Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun
“May I never wake up from the American dream. ” Carrie Latet describes the most sought after dream: the dream of a house surrounded by a white picket fence, the dream people work their entire lives for, the dream people fight wars for: the American dream. However, America’s rise to industrialism in the 19th and 20th centuries replaced this dream with the desire to get rich fast. This change led people to believe that it is possible, common even, to obtain wealth rapidly; yet this is not the case.
Sometimes, when an individual is unable to acquire such extreme wealth, he create a sense of false reality for himself, his common sense is blurred, and he sees opportunities where there are none. Characters Walter Lee Younger and Willy Loman are prime examples of this, both pinning their hopes on unattainable dreams to hide the feelings of failure. The theme of illusion versus reality is present in both Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman through the portrayal of main characters Walter and Willy in their struggles for happiness and prosperity.
Although the two characters have similar dreams, Walter, a dynamic character, breaks through the fantasy while Willy, a static character, remains trapped in his illusion. Willy Loman has a very specific dream, a contorted version of the American dream. Willy dreams of being successful and providing for his family, but also to be popular and well liked: a spin off the classic American dream, which is generally just to have a happy life. Driven by his need for success and popularity, Willy ignores his calling for nature and throws all his heart into becoming a salesman.
Willy is enthralled by the story of Dave Singleman, his inspiration and idol. “I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” (Miller 81). This story is the sole reason for Willy’s desire to be a successful salesman, but what he does not realize is that Singleman’s case is one in a million.
Although he doggedly pursues a career in selling, Willy also recognizes his need and desire for nature in his retirement plans. As he tells Linda, “Before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens . . . ” (72). However, his failure to acknowledge nature as his true passion fuels his failure in the business world as well. Denis Diderot concludes, “Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things. ” Tempted by success and money, Willy veers from his passion for the outdoors towards business, for which he has little passion.
The theme of nature is prevalent from the play’s beginning as, “A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. ”(11). This specific tune is often associated with Willy’s character, distancing him from the environment, but emphasizing the connection Willy has to it. Many would argue, Willy has set himself up for failure by choosing the business career. In order to escape the feeling of dejection, Willy reverts to his falsely joyful past and creates multiple illusions for himself, seeing the world through a glass clouded with desire and failure.
One of Willy’s greatest regrets is refusing to accompany Ben to Alaska. “If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different” (45). Ben’s success in Alaska not only presents Willy with the possibility of money, but it would also satisfy his connection with nature. Ben’s voice in the play continually represents Willy’s resentment of his decision to stay, and his longing for a second chance to take the opportunity. Next, Willy fondly retreats to his past, a past glossed over in gold. Willy imagines a happy and cheerful history with his family, including his father, whom he never actually knew. Ben! Please tell about Dad. I want my boys to hear. I want them to know the kind of stock they spring from. ” (48). This is ironic, because Willy doesn’t remember his father aside from his beard and his flute, so he would not know if his father would be someone to admire. Even though Willy does not have a job, he wants so badly to continue being a salesman that he still drives out to Boston and other cities, deluding his faithful wife, Linda Loman, and in part, himself, to think that he is going on important selling missions.
Willy lies so convincingly that, when Ben proposes the idea of going to Alaska, a shocked Linda exclaims, “You’re well liked, and the boys love you, and someday – why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm . . . ” (85). Linda is clearly oblivious to the fact that Willy is crestfallen and miserable. Willy even tries to prove to himself that he is happy, but the only true reason he remains a salesman is to gain the money he believes accompanies the job. Throughout Willy’s struggle, Charley, a FOIL to Willy, is constantly at Willy’s side helping him.
Charley is Willy’s crutch, his reality check, and basically his only friend. While Willy fights to keep his family afloat, Charley has a steady job; while Willy manages his children’s lives, Charley leaves his only son, Bernard, to find his own path; while Willy loses his grip on reality, Charley has a firm grasp and a level head. Charley is the true example of the hard working, happy man achieving the American dream. Willy’s failure to recognize his own despondent state is primarily what causes his tragic downfall. As the play nears the end, Willy is faced with a decision.
