University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
To Dream the Impossible Dream
To Dream the Impossible Dream
What is the American dream? The dream has different meanings for different people. For some, it represents a goal, a hope of a different life: something for which to strive. For others, the dream is less concrete, representing an ideal or a wish, not necessarily a task to accomplish. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun demonstrate the differences between these two definitions. In Death of a Salesman, the main character, Willy, follows the primarily idealistic definition of a dream, hoping for eventual wealth with no concrete idea of how to achieve such a goal. Walter Lee Younger, on the other hand, the main character of A Raisin in the Sun, clings to a far more concrete dream. These two dreams, born into very different circumstances, generate two different interpretations of how the American dream can be realized.
Throughout the play, the main character of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, clings to a vague, materialistic dream of success. His dreams are not concrete. Instead, he dreams wildly of financial success and being admired by his family and clients. Willy's dreams reflect his limited knowledge and narrow perception of what he believes makes someone successful. As a child, Willy's main influence was his older brother Ben, who with their father gone and Ben being so much older than Willy, acted more closely as a father figure. Ben stated that "when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. . . And by God I was rich." (Miller 48) Ben was the main and only successful character Willy ever knew. However, it is made clear Ben may have obtained so much money by questionable means or even illegally, considering the reader learns he made his money through diamond mines in Africa in the 1890's, at the height of British Imperialism. In addition, Ben hints that he never kept any records or paid any taxes. Willy is naïve to this fact, simply understanding that in the course of four years, his brother found success. Willy has no indication as to how he may have come about such money and thus his dreams reflect this naïveté. Willy dreams vaguely of success and money and a legacy to leave to his children, telling his wife that, "we're gonna get a little place out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens." (Miller 72) Though his dream remains just that: a dream. Willy has no understanding of how to go about achieving such wealth. Without a proper plan, Willy's dreams are little more than wishes.
In A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the main character Walter Lee also begins the play with a materialistic dream — owning and running his own liquor store. However, unlike Willy, Walter Lee's dream is not simply a far-off ideal. It represents a path to the much broader dream of success and inclusion. When discussing his dream with his wife Ruth, Walter states that "I was lookin' in the mirror and thinking about it . . . I'm thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room . . . and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live." (Hansberry 794) Walter wants to better his own situation and that of his family. His broad goal in life is one of success, wealth, and inclusion, not that different from Willy's dreams. In addition, very much like Willy, Walter Lee's dream of success is inspired from his own experiences with his rich employer, Mr. Arnold. As Ruth says, Walter Lee would "rather be Mr. Arnold than be his chauffeur." (Hansberry 794) Though unlike Willy, Walter Lee has a strategy. To Walter Lee, his goal of owning a liquor store is not an end point, it is simply the next step towards reaching for the sky. As Walter Lee says to his wife, "I got to take hold of this here world, baby! . . . I got to change my life, I'm choking to death baby!" (Hansberry 794) Walter Lee believes that he can accomplish more in this world and is limited by his current status. This cap on what he can accomplish bothers him, choking him. Walter Lee sees buying this liquor store, in collaboration with his two friends, as the change he needs to raise himself so he may accomplish anything he desires.
In order to fairly compare the goals and ambitions of the two characters, additional factors should be considered. The Youngers, though having a steady income remain relatively low class throughout the entirety of the play. The Loman family on the other hand is shown to be middle class. As a result, the ambitions and strategies of the two families will differ dramatically. For Walter Lee, Willy's vague dream of eventual success is not sufficient. Being a lower class, black family, their situation will not change in the slightest without a proactive approach. Walter Lee cannot simply wait for a miracle or for wealth to find him for it never will. As a result, Walter Lee's dreams would naturally be based more in reality. Not only is a liquor store a tangible object leading to success, it is something that he establishes to be readily available for him to buy. Willy on the other hand, is firmly middle class, having fully paid a mortgage on a house and bringing home a salary comparable to the 1940's average wage. His dreams built upon his current middle class status are less imperative than those of Walter Lee. Since Willy's life and well-being are not completely dependent on him accomplishing his goal, it would only make sense that his dreams are more abstract and less thought out than Walter Lee's.
As a result, the situations and dreams of the two characters contribute to the themes of their respective plays. In Death of a Salesman, Willy has made no progress towards his eventual goal. In a last desperate attempt for his family to continue his legacy, he commits suicide, hoping the insurance will provide $20,000 upon his death. The play ends on a very pessimistic note, with Willy gone and the family most likely not receiving the money because it was suicide. The dream continues to remain little more than a wish. In A Raisin in the Sun, however, the main character Walter Lee, though he does not own a liquor store and has suffered significantly financially from his partner absconding with his money, has made significant progress towards his eventual goal. With the Youngers owning a house and Walter Lee realizing the importance of his family, the play ends with a far more hopeful and optimistic view of how the American dream can be accomplished. A Raisin in the Sun tells its reader that dreams can become a reality with effort and dedication whereas Death of a Salesman holds a far more grim moral, stating that, in reality, dreams and ambitions may remain unfulfilled.