University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Death of a Salesman vs. A Raisin in the Sun
Death of a Salesman vs. A Raisin in the Sun
"Value" is a word that comes with two very similar meanings, yet so very different at the same time. The first definition is, "estimate the monetary worth of (something)". This definition is about the value of a physical object. The second definition is, "a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life". This definition of value is about how a person conducts themselves or, more specifically, what morals are important to them. One prevalent theme that sprouts from both of the plays, "A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Death of a Salesman", is that a person who suffers from competitive materialism will have a hard time distinguishing the difference between which of the previous interpretations of "value" is most important in life. In "The Death of a Salesman" Willy is seen to be dominated by this competitive materialism through the very end. At the same time, Walter Lee shifts from competitive materialism to prioritizing his family's legacy and morals. Because of this difference in the plays, it can be seen that both plays still have the same underlying themes, they just present the lessons in different manners.
In "A Raisin in the Sun '' Walter Lee Younger is fascinated by the idea of becoming rich one day. He wants to be something because as of right now, "The future… Just waiting for me — a big, looming blank space full of nothing. Just waiting for me"(Hansberry, 802). As of right now, he believes that he is nothing without money. This is further proved when Mama Lena asks him "How come you talk so much 'bout money?" And he responds with "Because it is life, Mama!"(Hansberry, 802). Walter Lee is swallowed by competitive materialistic thought because he thinks that life is money and since he has no money he currently has no life. Not only does Walter Lee believe that money is directly proportional to life, but he also believes that to achieve money, or life, a person must assume the role of a "taker" or else they will be the "tooken". When Walter Lee is following the line of reasoning of the "who gets and who don't get"(Hansberry, 846) he is more prone to take the money offered to him by Mr. Linder. However, taking the money was essentially accepting that black people shouldn't be mixed with white people, thus giving up his moral identity or background in exchange for material wealth.
Walter Lee Younger is a character that can be described as a dynamic character, however. When Walter Lee is presented with the deal(money for the exclusion of the Younger family in a white community) Mama Lena says two crucial things that shift Walter Lee's view of the world. Firstly, Mama Lena says, "I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers—but ain't nobody in my family never let nobody pay'em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn't fit to walk the earth. We ain't never been that poor. We ain't never been that—dead inside"(875). This is Walter Lee's first step in his overall epiphany on life. He begins to realize that if he does take that money it is exchanging his cultural identity for money and that cultural identity is life, not money. Secondly, Ruth tries to send Travis downstairs while the deal is taking place but Mama Lena interjects with, "No. Travis, you stay right here. And you make him understand what you doing, Walter Lee. You teach him good. Like Willy Harris taught you. You show where our five generations done come to"(876). This is the moment of realization for Walter Lee Younger that he is supposed to follow in his father's footsteps, the same way that Travis is supposed to follow in his. If he allows himself to be absorbed by this materialistic mindset, that the world is a cruel place, where you are either the "taker" or the "tooken", then his father's previous work of building a legacy of honest and hardworking Youngers will be overshadowed by competitive materialism. Following his new mindset, Walter Lee Younger overcomes competitive materialism when he says, "And we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick"(876).
Willy Lowman is also a victim of competitive materialism, however, unlike Walter Lee, it seems he can't break free of the materialistic grasp. Willy Lowman has spent his entire life living in a transactional way. When talking to Charley, soon after losing his job Willy says, "Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive"(Miller, Salesman, 127). Willy acknowledges his failure in life because at the root of all of his journeys, his ventures, and his entire existence, was to make money and he has failed to do so. Not only has he failed to make money, but he also has engaged in an irreversible transaction. Willy Lowman exchanged his time for the chance to make money rather than exchange some of his time to possibly make money, and some of his time to see his kids and his wife. This lack of balance of his time shows that his life has become completely dominated by materialism because he values money more than his connection with his kids and wife.
Furthermore, Willy's definition of value is evident when he is talking with Ben outside at the end of the play. After Ben accuses Willy's plan to kill himself for life insurance money "cowardly" Willy responds with "Why? Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero?"(Miller, Salesman, 136). Willy is still blinded by competitive materialism and a transactional lifestyle because he explicitly states he would rather trade his life for 20,000 dollars so, "He'll see what I am"(Miller, Salesman, 137) (referring to Biff seeing Willy as a father). All Willy can think about is "...that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?"(Miller, Salesman, 137). Willy thinks that even his sons measure his value on how much money he can produce which is what drives him to kill himself to provide the money to Biff. However, Biff doesn't even want the money, "Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?"(Miller, Salesman, 138). Biff wants to sever all ties with Willy and wants nothing to do with Willy's dream anymore. Using this information it can be inferred that Biff will not take the 20,000 dollars because he believes Willy, "...had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong"(Miller, Requiem, 2). To summarize, Willy lived his life transactionally and suffered from competitive materialism; even his very last decision, as well as all of his other decisions, was made to put economic gain before his relations with his own family.
To conclude, both "The Death of A Salesman" and "A Raisin in the Sun" tackled the theme of how competitive materialism dominated the life of two different families, as well as the consequences of that domination. However, where the two plays differ is that "A Raisin in the Sun" has a dynamic character, Walter Lee, while "The Death of a Salesman" has a static character, Willy Lowman. Walter Lee is a dynamic character and can break free from the clasps of competitive materialism. This action of breaking free from competitive materialism shows that one must realize that "value" can be found within a person's character or morals, not within their money or net worth. Willy Lowman however stays static. Throughout the play, he believes life is transactional and everyone is defined by how much money they have or can produce. Here the theme is displayed by showing how competitive materialism can dominate one's life and not allow them to find the true "values" that are the most important when defining a person's merit.
