Death of a Salesman

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The American Dream Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The American Dream Theme Icon
Fathers and Sons Theme Icon
Nature vs. City Theme Icon
Abandonment and Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Death of a Salesman, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The American Dream Theme Icon

The American Dream that anyone can achieve financial success and material comfort lies at the heart of Death of a Salesman. Various secondary characters achieve the Dream in different ways: Ben goes off into the wilderness of Alaska and Africa and lucks into wealth by discovering a diamond mine; Howard Wagner inherits his Dream through his father's company; while Bernard, who seemed a studious bore as a child, becomes a successful lawyer through hard work. Willy Loman's version of the Dream, which has been influenced by his brother Ben's success, is that any man who is manly, good looking, charismatic, and well-liked deserves success and will naturally achieve it.

Over the course of his lifetime, Willy and his sons fall short of the impossible standards of this dream. But the real tragedy of the play is not that Willy fails to achieve the financial success promised in his American dream, but rather that he buys into the dream so thoroughly that he ignores the tangible things around him, such as the love of his family, while pursuing the success he hopes will bring his family security. By sacrificing himself at the end of the play in order to get his family the money from his life insurance policy, Willy literally kills himself for money. In the process, he demonstrates that the American dream, while a powerful vehicle of aspiration, can also turn a human being into a product or commodity whose sole value is his financial worth.

The American Dream ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The American Dream appears in each act of Death of a Salesman. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The American Dream Quotes in Death of a Salesman

Below you will find the important quotes in Death of a Salesman related to the theme of The American Dream.
Act 1 Quotes
I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, arrives home to his wife Linda. She is surprised to see him back so soon, and he explains that he couldn't make it to his destination. He was distracted and kept pulling his car over at the side of the road. She asks him what's wrong and, avoiding the truth, he tells her: "I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts." 

Here, we begin to see the slow unraveling of Willy Loman; a man with an unrealistic view of the American Dream. He measures the worth of his own life in the amount of money he has, yet we will come to learn that he will never attain what he dreams of. Death Of A Salesman is Arthurs Miller's commentary on that American Dream and how it can break people. In the 1940s and 50s a blue collar job, like a salesman was what people aspired for. They believed that work meant wealth. Yet Willy Loman feels a sense of purposelessness that he can't define. He doesn't understand that the ideal of the American Dream has betrayed him—it is the unrewarding nature of his job and his constant idealism of what it means to be wealthy that leaves him directionless. 

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Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there's nobody to live in it.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy asks Linda about how his two sons, Happy and Biff, are doing. Linda tells him that they are getting along and that she loves watching them shave together. We learn here that they are grown men. Willy comments on Linda's remarks with this quote. 

Once again, Willy has distilled one of the darkest aspects of the American Dream. Like many, he has worked his entire life to provide for his family, so much so that he has missed out on most of his children's' lives. As he traveled, his sons became men. After this moment he tells Linda, that "some people accomplish" things, suggesting that the time he has lost with his children was pointless. He hasn't accomplished anything, quite possibly because he is searching in the wrong places. This quote also foreshadows the ending of the play, when Willy's death indeed pays off the house—but he isn't alive to live in it.

It's a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer... To suffer fifty weeks a year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still - that's how you build a future.
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 10-11
Explanation and Analysis:

Before this moment Willy complains to Linda about how Biff has done nothing with his life. He is 34 years old, lives at home and barely makes an income. Meanwhile, Biff and Happy have woken up and are discussing their father's health. They are worried about his car accidents and his memory. Thinking about their father causes the boys to discuss their own futures. Here Biff reveals why he doesn't want to be a salesman. He doesn't understand why he has to prioritize making money, especially in the way Willy approves of. He then goes on to discuss his love for working on a farm, in nature. In the countryside, Biff feels, life is simple, natural, and clear. This sentiment is in deep opposition with the blue-collar, city lifestyle of Willy and Happy. Arthur Miller draws this comparison throughout the play, suggesting that the city represents the pursuit of material things, clouding (sometimes literally) the important things in life. Conversely, the countryside represents staying rooted and planted and following the simple passions in life.

Manufacturers offer me a hundred-dollar bill now and then to throw an order their way. You know how honest I am, but it's like this girl, see. I hate myself for it. Because I don't want the girl, and, still, I take it and - I love it!
Related Characters: Happy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Happy and Biff discuss their own futures. When Biff asks Happy about whether or not he likes his job in sales, he says no. He is constantly waiting for a higher up to quit or die, and his life is incredibly lonely. However, Happy does find the prospect of money as an enticing one. Here we see Happy reflect similar sentiments to his father, Willy. He goes on to tell Biff that he has been sleeping with executives' girlfriends in order to get to the top. One woman was his lover just weeks before she got married to his boss. He has also been taking bribes from manufacturers. 

