A Destroyed American Fantasy
The American Dream consists of an ideal that individuals make a bargain with life in America; so long as an individual works hard, America will present avenues to economic success and social respect. The American Dream represents an idealistic country where there is a lack of racism, sexism, and discrimination preventing an individual from actualizing their dreams. Any dreams seem obtainable in accordance with the American Dream because of our freedoms and moral standards. However, as society has progressed, the American Dream has become increasingly unattainable. August Wilson’s Fences, written in response to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in an attempt to discuss the obsolete American Dream, misplaced intentions, moral stasis, and adapting to modern society.
In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy’s unhappiness stems from his perception of the meaning of an American Dream. Willy and his children struggle to achieve economic and social success; Willy convinces himself to believe that he has put years on honest effort into achieving his American Dream which leads to his suicide when he is not rewarded with a promotion but fired from his position as a traveling salesman. Willy’s American Dream is embodied by Dave Singleman’s position within the company until his death; Dave was Willy’s inspiration to become a salesman. Salesman symbolizes a man who has achieved social respect and economic success to Willy; Willy recognizes Singleman’s social status as a profitable salesman through the “hundreds of salesmen and buyers” at his funeral (Miller 81) and his “green velvet slippers” (Miller 81) as economic success. Willy’s naive interpretation of Singleman’s success as a salesman reflects his naive interpretation of the American Dream. Moreover, Willy’s garden reinforces his mentality that hard work will allow an individual to reap rewards; however, without sunlight, no amount of hard work will result in a bountiful harvest. Willy’s ideals do not account for the amount of luck necessary to obtain an actualized American Dream.
August Wilson’s Fences contrasts Miller’s idealization of the American Dream through the realistic approach Troy Maxson possess. Troy realizes that he must work tirelessly to achieve his dream of comfortable living for himself and his family; Troy is also confronted by the obstacle of race which restricts him from having recognized rights. Troy’s judgemental attitude towards the man “trying to hide that great big watermelon under his coat. Afraid to let the white man see him carry it home” (Wilson line 19-20) mimics his disgust at the discrimination African Americans face in contrast to that of white Americans. The watermelon the man is shielding is representative of the American Dream African Americans must protect from the “white mens” (Wilson line 32-33); the shielded watermelon also reinforces the idea that African American men must keep aware of their place in relation to white men to achieve their aspirations. Wilson challenges the mentality concerning the American Dream through Troy’s stubborn emphasis that Cory must “get a trade” (Wilson line 136-137) to secure financial security rather than suffer disappointment through an unrealized dream such is the case with Troy and Lyons.
Willy Loman’s dreams of becoming a successful, respected business man begin well-intentioned in Miller’s Death of a Salesman. His misplaced values of being well-liked and remembered resulted in a disillusional life of success for himself and his sons; Willy’s weak character leads him to make poor personal decisions in addition to parental decisions. His mantra discerning social status becomes a pivotal conflict in Death of a Salesman when Biff discovers Willy’s affair and the reader realizes that Willy is just playing the part of an honest, caring parent and husband to fit a role as a successful businessman. Despite his good intentions to raise Biff and Happy in addition to providing for himself and his family, Willy’s integrity is compromised along with his ability to be honest with himself and others.
Similarly, Wilson’s play Fences defines Troy’s good intentions by comparing his actions as a provider with those of Troy’s father. Troy attempts to raise Cory with pure intentions so he will not be disappointed, but Troy raises Cory with controlling authority despite his resentment for his father as a result of his upbringing; in contrast to the irony of Troy’s parenting methods, his intentions of urging Cory to pursue a profitable career rather than football to avoid the same feelings of suffering highlights his care for his son in addition to his jealousy Troy feels towards Cory’s opportunities. Cory interprets Troy’s actions of curbing his dreams as completely selfish motives without pausing to consider the fact that Troy is attempting to set Cory up for personal security rather than their current financial hardships.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman’s overarching theme of being trapped in the past is evident throughout his utilization of flashbacks reinforcing the idea of the character’s inability to recover and progress from the past. Willy’s character is detailed by the flashbacks that haunt him throughout his daily life; Willy is a man unable to progress with his life, battling the haunting memory of his mistakes, and spiraling into hopeless insanity. Moreover, Miller’s flashbacks affect Biff in a similar manner as the reader realizes that Biff is still enthralled and invested in Willy’s long-lost reality in addition to giving up and allowing circumstances define his life. Through Willy’s flashbacks, Biff is characterized through losing his heroic image of his father due to his infidelity and his decision to then quitting his possible future in football to create an image of a man lost in his past.
Wilson’s post-Depression era play Fences relates Troy Maxson’s psychological fence as a barrier trapping him with his own bitterness over a lost dream resulting in his denial of Cory’s dream of success beyond their neighborhood. Troy raised and provided for himself since the age of 14 when he was thrown out by his father; his struggle to survive and evident prison time for robbery and violence influences his realistic view of society as he raises his son Cory. Troy attempts to emphasize the importance of obtaining a steady job and providing for himself and his family into Cory because of his bitterness over his stunted dream, but also due to his care for his son and the hope that Cory will not suffer the hardships Troy was faced with. Troy’s bitterness towards his rejected American Dream and Cory’s possible recruitment results in Troy denying Cory the permission he needs to pursue his goals severing their relationship and family values as a result of Troy’s inability to progress from his disappointment of an unrealized dream.
August Wilson’s Fences and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman highlight the importance of moving on from the past and developing a realistic expectation of the American Dream to pursue. While America is the Land of Opportunity, citizens must realize that their dreams are in fact limited by the opportunities presented before them and their determination to work for them in addition to their ability to adapt to the modern society. A man who lives his life in the past cannot hope to achieve personal success no matter the amount of hard work and determination he sets into his dreams.