them and the matter is resolved, because it is, after all, a play. This is the end goal of a tragedy—to provide catharsis for the reader, which Miller deftly achieves through his symbolism of the American dream and time.


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Symbolism of the American Dream and Time in the Death of a Salesman Argumentative Essay. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/symbolism-of-the-american-dream-and-time-in-the-death-of-a-salesman/

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