A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman: Broken American Dreams Essay

The Declaration of Independence captures the core meaning of the American Dream, because it states that “all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable Rights, which among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It produces an image of an egalitarian society, where all people, whatever their race, gender, and social status may be, can attain success, freedom, and happiness. Oftentimes, success and happiness relate to financial success. Working-class families, nevertheless, are more inclined to connect the American Dream with a happy family and enough money to raise their children. This paper believes that A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller challenge the existence of the American Dream for the working class. These plays dispute the notion of the American Dream, by demonstrating that the tragedy of being a commoner is staying one until death, because of the absence of social and gender equality, as well as human integrity, in the American capitalist system.

The American Dream is an illusion, because the working-class can hardly access the resources and opportunities that can help them improve their lives. Capitalism keeps the poor permanently settled in their social class, so that they can serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Biff wants to loan money, so that he can open a business, but Mr. Oliver does not even remember him. In Death of a Salesman, capitalism is portrayed as the absence of human connections and trust, which is critical to poor people like Biff, who have no properties to collateral, or enough money to launch their own businesses. Clearly, the rich does not provide the working class an equal access to credit that can help them elevate their economic conditions in life. As a result, Biff realizes his original calling of becoming a farmer: “…To devote your whole life to … selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off” (Miller 13). He realizes and accepts his social status and gives up on changing it. Willy shares his son’s economic frustrations. He wants to hold on to a stable job and salary, but Wagner fires him instead, after employing him for thirty years. Because of these problems, Willy goes back to his roots, to his original “rural-agrarian dream” (Eisinger 99). Eisinger argues that people chooses the wrong dreams, because they do not know themselves. He believes that trapped in a capitalist society, Willy forgets his “rural-agrarian dream” and replaces it with the “urban-business-success dream” (Eisinger 99). These dreams are unrealistic and unattainable, nevertheless, for majority of the working class. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche fights for her right to survive in society, even if it means lying to her sister about their properties and ensnaring a man through deceiving him about her age. She knows that she has no fighting chance to move upwards in society, since she is already penniless and aging. These people represent instances of how hard the working class struggles with their society that does not provide the same opportunities that are available to the rich.

Capitalism reserves resources to those in power already and rejects the weak and the old. One way of concentrating wealth is through creating mysticism around it. Eisinger notes that Willy pursues the “urban-business-success dream,” which is based on a “mythic version” (98). This version is based on Uncle Ben’s success, where he claims: “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich” (Miller xxvi). Uncle Ben makes success an easy venture, although it is something that not anyone can attain. As a result, Willy keeps the illusion that he can also accomplish success in the same swagger, which he never does. Elliott further emphasizes that the capitalist system finds young men as the only capable and dependable workforce:

The dog-eat-dog capitalist system of midcentury America has no place for a salesman who can no longer sell or for an unmarried woman over thirty with quaintly anachronistic manners who favors the civilizing influences of art, music, and literature over the crudeness of the marketplace. (44).

The capitalist system takes advantage of a broken woman like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Belle Reve is lost to the cunning who exploited Blanche’s lack of knowledge and skills in managing it. In the city, Blanche further experiences discrimination against her age. Mitch finds it important to know her age, while Stanley emphasizes that she is an old woman pretending to be younger, so that she can find someone to marry her. In Death of a Salesman, Willy no longer reaches his sales quota, and for his company, he is no longer an asset, but a liability. To society, these people are dispensable things. These plays then offer a social critique for a capitalist civilization that the rich designed to make poor people fail. This way, the rich remains in power, although some of the poor, a small minority, managed to rise up through the social ladder, and which makes them good examples of those who reached the American Dream.

