The two plays, Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller and Fences by August Wilson, are both impactful in the sense that they explore the idea of how underprivileged classes pursue success in spite of The American Dream leaving them behind. Willy Loman is a businessman, one who is ironically left behind by the ever-changing world of business. In spite of being past his prime and suffering from a splintered family, his idealism shines through in almost all of his work, to the point of idyllic delusion. He is contrasted by Troy Maxson, a black garbageman, disenfranchised by the white man and denied the American promise; success for hard work. Both of these men properly convey the American archetype of one who does all that is advertised as necessary to succeed in their work and life, but ultimately was left in a non-advantageous, unrewarding position. Both of these literary works assert throughout their texts that the root cause of both the protagonists unfulfillment is not just an unwillingness to conform to the progressing world, but also, a misplaced trust in the American way of life.
Death of A Salesman is upfront with the 'rags to riches' story narrative; a narrative promoting hard work and perseverance, in conjunction with the high hopes and struggles that often accompany it, and that with these aforementioned actions fulfilled, success should eventually follow. Willy Loman takes this idea to heart, feeding himself this idea of a successful salesman, and doing whatever he can to conform to it. To him this means pursuits to develop his charisma, popularity, and likeability, with his rationale that as a result, success in sales should follow. This can be exemplified in that when Biff was a high-schooler he told his dad, Willy, about his offensive mocking of his math teacher’s “lithp”(Miller, 93). Willy questions Biff in response to his reprehensible behavior saying, 'You did? Did the kids laugh?'(Miller, 93). This perfectly encapsulates Willy's methodology, one in which he teaches his children to meet the archetype of his aforementioned ideal salesman and ignore the moral foundation that being charismatic necessitates. Perhaps one of the most prevalent influences in how the American Dream manifests in Willy is probably his brother Ben. Ben possesses no family, and no known interpersonal fulfillment. He is idolized by Willy for his seizing money in Alaska. It is in this regard that Willy struggles to balance success with family, and although he seems to know his sons and wife love and idolize him, he instead chooses 'the death of a salesman,' cementing his commitment to his craft by killing himself. Willy quite literally gave his life to his work, and the result was not the funeral observed by thousands he'd hoped for, but instead, a grief-stricken family, incredibly distraught and slightly bitter. This is The American Dream in inaction, Willy's hard work and idealism ultimately resulted in his demise, and the disintegration of his family.
Troy Maxson juxtaposes Willy in a few interesting ways, notably in that his unsuccessful career is arguably not his fault. His baseball career’s failing was not a result of his own moral turpitude failing, but instead in the failing of the American dream to integrate blacks, forcing Troy and others into jobs both unrewarding and unprosperous. This in many ways defies the very nature of baseball itself, a sport in which all those who step up to the plate has a chance to succeed, to see their skills beget rewards, in essence, to shape their destiny. This idea is accentuated by Bono’s remarks in the beginning of the book, in which he reminds Troy that Babe Ruth and. Josh Gibson were the only players to hit more home runs than him, Troy responds coldly, 'What it ever get me? Take that fellow playing right field for the Yankees back then Selkirk.” (Wilson, 19). The sad truth however, is that Troy is justifiably bitter, he could have been the admiration of the world, but instead, his hard work was rewarded was a minimum wage garbage-cleaning job, in which the only joy Troy can find in life is through philandering with other women and at the bottom of the bottle. However, Troy is stubborn but nonetheless is determined to provide for his family, much like Willy. In this regard, he is a tragic hero in that while his intentions are understandable and justifiable, he suffers from a deep-seated resentment within himself. He stops his son Cory from playing football professionally despite his talent because of his own history with professional athletics. Much like Willy Loman, he imposes his methodology onto his children, cynically forcing Cory to work at the A&P, a job that Cory has absolutely no interest in, as opposed to football; something Cory is quite good at and enjoys. Troy does this on the basis of security, and it makes sense when looking at Troy’s own story. Furthermore, a common theme throughout Fences is Troy’s inability to move along with the progressiveness the United States is undergoing. In fact, in 1957, when the events of Fences occur, The American Dream was only just beginning to extend itself out to persons of color, in particular the mass desegregation of schools and public areas. At any rate, Troy’s response to Cory’s aspirations is not baseless, he simply doesn't want Cory to undergo the same deal Troy did, one where talent is negligible in regard to race. And while this belief may have foundation, it still fundamentally exacerbates the truth about the American Dream, in contrast to the American reality.
Troy Maxson and Willy Loman are at different ends of the spectrum in terms of justification and personal responsibility for their economic situations, but what is abundantly clear is that the two were not exacted a commensurate exchange for the talents and work committed. A businessman and a garbageman, both displaced by their country, succumbing to either cynicism or delusion. The world must take notice of these men who have been forgotten by society, forced to work menial jobs, and denied the American Dream. August Wilson and Arthur Miller both explore the struggles of the everyman in that they explore the internal consciousness common among many men who despise their fields, such as the failing salesperson, or the unenthused garbageman. There is no argument to made that Troy and Willy haven’t worked hard; Troy devoted himself to baseball until he was unfairly disenfranchised, and Willy quite literally gave his life to his work. The result of this unfair exchange was Troy and Willy’s collective truculence. The plays are impactful in this regard as the worst aspects of ourselves seem to shine through when we feel as though we haven’t been given a fair shake, in that regard, the plays explore this idea perfectly.
- Miller, Arthur, 1915-2005. Death Of a Salesman. New York :Penguin Classics, 1996.
- August Wilson. Fences. New York: Plume, 1986.