The American Dream featured most prominently in many literary works during the post-WWII era. It mainly concerned how the working-class people of America put up a rigorous fight to achieve their goals with regard to education, employment and a better living in general. In literary domains, many authors, both from American as well as Afro-American descent, treated the theme of the American Dream in a sensitive manner, addressing a number of pertinent issues, including racism, poverty, materialism and so on.
A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman, authored by Lorraine Hansberry and Arthur Miller respectively, are among the two most notable works in contemporary literature that deal with the essential elements of the American Dream. This paper is going to analyze two specific scenes from both works to show the similarities and the differences between the respective treatments of the American Dream.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry traces the struggle of an Afro-American family in attaining their dreams. It basically highlights the loopholes in the commonest of all American propagandas, namely, liberty and justice for all irrespective of ethnic identity. The Younger family must wade through a series of depravation and injustice to realize that not everything about America is so conducive so as to breed a culture of indiscrimination.
When the Younger family moves to their new apartment, neighbors raise their eyebrows and become concerned with the proposition that a Black family is shifting to a community that has a White majority of inmates. This scene immediately underlines the fallacy that separates the much publicized ‘justness’ of the American Dream and its actual reality. Living in a grossly materialist world, members of the Younger family grow immune to the ordeal they are about to face and at the same time, they cannot afford to waste too much time in taking the most crucial decision – whether to defer their dream or to pursue it.
Likewise, the flashback scene in Act I of Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman’s fanciful reassertion of him being a successful salesman is rebuked by his wife Linda, is typical of the anguish the characters feel when their expectations are shattered by reality. This scene in particular has multifaceted connotations that adequately serve for the purpose of substantiating the thesis. Similarities between the two scenes rest on their illustration of individual dreams that are imperative to even hope for a better future.
Firstly, A Raisin in the Sun deals with three dreams – Mama wants to buy a new house; Mama’s son Walter wants to invest in business; and Walter’s sister Beneatha wants to spend the money as her tuition fees. It may be noted that albeit none of the three dreams is unreasonable, there lies a crucial relation between the broader picture of realizing one’s dream and implementing it to the best possible effect for the welfare of all family members concerned.
On one hand, Mama’s plans can be held as the most productive option for the family. But this does in no way belittle the other two dreams, as the readers eventually find out in the end. Secondly, the scene also acts as a prequel to Walter’s current standing. The narrative method in both the plays follows the flashback mode, in order to capture the fluidity of time. At the outset, Walter converses with his mother, telling her that he does not like his job as a limousine driver, “Yes sir; no sir, very good sir; shall I take the drive, sir?” Mama, that ain’t no kind of job … that ain’t nothing at all (Hansberry 57). Therefore, it is quite clear that the dreams that have conflicting ideologies in the very beginning continue to impact the dreamers’ psyche until the curtain is raised over their uncertain future.
The flashback scene in Death of a Salesman sums up the very concept of the New World, as it came to be known with colonization in the Americas early in the eighteenth century. The most powerful myths associated with the American Dream are at once expressed and dismissed in this scene. When Loman engages in fantastic visions about the glory he is so obsessed with, he inadvertently overestimates his professional capacities as a salesman. This is well brought out in the Requiem when Biff realizes that his father “had the wrong dreams he never knew who he was” (Miller 111). Klopsch argues that Arthur Miller, in defense of the purported American Dream in Death of a Salesman, sketches the character of Happy, the youngest son of Loman, in line with his father’s disposition (11).
In the context of racism, both the plays, especially the two scenes in contention, depict the discriminatory attributes that prevailed in the American society. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, it is apparent how difficult it is for Willy Loman and his sons to attain their long cherished American dream, notwithstanding their white background. So when Loman introspects about his acceptability as a salesman, he unconsciously goes over the line and makes a far more biased evaluation about himself than he does about his neighbor and his son:
HAPPY: Like Uncle Charley, heh?
WILLY: Bigger than Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not – liked. He’s liked, but he’s not – well liked.
WILLY: Bernard is not well liked, is he?
BIFF: He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.
WILLY: […] Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. “Willy Loman is here!” That’s all they have to know, and I go right through (Miller 21).
It is very clear that Willy Loman’s cacophonic self-boasting is a result of the recurring uncertainties not just about his own worth, but also about the fuzziness of the dreams he is so fond of dreaming.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry examines how an Afro-American family scrambles to break away from an impoverished living that is holding them back from pursuing the American Dream. Walter’s dream of owning a liquor shop is nothing but the reflection of a man’s desire to be somebody or make something happen out of myriad trifles.
The author carefully examines how racial prejudices can worsen a Black man’s struggle in attaining his dreams. When the Younger family finally realizes its dreams, it is already established in the readers’ mind that the Western civilization in contemporary times had placed a social imposition based on racial segregation on millions of Black people who simply wanted to find respectable jobs and a relatable identity for themselves.
When the Youngers move to their new place, they are greeted with cautious indifference by their White neighbors. It creates identity crisis for characters like Ruth. Unlike the rest of the family members, Ruth is a pretty and elegant and she battles hard to find why her family is being looked down upon. Hence, the scene grips the readers with a sense of helplessness that accentuates when the family undergoes a terrible financial loss following the crooked deal Walter signed with his friend Harris.
The so-called American Dream soon begin to yield disastrous results for the Youngers, as they set out for a hopeful yet unsettled future. This ambivalence in the plot seems to suggest that the conflict over individual dreams is not merely an instance of literary imagination, rather a profoundly conceived social document by the author to negate the impossibilities of an ideal.
Being able to assimilate a diverse array of cultural bends is a tale-tell sign of personal improvement. Yet, if stretched overboard, this very sign may backfire and put one’s personality at risk of crumbling. This is what precisely happens in case of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. When left on his own most of the times by his family, he faces a crucial dilemma that is integral to a capitalist form of business and society. It is worth noting what Sterling has to say over this issue:
The dilemmas posed by capitalism and business clearly exist as integral thematic concerns in Death of a Salesman. The impersonal nature of capitalism is expressed in various parts of the drama. Willy laments to Howard that in contemporary business, “it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear – or personality” (81). Miller convincingly shows in this scene the impersonal and inhumane nature of capitalism (5).
Willy’s inability to mingle with his fellow people stands in contrast to Walter’s adjustment in the same regard. The treatment of the American Dream by Hansberry and Miller differs in terms of the sketching the outer layers of personality for the two main characters. Walter does not have the slightest problem in assimilating into the norms of an Americanized living. But Willy Loman finds it extremely hard to communicate with others, a reason why he has to soliloquize frequently to give vent to his inner thoughts. In relation to the thesis, it may be argued that Loman and Walter represent the mouthpiece of a social continuum that retained its Americanized entity for much of the latter half of the twentieth century.
- Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Broadway, NY: The Modern Library, 1995.
- Klopsch, Nadja. The American Dream in the 20th Century American Drama. Munich: GRIN
- Verlag, 2009.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.
- Hudson Street, NY: Penguin Classics, 1998.
- Sterling, Eric J. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008.