University High School
Instructor: Jim Garrett
The American Dream: The Most Dangerous Dream a Man Can Have
The American Dream: The Most Dangerous Dream a Man Can Have
The definition of the American Dream and how to achieve it is complex and ever evolving. There is no apparent road map to the American Dream, as the American Dream itself can be interpreted in various ways by different people. The classic definition of the American Dream argues that financial success is the essential element and that you need to pair a good heart with grit to achieve it. The "Alger myth" argues that with hard work and virtue, financial success will certainly follow. If this method is taken as a roadmap to success, both Willy Lowman and Walter Younger certainly find themselves off route through their inability to show a good work ethic and moral compass. In A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman, through the moral choices Walter and Willy face between virtue and selfishness, and between hard work and laziness, Hansberry and Miller demonstrate the necessity of hard work and virtue in achieving success.
Willy is not always virtuous in his decision making and action, and for that reason he has trouble finding success in business and family life. Even though Willy may realize the things he does are selfish or immoral after doing them, that does not stop him from continuing to make the same mistake, prioritizing himself over others or setting a bad example. Willy's affair best exemplifies his tendency to not uphold an integral part of the formula for overall success: virtue. Willy, angry that Linda is mending her old stockings while he has paid for The Woman's, exclaims: "I won't have you mending socks in this house! Now throw them out!" (Miller 39). This scene and development in the play offer a look into one of Willy's biggest weaknesses, his immorality. Willy only seems to fully realize his immoral actions are wrong when it is already too late, and he weakly never stops himself before doing things that will surely be immoral. . Walter, on the other hand, does not go as far as to have an affair, but does show a lack of virtue towards those in his family in the first half of the play. For example, when chasing his own dream, Walter neglects Ruth and even goes as far as to say he doesn't want her baby. During the heated exchange Lena states, "I'm waiting to see you stand up and look like your daddy and say we done give up one baby to poverty and that we ain't going to give up nary another one … I'm waiting" (Hansberry 38). By not responding to mama's words and being brash with Ruth and his whole family, Walter demonstrates a selfishness that will hold him back from family harmony. It is very hard to be successful anywhere if your moral compass is not right, as your immoral actions can misguide you, and the people around you, and lower your chance of success.
Willy is immoral in the way he fails to demonstrate integrity as a leader to those around him, more specifically his two boys. Biff and Happy both seem to look up to Willy and idealize him, and Willy always seems to radiate a negative example of what a man should do to be successful. When talking about the lumber Biff and Happy steal, Willy says to Linda, "You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six by tens worth all kinds of money … I got couple of fearless characters there" (Miller 50). By being ok with their stealing, Willy himself gives in to the temptation of perceived financial success, regardless of how it is achieved. He is not projecting the honor that a father figure should. This notion of virtue being necessary for more complete success and growth is reinforced as Hansberry presents Walter finally choosing to do the right moral thing after a play full of morally wrong decisions. When he decides to move the family into Clybourne Park, he displays the virtue he has been lacking throughout the play. Walter tells Mr. Lindner, "I mean — we are very proud people. And that's my sister over there and she's going to be a doctor — and we are very proud … and we have decided to move into our house" (Hansberry 90). While this act of braveness and moral judgement is far too late to get him back on track towards his original ambitious dream, it leads to family harmony, even if that success is not financial. Walter and Willy contrast in this one example, further reinforcing the validity of the Horatio Alger myth. Walter's moral action leads to his family being proud and whole again, and Willy's immoral decision to not criticize the boys' actions leads to a culture of immorality around him.
Of course, there are many successful men and women in the world who are not completely virtuous or morally sound, so how do they rise to financial success? The other half of the Alger myth formula, hard work, is the principal value that can make up for some lack of morality on the road to actual financial success. However, Walter and Willy lack a strong work ethic, giving both men little chance at reaching their dreams. Willy lacks this hard-working mindset and is always looking for shortcuts and ways out. Willy, in an effort to be remembered as successful, takes the ultimate way out by committing suicide for the insurance check. At his funeral Linda emotionally says, "I can't understand it Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home" (Miller 139). Willy's death is not necessary for his family to be financially secure, yet he takes the quick and easy route to monetary gain instead of working for it honestly. Walter Younger faces a similar, yet less extreme choice between taking a perceived shortcut to success or working hard for it. When given the rest of Mama's money, Walter chooses to put all of it into the liquor store, which he perceives as a shortcut to success. When Walter hears the news of his investment disappearing, he exclaims, "THAT MONEY IS MADE OUT OF MY FATHER'S FLESH … I had my life staked on this deal, too" (Hansberry 76). Walter seems to not be able to recognize the immorality and impact of his actions until it is too late. Evidently, this "investment" has huge consequences, as it leaves the family in the same destitute financial situation as in the beginning of the play. Hansberry and Miller use these deeply flawed men as examples of just how wrong things can go when one tries to cut corners towards success instead of achieving it through a combination of hard work and virtue.
Willy and Walter's limp execution and resulting poor financial and family experiences are disappointing and there is little to pity in their ineffective pursuit of the American Dream. Both men become blinded by their own dreams of actual and perceived financial success, causing them to do almost anything to get closer to it. Unfortunately, they do not consider the harmful outcomes from trying to shortcut their way to their goals. In this way, the American Dream, a dream of ultimate financial and social attractiveness of that perceived financial success, is the most dangerous dream a man can have. Headlong pursuit can leave men without a moral compass, particularly those without a healthy work ethic. Through their experiences and failures, Willy and Walter support the validity of the Alger myth by similarly not achieving success after straying from the formula that hard work and virtue leads to success.