He knows that he will not be able to work much longer, and that at some point, he will have to rely on his sons. Willy also realizes that he has nothing to pass down to his sons. The solution he comes up with is suicide. Willy determines that this proposition is legitimate because it benefits his whole family. While talking with Ben, Willy justifies his decision by saying, “[Linda’s] suffered. . . Remember, it’s a guaranteed twenty-thousand-dollar proposition” (125-126). When Biff confronts him, Willy comes to an astonishing realization: “Biff – he likes me! (133). This only further deepens Willy’s desire to commit suicide, which would allow his family to collect the insurance money. However, the real reason for Willy’s tragic end is his static personality. His refusal to see the world as it is and his refusal to change means that he is veiled by his distorted vision of life forever. Willy is never able to break through his illusion, truly believing that he is more valuable dead than alive. Finally, the decision is made and Willy commits suicide. “The car speeds off . . . moving away at full speed. . . The music crashes down in a frenzy of sound, which becomes the soft pulsation of a single cello string” (136). The rest of the Loman family is left alone, without the insurance money. As Charley sums up at the funeral, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong” (138). Willy died because he didn’t know how to forge his own path. Although he had the chance to turn back, he remained a salesman because he was in it for the money. Had he changed his mind and followed his heart, he would certainly have had an entirely different end.
But that was his predicament: Willy Loman did not have the ability to change, something that Walter Lee Younger does have. Walter Lee Younger has dreams that are very similar to Willy’s: to provide for his family and to be successful. Unlike Willy Loman, though, Walter’s dreams of happiness for his family in addition to success. As an African American man, Walter constantly struggles against racial boundaries. The pressure to support his struggling family, including his sister and mother is a constant weight on his back. Walter informs Mama, “I want so many things that they are driving me crazy . . Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me . . . Just waiting for me – a big, looming blank space – full of nothing” (73). Like any father or husband, Walter desperately wants a comfortable and content life. The tension between Walter and his wife, Ruth, partially stems from Walter’s inability to deal with his low income, low class job. “I open and close doors all day long. I drive a man around in a limousine and I say ‘Yes, sir; no, sir; very good, sir . . . that ain’t no kind of job . . . that ain’t nothing at all” (73).
Not only is Walter dissatisfied with his job as a limousine driver, but he is embarrassed by it. Walter is desperate, but as a black man, his options for a new occupation are limited to those of a similar caliber to his current job. However, Walter finds an opportunity that could turn his life around. “I been out talking with people who understand me. People who care about what I got on my mind. ” (87), “. . . we got it figured out, me and Willy and Bobo” (33). Inspired by this new hope, Walter envisions a future of prosperity and happiness. This is mostly fueled by Walter’s idol: Charlie Atkins.
Similar to Willy’s infatuation with Dave Singleman, Walter believes that Atkins, who owns a dry cleaning business which grosses $100,000 per year, is success incarnate. Atkins is Walter’s inspiration for his own dream of buying liquor store with Bobo and Willy Harris, which could be made possible by the insurance money from his father’s death. In addition to his dreams for himself, Walter also has dreams for his son. Like most fathers, he wants a better life for his son, “Just tell me where you want to go to school and you’ll go. Just tell me, what it is you want to be – and you’ll be it . . . Whatever you want to be – Yessir!
You just name it, son . . . and I hand you the world! ” (109). Although Walter has all the same dreams as a white man of his age, they are harder to obtain due to racial boundaries, and Walter must find a way to overcome these limitations. With so many things unperfected in his life, Walter sees money as a solution to his problems. For the Youngers, the symbol of money represents a new house, new clothing and shoes for everyone, especially forWalter’s son, Travis, more food for their table, education for Travis and Walter’s sister, Beneatha, as well as the down payment on Walter’s liquor store.
