University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Dreams Achieved, Dreams Deferred: The Irony of Dreams in Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun
Dreams Achieved, Dreams Deferred: The Irony of Dreams in Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman follow the lives of two families who struggle financially, the designated figureheads in each being Walter Lee Younger and Willy Loman respectively. Walter Lee works as a chauffeur in the Southern side of Chicago, scraping up just enough cash to support his wife, son, and mother in a small apartment. Similarly, Willy Loman works as a traveling salesman in New York as the primary income in his family's house with his wife and two sons, Biff and Happy. Despite both falling lower on the class scale, Walter Lee and Willy carry aspirations with the intention of further supporting their families without having to barely scrape by each house payment. During an argument with his mother about getting the funding for his liquor store, Walter Lee states, "'you ain't looked at it and you have decided. Well, you tell that to my boy tonight when you put him to sleep on the living room couch. Yeah and tell it to my wife, Mama, tomorrow when she has to go out of here to look after somebody else's kids'" (Hansberry 812). His assertiveness to his mother about his dream is for the intention of being able to support and give his family the living conditions that they deserve. Much like Willy Loman, he wants to be rich to leave behind a wealthy legacy to his family. However, despite these similarities in their roles as lower-income workers and as fathers, Walter Lee and Willy ultimately show contrast in their response to their failure in what Arthur Miller terms the Law of Success. Walter Lee discovers the opposite principle, the Law of Love, while Willy remains committed to the Law of Success.
By placing their full focus into their dreams rather than their careers, Walter Lee and Willy gain a lack of financial backup to follow those dreams and fall into a metaphorical trap. Throughout the narrative of his story, Walter Lee aspires to form a liquor store with his friends to conquer his financial struggles and live a materialistic life. Yet, Walter Lee already has a job as a chauffeur which is getting him by enough to pay for his apartment alongside his wife. Despite this, however, Walter Lee places his full faith into a check that is supposed to be given to his mother after his father passed away. He believes that, since the check is going to contain a lot of money, he can take a decent chunk out of it to kickstart his liquor store business. But when he catches wind that his mother used her check to purchase a house in a predominantly white neighborhood, Walter Lee reacts in silence. The stage directions say, "WALTER finally turns slowly to face his mother with incredulity and hostility" (Hansberry 823). Walter Lee's harsh reaction to purchasing the new house proved that his plan of cutting back on his job as a chauffeur completely backfired. By placing his full faith into his dreams, he limited his priority on his job with a secure income, which in turn places his family at risk of not being able to securely pay for their apartment, let alone his house. Likewise, Willy Loman dreams of achieving enough money to support his family. Willy believes that the best way of getting closer to this dream is by pushing his son, Biff, to become a more successful salesman than he is. When discussing Biff and Happy's eventual meeting with a businessman, Willy says, "you are not applying for a boy's job. Money is to pass. Be quiet, fine, and serious. Everybody likes a kidder, but nobody lends him money... I see great things for you kids. I think your troubles are over" (Miller 64). Willy lights up when he has the time to talk with his sons about sales because he has such faith in them. However, Willy should have been putting more faith into himself because his lack of attention to his own occupation led to his downfall. In the end, Willy loses his job all together. He is left with no choice but to chase his dream, lacking financial support, due to his inability to balance his travel job and overall being a poorly performing salesman.
Walter Lee and Willy's dreams don't only get in the way of their occupations, but they also negatively affect their abilities of being supportive fathers. With their continued chase toward their dreams, Walter Lee, and Willy both end up negatively affecting the lives and dynamic of their families as well. Walter Lee's relationship with his son is one that is inconsistent throughout the story. On the one hand, when Walter Lee and his son, Travis, share the stage together, they have a very friendly relationship. On the other hand, since Walter spends majority of his time at either his job or the bar, Travis isn't privileged with a consistent relationship with his father. To pass the time, Travis spends a lot of his time outside and away from the house. After returning home, Walter Lee and Travis share an exchange.
WALTER: Son I feel like talking to you tonight.
TRAVIS: About what?
WALTER: Oh, about a lot of things. About you and what kind of man you going to be when you grow up... Son son, what do you want to be when you grow up? (Hansberry 828).