Living in Biff's shadow as a child, Happy has always tried to overcompensate for his father's approval. It makes sense, then, that he would pursue the same career as Willy, whether he likes it or not. By revealing his slyness and manipulation, Happy also attempts to prove his own manhood and pride to Biff. In some ways, this again is an example of that distorted American Dream; to live the life of your father, no matter how much it costs you. 

And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there'll be open sesame for all of us, 'cause one thing, boys: I have friends.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman, Happy Loman
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

After returning home from a business trip, Willy recounts his time away to his sons. He explains that he is very well liked when he travels. On this trip he met the mayor of Providence and sat down with him. He also brags about his fame and friends.

This moment is a stark contrast from Willy's first entrance and dialogue with Linda. Here, Willy is putting on a show for his sons. Instead of telling them the truth—that he hates his job and feels like his life is pointless—he regales his sons with stories of his travels. There is a sense of pride inherent in being the father for Willy. He must be successful. He must be an example for his sons. Once again, success, wealth and now, being well-liked become more important than happiness; this is Willy's  perception of the "American Dream." 

The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich! The world is an oyster, but you don't crack it open on a mattress!
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Ben Loman
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Willy discusses his jealousy for his brother Ben's fortune. Ben came from nothing, but discovered a diamond mine in Africa and got rich. When Willy tells Happy this, Happy wonders how Ben did it. Willy replies with this quote. He tells Happy that dreams are acquired through perseverance, but also great luck. This moment once again plays on the idealized versus realized "American Dream." Adventuring to Africa and making a fortune overnight is Willy's idea of what the American dream should be. But Willy actually lives Arthur Miller's reality of the American dream: a blue-collar, middle-class working man who feels aimless and hasn't achieved any sense of fulfillment or happiness for all his striving. 

Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way.
Related Characters: Ben Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Alone in his kitchen, Willy daydreams about his brother Ben. On stage, Ben will appear through the walls of the house, and Ben then discusses Willy and his father. He describes his father to Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy. Ben then play fights with Biff and pulls out an umbrella and nearly hits him in the eye. He tells Biff this piece of advice.

Willy has constantly lived in the shadow of his brother Ben, who made a fortune virtually overnight. Willy has had to work his entire life and thus has a skewed sense of what the real American Dream is. He sees it as wealth and monetary success, because of the success of his brother (which was actually based entirely on luck). Furthermore, like Biff and Happy, Willy looks up to his brother. Yet this moment reveals Ben as a cruel person—who knows how many people he has hurt or taken advantage of in order to achieve his "success." Once again, Willy has a warped sense of what is important in life. 

Gotta break your neck to see a star in this yard.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Ben is leaving Willy's imagination, but Willy begs him to stay. He wants to learn from him—he asks Ben how he can teach his boys about making something of themselves. Ben replies by telling him to simply walk into the "jungle." Willy is then snapped out of his memory by Linda asking him to come up to bed. Willy replies with this quote.

The jungle is an elusive concept in the play. It was Ben's literal way toward fortune, but it also represents jumping into life and working at full force. Furthermore, Miller draws a stark contrast between nature and the city. For Willy, the jungle and the stars at night represent passion and what is natural, yet he is stuck in a city life, where he must work tirelessly for no gain. Stars are impossible to see in the city. They are clouded by industrialism and tall buildings, much like the life of the Loman men. The reference to him breaking his neck is a foreshadowing of Willy's own death; the only way he has to escape his own life. 

Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out - Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he'll be great yet.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Happy and Biff throw around the idea of starting their own sporting goods business, and they share with Willy that Biff is going to ask his former boss for money. Willy is thrilled by the idea, and throws in a slew of suggestions and thoughts on how they should present themselves. Here, he reflects on a football game where he saw his son Biff being cheered, his own last name ringing around the stadium. This again shows Willy's warped mixture of nostalgia and idealism—he celebrates this heroic moment of the past, even though Biff has gone on to not really accomplish anything. Willy has specific ideas about what "success" is, and his sons fail themselves in trying not to fail their father.

Act 2 Quotes
Do you know? when he died - and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston - when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

After Howard refuses to give Willy a position in New York, Willy tries to get him to change his mind by explaining his long history and passion for sales. When he was young he met a man named Dave Singleman, a traveling salesman. Inspired by his stories of travel and fortune, Willy realized in that moment that being a salesman was his passion. In the present, Willy admires the way the Dave was respected after his death, having died the death of a true traveling salesman. 

