Critical Essay for English Individual Study
“The characters in the texts deal with a shallow concept of success”
Discuss in relation to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” (Oscar Wilde)
While the American Dream is much more attainable for the average person in America today, it still fails to fulfill and satisfy the deeper needs of a people trapped in a material culture. The study of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty alongside Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman exposes various similarities inherent in the values possessed by the central protagonists of the texts. Both Mendes and Miller explore the notion of the American Dream: While Mendes presents it as a shallow and un-fulfilling goal, Miller shows how such a dream in unattainable for the American Everyman in the late 1940s. One can follow the progression of this Everyman from the post-depression era to America in the present and come to the realisation that, following Freud’s teachings, what has been repressed of the individual, has not been fulfilled. Both Mendes and Miller explore a similar sense of success but in the comparison of the texts, it is evident that the American Dream has left people empty and in denial of reality reflected in the characters Lester Burnham and Willy Loman.
The American Dream is shallow success. It is a cycle of tragedy that has revolved in families and society for over fifty years. Mendes examines success when there is a ‘happy family’, a large house and a ‘normal’ job. American Beauty is an ambiguous title for a film that delves deeply into the ugliness of American suburbia. Mendes presents beauty, American beauty, as success. Angela is successful because she is beautiful, Lester is successful because he is ordinary. His wife Carol is successful because she has a mowed green lawn and beautifully pruned roses. Lester Burnham is a man who has been failed by monetary goods. The film documents his ‘mid-life crisis’ when his desires are focused on the sexuality of his own daughter’s best friend. America has become a country where money can buy everything, even, Lester believes, happiness. Lester uses Angela as a tool to recover his youth, using her like a prostitute.
There’s beauty in ordinary things, in everyday life. Ricky sees beauty in a plastic bag, “dancing with him,” in a homeless woman and a dead bird. Mendes contrasts Ricky to Lester who sees beauty in Angela who reflects a typical image of an American Beauty. Ricky says to Angela, “you’re boring. And you’re totally ordinary. And you know it.”
The American Dream promotes ordinariness that is comforting. Lester tires, however, of being driven by society’s ideals and in trying to create an individualism, he turns to find American conformity in another form.
Carol thinks that beauty is the roses in her garden. Lester thinks that Angela is beautiful. Mendes shows that beauty is neither, beauty is truth and real love, all of the things that are discarded when trying to obtain monetary success.
In Freudian fashion, American Beauty is about sexuality and the desire people have to be associated with youth. Angela is used by Mendes as a symbol of how love and happiness is mistaken for sex and sexuality. Lester is attracted to this false happiness and is disillusioned to discover that Angela is a virgin. He assumed that
While the film has a satirical nature, its comedy is dark. It is a reflection, a truth of everyday tragedy that is not death in the literal understanding but the death of something much deeper.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman attacks the American Dream at a time when such an ambition was unrealistic. Miller’s play differs from American Beauty in that it explores a Marxist approach to American success. The death of the Salesman refers to the death of the sales that Capitalism promotes. Miller explores the death of the American Dream for society, the state of death it causes for an individual like Willy Loman.
Miller, influenced by Marxism, promoting the self-emancipation of the working class, shows that for every worker life is hard, and that everything in life that is worthwhile has to be worked and struggled for. Willy expects that if he is well liked he will not have to try. He relies upon the promise of the American Dream and aspires to his brother Ben, “That man was success incarnateWalked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich.”
We become aware that Willy is self-conscious and insecure. It concerns and upset him that he can’t achieve the success that he imagines. He is an ordinary man but he lives an illusion that he is well liked and ‘successful’ in the American sense of the word. Willy masks his ordinariness as Angela masks hers, failing to believe that he is what his son Biff tells him he is, “A dime a dozen.” Happy, Willy’s son, reflects the cyclical nature of the American Dream in American society passed from generation to generation. Defending his father he argues, “He had a good dream. Its the only dream you can have.” Biff, Miller’s symbol of truth and reality, realises that his father died in vain, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” Willy, like Lester, fought and died repressed by social conformity.
The American Dream is a repression of one’s self for the sake of conformity, a repression that is not compensated by money. The allure of such ‘success’ satisfies only the shallow exterior. Ricky says, “There is this life behind things.” Mendes and Miller show how there is life behind people that are suppressed by a pursuit of money, of success. Mendes tells us, through Ricky, that Angela is not beautiful and Lester not successful. He tells us to open our eyes to the realm natural beauty in the world, to see what Lester does not see, that the further he tries to access ‘success,’ the further he strays from it. It is in comparing American Beauty to Death of a Salesman that one sees the similarities in the characters of Lester and Willy. Both of these men have families and the potential to be happy, but in attempting to find money, they push their families aside and lose the more stable chance of being fulfilled.
Willy tried to fulfil himself through promoting his masculinity while Lester tried to fulfil himself through trying to re-establish a sense of youth. Both of these men failed because they relied on the American Dream of which Death of a Salesman is a Marxist critique and American Beauty a Freudian one.
In the similarities of the texts, there existed an underling and universal longing for success as characterised by the American Dream: A longing that linked inextricably to the tragedy that befell both Lester and Willy. Ultimately both Lester and Willy’s desire for success ends in tragedy likened somewhat to the ambition of Macbeth or the downfall of King Oedipus. Only in being able to see who we are and acknowledging the flaws in our characters are we able to seek and find true beauty and success. In comparing and Contrasting American Beauty to Death of a Salesman, it is apparent that American society is trapped in a cycle of false hopes and unattainable happiness.