University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Family in a Materialistic World
Family in a Materialistic World
Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun both examine the lives of struggling families looking to improve their standing in American life. The Loman family, the focus of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, lives in a small house. Making the monthly mortgage payment is a stretch as Willy, the breadwinner, is a traveling salesman who doesn't make much money. The African American Younger family at the center of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun consists of five people who share a small apartment amongst themselves and a bathroom with the entire floor. Through their main characters, Willy Loman and Walter Lee Younger, respectively, these plays similarly aim to criticize American materialism. Yet despite placing families with similar economic challenges at the center of their stories, the playwrights approach their critiques through different lenses. Whereas Death of a Salesman focuses on criticizing transactional relationships that are born of societal materialism, A Raisin in the Sun takes a deeper dive, investigating the race relations shape Walter Lee Younger's materialism.
The main way Death of a Salesman criticizes American materialism is by highlighting the transactional nature of personal relationships. Throughout the play, instead of having meaningful friendships, at least one party in the relationships sees them as providing a service in exchange for something in return. Two key relationships in Death of a Salesman demonstrate Miller's critique of materialism. The first is the relationship between Willy and Charley. Charley is a good neighbor to Willy; he gives him loans and offers him a job. However, Willy does not see him as a friend. Instead, he is always making fun of Charley, for having a nerdy son and especially for not being "well-liked," which to Willy is the ultimate sign of potential material success. Willy is always comparing himself to Charley, putting him down and thereby revealing his jealousy. Willy simply cannot comprehend why Charley is so successful, given that he, in Willy's eyes, is only moderately liked. He tells his boys that he is going to open a more successful business than Charley:
WILLY. Don't say? Tell you a secret, boys. Don't breathe
it to a soul. Someday I'll have my own business, and I'll
never have to leave home any more.
HAPPY. Like Uncle Charley, heh?
WILLY. Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is
not — liked. He's liked, but he's not — well liked. (Miller, Salesman, 30)
This interaction illustrates how Willy cannot see beyond his jealousy of Charley's material success, and because of it, their relationship, at least Willy's part of it, never goes beyond a transactional level. Miller thus depicts Willy as someone trapped by the American Dream, the idea that possessions and money will solve all of his problems. He believes that if he is well liked, he will be able to make more money. Miller deliberately juxtaposes this obsession against Charley, who prioritizes his family and relationships over wealth. Furthermore, Willy cannot comprehend why Charley is more successful than him, which leads him to become jealous of Charley. The money-obsessed person is revealed to be jealous of the neighbor with well-intentioned values, suggesting the playwright's deep disdain for materialism.
A second example of Miller's critique of materialism comes from Biff and Willy's transactional relationship. It develops in their early years, with Biff providing Willy with trophies and measures of his successes and Willy reciprocating with praise and admiration. Their relationship concludes with a pathetic transaction: Willy committing suicide in order to provide Biff with the $20,000 from his life insurance policy. His decision to take his own life to help his family is the ultimate critique of materialism. Willy says:
A man can't go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has got to add up to something. You can't, you can't—Ben moves toward him as though to interrupt. You gotta consider now. Don't answer so quick. Remember, it's a guaranteed twenty-thousand-dollar proposition. Now look, Ben, I want you to go through the ins and outs of this thing with me. I've got nobody to talk to, Ben, and the woman has suffered, you hear me? (Miller, Salesman, 125-126)
In this imaginary conversation with his brother Ben, Willy is considering suicide. His warped reasoning that money is more important than anything, even life, drives his thought process. He believes that his family, especially Biff, will value twenty-thousand dollars more than having him alive. This belief is a blistering critique of materialism because it again portrays Willy as a clueless character. He doesn't realize that his family appreciates his life more than money, and that it is unlikely that the insurer will pay the family the money since Willy commits suicide. Thus, Death of A Salesman criticizes materialism by demonstrating the fraught nature of Willy's transactional relationships, ultimately ending in one last worthless transaction, Willy's suicide.
A Raisin in the Sun also critiques materialism, but in a different way. It portrays materialism in the African American population as a high and unfortunate cost of assimilation. In this way, materialism is criticized for being a product of white America that is passed down to Black America through the processes of assimilation. The tradeoff is exemplified in a conversation between Mama Younger and Walter Lee in the first act, describing materialism in their community:
MAMA: Oh—So now it's life. Money is life. Once upon a time
freedom used to be life—now it's money. I guess the world really do change
WALTER: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn't know about it.
MAMA: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched . . . You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar—You my children—but how different we done become.(Hansberry, Raisin, 814)
This conversation illustrates the viewpoint that Walter Lee is trapped between wanting to improve his family's well-being and having to do so by embracing material goals. As an upwardly mobile Black person, he now believes that money is life, the answer to all of his problems, whereas his mother, who is less socially ambitious, is grateful to have a home and not be lynched.
Walter Lee's materialistic attitude is the price of Black Americans assimilating to white America. Throughout American history, explains Ralph Ellison, whites have lacked an identity, and thus have sought ways to feel more together. The way they created an identity was by pushing Blacks to the side, as an "other" social group, much like the Untouchable caste in India. Therefore, in the mid twentieth century, the issue of how to change society to include African Americans was at the center of public debate. At the beginning of the play, Walter Lee has assimilated into white America, and that included wanting what whites want, money, rather than being true to the values of his culture.
This idea, that the key to improvement in society, to a better life for his son, is through money, is Hansberry's main target. Two examples illustrate her critique. First, materialism is criticized in the most obvious sense when Walter Lee squanders a large sum of money he had received from his father's life insurance policy. He invests it in a business venture, and promptly loses the money, demonstrating that greed will get you nowhere in life. Second, the playwright condemns materialism when Beneatha, Walter Lee's sister, speaking for the author, explains, "It means someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case, oppressive culture! (Hansberry, Raisin, 817). Beneatha argues that Walter Lee has become an assimilationist, someone who has given up his own culture, the pride and gratitude to have a home and a family, for an oppressive culture, the materialistic world of white America at the time.
In conclusion, both plays criticize American materialism, albeit from different angles. Death of a Salesman condemns materialism by demonstrating the transactional relationships that it creates, and the bad that comes from them. A Raisin in the Sun takes a different angle, condemning the materialistic mindset of African Americans, demonstrating the heavy costs of assimilation. However, both stories also provide a solution to the curse of materialism: family. For Willy, he dies knowing that Biff loved him. With this crucial piece of knowledge, on his deathbed Willy overcomes his longing for material possessions realizing that he has achieved his biggest dream after all: being a father. This revelation closes the circle for Willy, enabling him to rest easy, knowing that he is forgiven and loved by his family. Family also cures the Youngers of materialism. Even though Walter Lee's materialistic dream causes the family to lose a large sum of money, and even though the Clybourne Park Improvement Association tells the family that they are not welcome in their new house, the family is able to pull together, united against the racism thrust upon them, and thus are able to cooperate to work towards their overall dream: owning a house. Family is the ultimate remedy to materialism, able to overcome individualistic mindsets in pursuit of common dreams.