Always on the search for the American Dream, young Willy Loman idealized the life of being a traveling salesman. He saw Dave's fortune and fame as a direct result of his career, and thus followed in his footsteps. He also uses this story to share how much the sales world has changed.

In terms of plot, the description of the larger-than-life Dave's death is darkly contrasted with Willy's own impending death. Willy dies the "death of a salesman," just like Dave, but Willy is mourned by almost no one.

The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that.
Related Characters: Charley (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy enters into Charley's office to ask him for a loan, having just been fired by Howard. Charley had previously offered Willy a well-paying job, but Willy had proudly refused to take it (Willy has always felt very competitive towards Charley). Charley tells Willy that he doesn't understand why he wants to borrow money, but won't take a job. Willy explains that he was fired by Howard, but also repeats his philosophy that in order to succeed, one must be impressive and likable. He believes that his involvement in Howard's childhood should have given him a leg up. Here, Charley tries to tell Willy that those things—his relationships, being well liked or successful—don't matter in the world of real capitalism. The American Dream is much harsher than Willy's idealized vision of it. Once again Willy has spent so much of his life worrying about his image of success that he has lost the meaning within his own life. 

Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

After arguing about whether or not Charley should give Willy a loan, Charley finally caves. He throws money on the table and Willy tells him that after all of the bills and expenses, he is probably worth more dead than alive. Here, Willy verbally communicates the idea that he has been suggesting throughout the play; self worth is measured in wealth. Without wealth in life, he is likely worth more dead (as he would be able to give his family life insurance money). In his mind, it is worth more for him to be dead than it is to live the aimless and mediocre life he is living. He also refers to the city landscape here, revealing another moment where the city and countryside are used to compare different qualities and priorities in life. This skewed sense of self-worth and the meaning of life foreshadows what will ultimately become of Willy Loman. 

I even believed myself that I'd been a salesman for him! And he gave me one look and - I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been!
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Bill Oliver
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Biff returns from trying to meet with his former boss, Bill Oliver. He waited all day in his office and when Bill came out, he didn't even recognize Biff. He looked at him and walked away, and Biff couldn't find the courage to speak to Bill. This causes Biff to wonder why he even thought he could become a salesman in the first place. Biff is in the same dangerous, self-destructive cycle as his father. Parallel to Willy's moment with Howard, Biff has been abandoned by someone he had an idealized view of. In his fantasy, he imagined Bill Oliver as his friend and business associate, loving his ideas—but similar to his father, Biff's dreams have warped his expectations of reality. Bill does not care about him, and Biff will never be what he truly wants to be. 

But it'll go on forever!

Dad is never so happy as when he's looking forward to something!
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Happy Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

After telling Happy the story of his encounter with Bill Oliver, Biff reveals that when no one was looking he snuck into Oliver's office and stole his fountain pen. Biff then tells Happy that he wants to confess to their father, so that Willy can see that Biff is very different from what he appears to be. Happy suggests that instead of telling Willy the truth, they convince him that Oliver agreed to speak with Biff and is looking over their offer. Happy knows that Willy's joy and self-worth hinges on his dreams, so he encourages his brother to lie in order to keep their father happy. Biff, on the other hand, feels he needs to prove something to his father, whom he always felt never understood him. 

She's nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely.

You - you gave her Mama's stockings!
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker), Biff Loman (speaker), Linda Loman, The Woman
Related Symbols: Stockings
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
While Biff tries to confess about his meeting with Bill Oliver to his father, Willy sinks into another memory. He goes back to the day he found out Biff flunked math. After failing his course, Biff took a train to visit Willy in Boston, and he found him with another woman in his hotel room. Willy tried to hide his mistress in the bathroom, but eventually she comes out, asking Willy for her stockings that he promised her: Linda's stockings. Biff is heartbroken at his father's infidelity. Once again, the stockings are used as a symbol of betrayal. They are the image that Biff and Willy carry with them, a emblem of that night. After that moment, Biff tells Willy that he won't be retaking math or going to college. Throughout the play Willy has been blaming math as the reason why Biff hasn't been successful, when in reality it was this shattering moment of disillusionment. The man that Biff had always looked up to is now a fraud. This forever warps Biff's idea of the "American Dream"; something he once defined as the dream of his father's. He now sees that it is all a sham, and is left directionless in life. 
I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground.
Related Characters: Willy Loman (speaker)
Related Symbols: Seeds
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Willy's fantasy about his affair dissolves and he finds himself in the bathroom of the restaurant he was in with his sons. When he returns to the table he sees that his sons are gone—they've paid the check and he is alone. Willy asks his server, Stanley where he can find some seeds to plant. Stanley tells him to go to a hardware store nearby. Willy exits.

