The idea of dreams is integral to the main protagonists throughout ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’. These ideas stem from the concept known as the American Dream, which is the belief that with enough work anyone can be what they want to be. The American Dream can often be related to the term ‘Manifest Destiny’, which is the belief in America’s ‘mission’ in the world and can often be related to expanding their control over land.
There are different types of American Dreams in the texts.
These include Material, academic, 19th Century (outdoors), 20th Century (business) and Happiness, which the authors use to give us an inside look into the characters. The concept of the American Dream is presented in Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ in a similar way to Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, when Plath states, “look at what can happen in this country” suggesting that the American Dream is a predominant thought in the American minds.
In contrast to Miller’s main character, Willy, that foolishly follows the American Dream, the main character of ‘The Bell Jar’, Esther, does not believe this to be true and fights against the current of mainstream ideas and belief that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. This is represented in the character, Doreen who is successful for just being beautiful, showing the shallowness of society. The American Dream is shown in Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ through characters such as Ben.
Ben is the exemplary man with the American Dream; Miller writes that he “walked out into the jungle” and that when he came out he was “rich”. This belief that the American Dream can happen to anybody eventually drives his brother Willy to the ‘tragic heroism’ of his suicide. This is a very depressing view and one that a lot of people can relate to, that the concept of the American Dream has a base of lies, deceit and luck such as Ben who “ended up in Africa” which then later made him “rich”. Although they both have differing attitudes toward the American Dream they both seek to achieve their own goals in a different manner.
Willy is much more of a protagonist; he talks about being successful and how he will take action in the “morning”. On the other hand Esther is more pro-active in the pursuit of her dream as she is very academically successful and has “never answered one test question wrong”. Both of these approaches to seeking their dreams give us an insight into how the characters should have followed their dream and where their mistakes were, such as with Willy who often reminisces that he should have gone with Ben to the mines.
Willy is so disillusioned that he will do anything in order to help Biff and Happy to achieve their dreams, which is the main factor in Willy’s suicide. We also get a sense of selfishness from this act of disillusionment as Willy seems to use his sons as an excuse for him to commit this act he has been clinging onto the American Dream so tightly that it became a veil over his eyes that left him blind to see “he has the wrong dreams”. Plath often uses the happiness dream in conjunction with the academic and material dreams to contrast with each other and to explore what the American Dream is and how to achieve it.
We see this when Esther “fed” her clothes into the “night wind” which is Plath showing the reader that in order for Esther to achieve her happiness dream she does not need material objects. Plath uses techniques such as interior monologues to give us the deep feeling of failure residing in Esther and this gives us the impression that we should follow our own dream, instead of following a “fake” dream. While in contrast Miller uses the 19th and 20th century dreams in order to explore what the American Dream really is and how to achieve it.
We can see this when Biff asks, “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be” and states he desires to be outdoors with his shirt off for him to “build a future”. Biff represents freedom from the shackles of society, often breaking the convention, such as committing crimes in order to rebel. These explorations of the American Dream are very different in the way they are presented but both lead to the same conclusion, which is that you need to do more than strive and talk about your dreams, but act upon them, which both characters try, but evidently fail.
Both writers look to expose the myth of the American Dream and the harsh reality within the characters of the respective texts. This idea is shown predominantly through the main characters, Willy and Esther, who are complete opposites in this view. Miller portrays Willy as the average low-middle class American who only has the hope of the dream to cling to and keep him going, this is why Willy doesn’t understand the true meaning of the American Dream, as he himself has fallen into the cast to what he thinks society wants him to be.
This is evident when he exaggerates; it is his way of following the American dream. He talks about how popular he is and how his funeral “will be massive”, whereas in reality he is unknown. His dream is to be rich and famous and to an extent he fools himself into believing this, such as when he talks about how he sold “five hundred in Providence” but then realises that he only sold “two hundred gross on the whole trip”. This gives us a sense of tragedy, that no matter how hard he tries to provide for his family, he is destined to fail, which Miller hints at with the attempted suicide with the rubber tube.
However, Plath portrays Esther as a bright young women, who has the opportunity of living the ‘American Dream’ but she can see through the illusion of what society thinks she should be. When she has her photo taken, she has to hold a “fake” rose and the rose doesn’t represent her as a person or what she aspires to be, which is the point that Plath explores with regards to the American Dream in ‘The Bell Jar’. Plath and Miller use very different techniques to represent the American Dream. This is due to the texts being of different styles; one is a novel and the other a play.