To Dream or not to Dream
To Dream or not to Dream
In life, everyone has a place. There are carpenters, scientists, architects, and many more niches for people to fill. Each of these roles comes with a salary, thus defining a person's wealth. This wealth ends up defining what social class a person would fall into, whether it be middle class, higher class, or lower class. However, there is an argument in the world about whether that social class should define someone for their entire life, or if that person were to chase their dreams and aspirations, they could escape that social class to achieve upward mobility in society. Fitzgerald, the author of the Great Gatsby, leans towards the latter option. Fitzgerald's attitude towards dreaming is in a pessimistic tone and that tone is revealed thoroughly throughout the last page of The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald believes that everyone has a class and that people should stick to that class. However Gatsby, by this system, would classify as coming from a lower class background than Daisy. This presents an obstacle for him since he believes that he is meant to be with Daisy. Therefore Gatsby begins to chase an alternate, more prestigious background, and his "dream" of becoming this alternate person came from the idea of the green light. Fitzgerald uses symbolism within the context of the green light to show "Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock". This green light that Gatsby is attempting to reach out for is wealth, as green in American society is usually associated with money. The idea is if he obtains the wealth it essentially breaks down the class barrier between them allowing them to be together. However, this ideology is flawed because the money that he obtains is gathered through illegal manners. Throughout the writing, Fitzgerald specifically uses the word "wonder," wonder is a word that can often be associated with a hypothetical situation and a hypothetical situation is equivalent to a dream. Fitzgerald, says that Gatsby's, "dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly grasp it". However, Fitzgerald points out his foolishness in that his dream "was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city…". Fitzgerald is pointing out that Gatsby's hope of achieving his dream of wealth to obtain Daisy was foolish because that only happens in dreams, not in real life. In real life, Fitzgerald sees dreams as stealing something from another person. It is not Gatsby's "right" to be with Daisy because they aren't from the same economic background, thus his dream of being with her is essentially stealing.
The theme of dreaming remains relevant when Fitzgerald brings up the point of the dutch sailors sailing to a "new world". In this instance, there had been sailors in search of new territory away from their European homeland. Eventually, they stumbled across, "the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes— a fresh, green breast of the new world". This land had been everything that the Dutch sailors had dreamt of. Fitzgerald even writes that it "Flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes" implying that they thought they had a right to the land. However, this land didn't belong to the Europeans. Native Americans had occupied it far before the Europeans discovered it. This didn't matter to the Europeans because it was what they dreamt of and they finally found it. Fitzgerald pessimistically underlines here that dreaming is stealing another person's property. Fitzgerald uses the color green again to portray the dreams of the Dutch sailors who believe that they have the right to suck the nutrients of the land out of its "fresh, green breast"; this stealing remains constant as it happened the same way as Gatsby's situation. Gatsby thought he had the right to climb the social ladder through wealth by illegally acquiring money, also known as stealing. Fitzgerald emboldening the point that Dutch sailors believe that they have the right to advance socially because they dreamt about the acquisition of another class's land shows that he thinks pessimistically about dreaming and stealing property that belongs to another class of people.
In Fitzgerald's final paragraphs he shows that dreaming is something pointless that all humans do. He says," that Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us". When Fitzgerald chooses the word "us" he is bringing forth the idea that humanity as a whole is encapsulated in the idea of the green light and dreaming to obtain material objects to boost their self accomplishments or class. In continuation, Fitzgerald calls attention to the fact that "it eluded us then…" meaning that these dreams seem to always escape mankind somehow. However, Fitzgerald pessimistically mocks the perseverance attitude that most humans have to keep on dreaming and aspiring for their goals. He says it doesn't matter that humans didn't reach their goal because, "to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And one fine morning——". Fitzgerald points to the endless cycle known as life where humans continually "reach" out for their goals "And one fine morning——" their goals are never accomplished which causes them to, "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past". Fitzgerald describes the "dreaming cycle" that humans follow as boats that are flowing the opposite way of the river and the boats are headed to the past. The river can be thought of as life and the current is evidence that time doesn't freeze. Fitzgerald is saying that when humans dream they are moving toward the past instead of the future and that train of thought goes against how life works. He implies that to escape this never-ending cycle of reaching and missing our dreams people need to stop dreaming and stop moving against the current of life and let life take them where they are supposed to be, thus revealing Fitzgerald's negative connotation about dreaming.
All humans dream; they all aspire to climb the social ladder that has been put on display for them by the government in terms of Capitalism. Society pressures people to have their goals be going to college, getting good grades, and obtaining wealth to advance themselves in life. Some may call this "living the American dream". However, according to Fitzgerald, even if someone were to be able to chase that green light and achieve their money and material possessions, it is all a farce to cover up their theft of other people's deserved success. Nobody can ever truly leave their socioeconomic background behind. Fitzgerald disagrees with the misconceptions that society is imposing on its people because then its people would just be constantly living in an illusion. He believes that life is unfair but it doesn't give people the excuse to steal things from others and try to become something that they are not, thus revealing his rooted belief that dreaming is something that was designed to mask the taking of other people's success.