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Pursuit Of The American Dream In "Death Of A Salesman"

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Death of a Salesman

The pursuit of the American dream can inspire ambition. It can transform a person and cause him to become motivated and hard-working, with high standards and morals. Or, it can tear a person down, to the point of near insanity that results from the wild, hopeless chase after the dream. This is what occurs to Biff, Happy, and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's book Death of a Salesman. In the play, Willy Loman is a traveling salesman whose main ambition in life is wealth and success, neither of which he achieves. Corrupted by their father, Biff and Happy also can not attain success. Biff fails to find a steady, high-paying job even though he's 30, and he hates the business world, preferring instead to live on a farm in California. Happy, on the other hand, has a fairly well-paying, steady job, but still suffers from emptiness and a sense of being lost, a void which he fills by sleeping around with many women, some of whom are even married or engaged. Thus, Miller uses motifs, such as deception, theft, and hallucination, to show the pathology that all three of these characters experience in the wake of the American dream.

Miller's use of lies throughout the book reveals the madness that results from the pursuit of the American dream. Happy habitually lies to others and to himself because he cannot face reality and wants to seem better than he is. When he is at a restaurant with Biff, Happy tries to impress a girl, saying that "at West Point, [people] called [him] Happy" and that he sells champagne (Miller 102). He tries to grab her attention by talking about money and he hopes that he will be more appealing if he claims that he is rich and successful. The American dream is all about money, which Happy lacks, so he pursues the dream in his own way -- by pretending that he is wealthy because he knows that he will never be. When Willy comes into the restaurant, excited to hear about Biff's meeting with Oliver, Happy encourages his brother to lie, saying "[Biff] told [Oliver] my Florida idea" (108). Once again, Happy believes that he will be worthless to his father without money. Therefore, he tries to mask his and Biff's failure with deception, in order to disguise the fact that he has not achieved wealth. Happy learns this behavior when he is a young boy from Willy, who urges Happy to "be careful with those girls... don't make any promises" (27). Willy encourages dishonesty in his son, and Happy perceives it as a lesson to be learned and begins to consider lying a form of reaching success. With his father's approval, Happy has no reservations about lying and uses it to make himself seem impressive and to mask the reality of his failure.

Theft is another motif that demonstrates the immorality resulting from the obsessive pursuit of wealth and success. Early on, Biff steals a football and, instead of reprimanding him, his father says, "Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative" (30). Again, Willy ruins his son by making it seem as if theft is acceptable and sometimes even necessary to prove oneself. Biff learns that stealing is tolerable, just like Happy learns that lying is normal. While Happy uses deception to pretend that he has achieved the American dream, Biff resorts to theft as a form of revenge and contempt for those that are successful. Once again, the motif of theft repeats when Biff says, "I wonder if Oliver still thinks I stole that carton of basketballs" (26). Biff previously worked for Oliver, who was pretty successful since he had his own business. In his mad pursuit of the American dream, Biff deems it acceptable to steal a carton of basketballs because he knows that he is not successful, but tries to attain success by stealing. When Biff goes to visit Oliver to try to get Oliver's support in a business venture, Biff ends up stealing again and he tells Happy that he "took [Oliver's] fountain pen" (104). Happy asks Biff why he did this and Biff answers, "I just -- wanted to take something, I don't know" (104). It seems as if stealing is automatic for Biff because he has acted on his impulses for so long that now, whenever he wants to take something, he does so without thinking. Biff also takes the pen after he realizes that his goal of starting a business with Oliver's help is crumbling, so his theft seems like a way to cope with his failure. Additionally, Biff is so desperate to attain this dream that it has made him prone

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