That said they do share some similarities, such as non-linear narratives to give us an insight into the key themes. The techniques used give different insights into the individual thoughts of the American Dream. One technique used by Plath is the ‘interior monologue’, which gives us the intimate thoughts of Esther and what she thinks of the world around her. Plath uses this technique to show her thoughts about the American Dream, as though they are her own thoughts represented in Esther.
This gives us a very powerful opinion on the American Dream, as it is an opinion that is close to what we may also think from reading the novel. However Miller uses the ‘flash-back’ technique in order to show where the idea of the American Dream originates and Willy and Esther perceive it this way. This form of stream-of-consciousness gives us a clear-cut view into what the character perceives and can often help us to understand of why the characters act as they do.
One way that both authors explore the concept of the American Dream is by how the characters can achieve their individual dreams; this often leads to pressure to pursue the wrong dream. This is present in a lot of the characters in both texts such as Biff, who is the only realistic one in the Loman family. He realises his boundaries and abilities but in spite of this he still attempts to make a businessman out of himself though it is not what he wants, which he shows when he says, “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be”. He also informs us that Willy has “all the wrong dreams”.
This idea of becoming a successful businessman is a carbon copy of Willy’s dreams, pressed onto Biff. Though Biff, unlike Willy, doesn’t procrastinate, everything for Willy is done “in the morning” and this is the main reason why he is unsuccessful, he talks instead of taking action as we are shown when Charley says that Bernard’s “gonna do it” instead of saying it, which Willy seems to admire. On the other hand Esther is the opposite of Willy; she is academically successful, more popular and has the chance to grasp the American Dream.
Esther says “I was supposed to be having the time of my life” but the only problem with Esther’s dream is that society wants her to be something else and this pressure is one of the reasons for her latter depression, when she was “meant to be happy”. When Plath uses the stream-of-consciousness technique we see that Esther’s thoughts about the American Dream seem to deteriorate as her mental stability does, not even noticing when she could have potentially had a dream life in the fashion industry saying “it’s somebody else” in the magazine photo. Another character that Miller shows is following the wrong dream is Happy.
He follows what Willy thinks he should be and he is always looking for his father to “notice” him, such as when he comments on how he is “losing weight”. This is an example of following the wrong dream. Happy has fallen prey to trying to make someone else happy by living their dream instead of following his own ambitions, which is the point that Miller explores. Miller has deliberately set up the brothers to have contrasts as we can see within the dreams they possess. Miller also explores the idea that the American Dream is possible if you try; this is in the case of Bernard.
Bernard, like Ben, is the prime example of the American Dream coming true. Although he isn’t as popular as Biff or Happy, he manages to be an academic and now presents cases in the “supreme court”, which genuinely shocks Willy as he recognises that Bernard’s dream has come true. For Willy there is also an air of envy that Bernard has followed the right dream. We see how Willy blindly follows the American Dream and that he doesn’t truly understand what it is, he thinks that a “personally attractive” man will be able to be successful in the world of business.
Willy’s understanding of the American Dream is limited as he believes that superficial qualities such as being “liked” is all a man needs whereas we are shown that it is hard work and risks that allow men to live the dream, such as Bernard who he often ridiculed for being an “anaemic”. Another point that shows us Willy’s little understanding of the American Dream is the metaphor “its dark there, but full of diamonds”. This metaphor means that through the hardship there will be a reward and is the main notion that drives Willy but it often appears in the form of Ben who reminds him.
Ben gives the impression to Willy that he can do it, but also shows us Willy’s loosening grip to distinguish from reality and dream. The pressure to be something else or something great can have a massive strain on one’s being and we can see this through the various suicide attempts by both Willy, with the “rubber tube”, and Esther with her trying to “hang” herself. In conclusion, I believe that each text explores the concept of the American Dream in very independent ways that express the opinions of the authors. Miller presents to us ideas such as to achieve the dream you have to be disillusioned which we see in the main protagonist, Willy.
The combinations of techniques that Miller uses gives us the impression that nothing good can come out of the American Dream, as if almost hopeless to even have a dream. On the other hand, Plath uses the ideas of isolation being the problem, which we see in Esther’s case. Plath uses the ideas of isolation coupled with depression to show the bleakness of striving to achieve a dream, which is a belief that Plath shares. This idea of isolation resonates in both main protagonists and leads back to the notion of society being the problem.
Both characters don’t fit in with society and are both under strain to be something they do not want to be. This gives us the sense that they are born into the wrong society and this I believe is the point that both authors try to explore, that there is nothing wrong with the characters themselves but it is the world around them that is flawed and through various narrative and stage techniques the authors convey this conclusion successfully.
Plath. S “The Bell Jar” Faber (1966) Miller. A “Death of a Salesman” Heinemann (1949) Dan Clarke