When Mama questions Walter “How come you talk so much ‘bout money” (74), Walter responds, “it is life, Mama! . . . it was always about money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it” (74). It is ironic that Walter comments that money is life, because the most significant money in the Younger family comes from Big Walter’s $10,000 life insurance check. As Asagai explains to Beneatha, “Isn’t there something wrong in a house – in a world – where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? ” (135). The illusion Walter holds that money is life contrasts with the reality that the money comes from death.
Later, Walter becomes very frustrated as he realizes how unfair the world is, “Somebody tell me – tell me, who decides which woman is suppose to wear pearls in this world. I tell you I am a man – and I think my wife should wear some pearls in this world” (143). Because of all this pent-up regret and disappointment, Walter reverts to Willy Harris and Bobo’s plan for a source of comfort and hope. His desperation clouds his common sense, and when Mama entrusts him with the remaining insurance money, Walter invests all of it in the liquor store, even that intended for Beneatha’s education.
Despite his poor decision, Walter has a “newfound exuberance” (112). He truly believes that this new deal will turn his family around in a new direction, “I got wings! You got wings! All God’s children got wings! ” (125). However, things take a spin when Bobo arrives with the despairing news that Willy Harris, revealed as a con man, has disappeared with the money. Walter’s incredulity is clear as he realizes that all of the hope he has built up over the liquor store has disappeared like a flash of lightening.
Now that all of the insurance money is gone on Walter’s watch, he is even more responsible for his family’s desperate state. Luckily, he is presented with a chance to redeem himself. Before the disheartening news that Willy Harris stole the Younger’s insurance money arrives, Walter is extremely confident. He is even willing to cooperate with Mama’s plan to move into their new house in Clybourne Park, a plan Walter had previously opposed. When Karl Lindner arrives to persuade the Youngers not to move into their new house, Walter confronts him. “We told him to get out! . . . Oh, we was some proud folks this afternoon . . ” (142). However, after the terrible news of the lost insurance money is disclosed, Walter is not so sure-footed. He realizes the difficult financial situation, not to mention the peril that this move will put them in. Ruth, who desperately wants to move, reads her husband’s hesitation and questions him, “You talking ‘bout taking them people’s money to keep us from moving in that house? ” (142) and Walter replies, “I’m telling you that’s what’s going to happen! ” (142). Despite his strong opinion about not moving, Walter experiences a change of heart when Lindner returns.
He realizes how much the chance to live is really worth as he sees the potential for Travis, Beneatha, and even for himself and Ruth, and how much the new house will help each of them to grow and flourish. Counter to Willy Loman, Walter learns to value life, learning that money does not necessarily give you a blissful, carefree life. Walter asserts to Lindner, “We have all thought about your offer . . . and we have decided to move into our house because my father – my father – he earned it for us brick by brick. . . . Travis . . . my son . . . he makes the sixth generation of our family in this country . . And that’s my sister over there and she’s going to be a doctor – and we are very proud . . . we are very proud people” (148). Walter’s dynamic character allows him to emerge from his black hole of despair, a trait that Willy Loman lacked, therefore triggering his own tragic downfall. Now that he is able to accept his mistake of losing all of the insurance money and has shattered the illusion that it is possible for everyone to be as successful and rich as Charlie Atkins, and that excessive wealth does not equate to happiness, Walter can fully appreciate his life, especially his loving family.
From a first look, the Younger and Loman families could not be more different. Through careful analysis, though, one finds that they are astoundingly similar. Both working class families, they consistently struggle to maintain their current standards of living, a struggle made much more difficult by the expectant illusions Walter Lee and Willy cling to. The theme of illusion versus reality is vital in both A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman, demonstrating the harsh reality that a person’s life will never be perfect, and that some people will use heir imagination to fill in the gaps. The sad truth is that some people, like Willy Loman, are never able to break through the illusion. Bent on success and popularity, Willy renders himself victim to his mind forever, ending in death for him, and tragedy for his family. Others, such as Walter Lee Younger, possess the inner strength necessary to break free from this perfect, imaginary world to see that all they want, all they need, and all they seek, is right before them.