Seeds here become a symbol of Willy's desire to die and leave something, no matter how small, behind him. He has nothing to care for anymore. His sons don't respect him, he has just had a vivid memory of his betrayal of his wife, he has lost his job, and he has lost his own sense of self worth. Miller also brings up the idea of nature versus city once again. If the city represents the clouded, capitalistic American Dream, coming back to nature, to the simple planting and reaping of seeds, represents the idea of finding truth and connection. Additionally, unlike Willy, seeds are planted—they are rooted to the ground, and do not travel or move. Willy is desperate for roots and desperate for growth, and he sees death and the planting of seeds as the only way to accomplish this. 

Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Biff and Happy return home, and Linda is furious that they abandoned their father at the restaurant. She tells both of them that they must leave the house and move out if they want to save their father. Biff approaches Willy, who is outside, rambling to himself and planting the seeds he has bought. Biff confesses everything that happened with Bill Oliver, and tells Willy that he is leaving the house. Willy is stuck in his fantasy world, and he doesn't believe that Biff doesn't have a meeting with Oliver. Biff grabs the rubber hose that Willy used to try to kill himself with earlier in the play. He tells his father that killing himself won't make him a hero, and that he has been living in fantasy; he has unrealistic ideas of success and fortune. He tells his father the thing he, Biff, truly loves: being outdoors. He then begs his father to let go of his dreams to save his own life. In this moment, Biff attempts to shatter his father's dreams from a place of love. Biff knows that Willy's delusions of what life should be are killing him, and this is Biff's last-ditch effort to save his father. 

The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.
Related Characters: Ben Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

After what seems to have been a revelatory moment with his family, Willy sinks back into his delusions, hearing the voice of his dead brother Ben telling him that "The jungle is dark but full of diamonds." Unbeknownst to his family, Willy turns and listens to this voice. In his delusional state, Ben tells Willy that with money, Biff will be magnificent one day. Ben urges Willy to not give up on his dreams, and to instead return to the "jungle." In a moment alone, Willy agrees. He chooses to abandon his family for the ultimate search of wealth; his life insurance policy. That night, he takes his car and kills himself. His American Dream has been realized, and he has at last reached the dark "jungle" of both death and money.

Requiem Quotes
There were a lot of nice days. When he'd come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch... You know something, Charley, there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.
Related Characters: Biff Loman (speaker), Willy Loman, Charley
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

After Willy's funeral, Biff brings up Willy's knack for carpentry as one of his better qualities. So much of their home is Willy's making, and this moment suggests that Willy had skills outside of his failed sales career—he was just too caught up in his own pursuit of wealth, and his idea of success as being "likable," to see it. Biff tries to remember the good in his father, both to celebrate him and, in many ways, to protect himself. He is his father's son, and he sees so much of his own failure as a result of that. Yet the suggestion is that Biff has not yet given in entirely to Willy's delusions—there is still a chance for him to find more fulfillment in life than his father did. 

He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine... A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
Related Characters: Charley (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

After Willy's funeral, the family stands around Willy's grave and talk about his life. Biff tells Charley that Willy had the wrong dreams—he was never meant to be a salesman, and his aspirations were clouded by his desire to be wealthy and well-liked by many. Charley disagrees, and he tells the group that Willy was the truest salesman there ever was. He depended on the happiness and affirmation of his customers. If he didn't have that, his life would shatter. He was exemplary in his profession, which caused him to rely heavily on his own success. This is what really killed him—his failure to continue to receive the affirmation of others, the failure of his own dreams.

I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home.
Related Characters: Linda Loman (speaker), Willy Loman
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Everyone has left the funeral, and Linda stands alone over Willy's grave. In this private moment, she speaks to her deceased husband, telling him that she can't cry. She feels like he is on just another trip, and is bound to come home. She has been abandoned by him, but also cannot yet accept the reality of his death. Linda then tells Willy that she made the final payment on their house—but there is no one there to live in it now. The irony of the American dream is made clear here. Linda was only able to pay for the house, a goal Willy was aiming to achieve, with the insurance money collected after Willy's death. His American Dream has been realized, but he isn't there to see it—it's just empty money, without life and meaning behind it.