The question that Walter Lee poses to Travis is an interesting one because it seems as if it was asked too late. The question, "what do you want to be when you grow up" is a question that parents not only begin asking when their child is small, but it's a question that proves that Walter Lee doesn't have the same level of connection to his son as his wife and mother. A child's dream occupation shows both personality and character. Furthermore, Walter Lee seemingly can't ask his son about anything other than work, continuing his materialistic desires. Willy Loman acts the same way, except Biff is old enough to be able to call out Willy for his actions and not being able to connect with him about anything other than working. Biff also has the capability and confidence to be able to combat his father in argument form, progressing Willy's spiral of being a failed salesman. In Biff and Willy's final confrontation, Biff states, "I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I'm one dollar an hour, illy!... I'm not bringing home any prizes any more, and you're going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!" (Miller 132). Willy's commitment to his dreamed resulted in his relationship with Biff being rendered as just another client of Willy's. Biff recognizes that his relationship with his father has never been anything worth to him, so he lashes out and attacks the one thing that Willy used to justify his being away, his work.
Despite their similarities in failure, the direction that each of these characters take at the end of their stories renders each of their ideologies as completely different. Miller contrasts the idea of the Law of Love to the Law of Success in his introduction to Death of a Salesman. In this introduction, Miller distinguishes the difference between the Law of Love and the Law of Success. In his own words, Miller defines the Law of Success as, "a failure in society and in business has no right to live" (Miller 35). While not explicitly mentioned in the text, the direct contrast of the Law of Success, a law that defines that a lack of success means failure, is the Law of Love, which can define itself as one who doesn't show compassion or support for those around him has failed. These two ideologies are where the differences between Walter Lee and Willy Loman come into fruition. Walter Lee aligns more with the Law of Love approached based on his final decision to decline the monetary deal to stay in the predominantly white neighborhood. During his confrontation with Mr. Lindner, Walter Lee asserts that he deserves the house because his family has earned it, wrapping up his argument by stating that he will not be taking the money from them. Based on his previous actions, Walter Lee's mother assumed that Walter Lee was going to sell the house and insisted that Travis be there to watch his father continue this cycle of materialism. Yet, Walter Lee subverts expectations by putting his family and, most importantly, his son before his desires to take a Law of Love approach. In his final words to Mr. Lindner, Walter Lee remarks, "we don't want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that's all we got to say about that. We don't want your money" (Hansberry 849). Walter Lee still tries to remain conscious that his decision isn't pleasing to Mr. Lindner, hence why he mentions that he isn't trying to cause any harm and his family will be good neighbors. But Walter Lee refused to dive back into his wealthy desires in favor of showing compassion for his family.
On the other side of the coin is Willy Loman who remains assertive of the Law of Success until the day he dies. During his argument with Biff, Willy remains truthful to himself that he is a salesman despite the harsh comebacks from Biff. Biff concludes the argument by talking about his internal struggle with his identity and how he is desperate for his father to stop putting so much effort into, as he describes himself as, nothing. Yet, Willy's eventual suicide is what he believes to be the best sale he has come up with. He is under the impression that ending his life to provide money to his family is the brilliant. While internally talking to Ben for the final time, Willy remarks, "Yes! Yes. Coming! It's very smart, you realize that, don't you, sweetheart? Even Ben sees it. I gotta go, baby. 'By! 'By! Going over to Ben, almost dancing: Imagine? When the mail comes he'll be ahead of Bernard again!" (Miller 135). Willy's reaction to his own plan doesn't prove to be one out of love, but it seems to be one out of excitement for his own brilliance, hence why he believes he is so successful. However, what Willy fails to realize is that, because of how unsuccessful his relationship with his son is, he fails at the Law of Love. Especially after his final argument with Willy, Biff is more likely to not accept the money that gets sent to him, resulting in Willy Loman's final sale being a failed one. By being brainwashed by his commitment to the Law of Success, Willy fails to consider if Biff would even consider taking the money. Thereby showing that Willy has failed at both the Law of Success and the Law of Love.
In the end, the contrast between the motives of Walter Lee Younger and Willy Loman accentuate the differences in their characters, but the contrast in the themes of the plays as well. Death of a Salesman is recognizable as the definitive modern-day tragedy, much like William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet for that era in theater history. The play follows the steady decline of a man as he loses touch with himself and everything around him little by little until he eventually dies. A Raisin in the Sun, despite the harshness of its main protagonist, is seen as more of an optimistic story and, in some cases, even a comedy at times. Willy Loman's ideology of success plays into the tragedy that one needs money to achieve happiness and Willy never had the chance to be truly happy with himself because of his continued chase for wealth. Walter Lee Younger's ideology of love plays into the optimism of the show's theme by showing that physical objects or materialism don't bring out true happiness. By the end of his narrative, Walter Lee learns that materialism corrupts the human mind of what is truly important, love and family. Furthermore, A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman carry an identical notion that the true villain in American society is the overwhelming influence of materialism that plagues those who desire it so badly.