The American Dream can be used as fodder to the poor, a dream they can try to pursue, but cannot always reach. Working class families can only lay claim of the social status they are born with. In Death of a Salesman, Biffy realizes that he wants to be a farmer more than a businessman. After knowing his “self,” he frees himself from the pursuit of other people’s version of the American Dream. Gardening represents a forlorn attempt to assert self-reliance, for instance. Eisinger believes that Willy starts planting after his boss fired him and his sons abandoned him, because this act of connecting with nature stands for an “ancient ritual by which man sustains himself, when all else has failed him” (99). Nature presents an opportunity to connect with the inner self, which capitalism disintegrates by compelling people to focus on the material plane of their existence. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley gets what he wants in the end, which preserves his social status and his skewed sense of the American Dream. His American Dream is one where the white male lays power over women and weak men. In order to assert this dream, he begins brawls, even with his friends and acquaintances. He rapes Blanche and gets rid of her by sending her to an asylum. He also remains married to Stella, as if nothing happened. Stanley essentially undercuts the positive notions of the American Dream with his perverted sense of sexuality.

Capitalism espouses the values of deception and violence to attain success and happiness, instead of perseverance and integrity. These plays challenge the American Dream as a superficial notion of success, so people learn to value appearances over human dignity. Stanley represents the brutal virility of modern life. In sharp contrast to a well-dressed and self-conscious Stella, Stanley acts selfishly and without thinking of the consequences of his actions. Henthorne describes Stanley as the “new, urban modernity, which pays little heed to the past” (4). He uses violence to assert power over Stella, Blanche, and even his peers. His machismo represents the hostility needed to succeed in modern life. In Death of a Salesman, Uncle Ben teaches Biff that aggression and deception are crucial to success. In their sparring, Uncle Ben wins and points the umbrella to Biff’s eye. He says to Biff: “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy…You’ll never get out of the jungle that way” (Miller 38). This event underscores Miller’s belief that capitalism does not aim to provide happiness, because pursuing wealth alone cannot assure the route to true happiness. Eisinger argues that the capitalist system forces people to delude themselves and others: “Under the pressure to succeed in business…it is, consequently, necessary to delude everyone, even oneself, so often that lying becomes the habitual mode of discourse and hypocrisy the accepted moral stance” (100). He pertains to the need of people to embellish success and to impress other people, especially more if they have the least material possessions. Willy assures Linda and his family that he is critical to the new firm in New England. He inflates the volume of his sales, though his sales are too low to earn him continued employment. He also has the habit of lying to himself and others about Biff’s business accomplishments. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley deceives Stella into thinking that her sister has gone mad and to hide the truth that he raped Blanche. He also does not persevere in his job, so that he can provide a better life for Stella. His low-class status satisfies him already, because his happiness does not lie on wealth, but on the expression of his masculine virility. Stella also betrays herself, because if she believes that Blanche is telling the truth that Stanley raped her, it means the end of her marriage and family. Stella’s American Dream, after all, is hinged on her marriage with a sexually-charged animal like Stanley. His animalistic sexual drives and physical behaviors represent the other world that Stella has not experienced in the posh society of Belle Reve. Stella and Stanley both bury their sense of integrity, just so they can preserve their American Dream.

The American Dream deceives people into believing that having traditional values will help them reach success. Blanche exhibits the disintegration of traditional Southern values that once has been part of the American Dream. The American Dream includes goodness and decency- old values that present equality of access to riches and happiness. The American Dream asserts that if people work hard and act decently, they can succeed and be happy in life. Henthorne depicts Blanche as the “relic of the plantation system that was the cornerstone of the civilization of the Old South, so is Blanche an anachronistic leftover from that culture” (4). She is a southern belle, who believes that she is born to a refined life, and someday, to get married and reproduce. However, she finds herself lost in the new world that no longer values marriage and decency. She has no wealth to protect her, while the society has become too materialistic to even want her around. Blanche aims to promote gentility, but she alienates herself more in the process. She thinks of herself as an orchid in the woods, but in reality, she looks more like an aging moth that faces the threats of being crushed through humanity’s urban technology and activities. Stanley believes that despite his poverty, he is a proud American and being one is already an attainment of the American Dream. When Stella calls him a Polack, Stanley angrily retorts: “I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don’t ever call me a Polack” (Williams 539). Heims asserts that: “[Stanley’s self-assertion is a rebellion against social subordination and belittling. In his assertion of self, by his very nature, there is always a concomitant assertion of his sexual virility” (60). For Blanche, her refinement is her shield from being looked down upon, while for Stanley, it is his masculinity. In Death of a Salesman, Willy also strives to preserve traditional values of hard work and business ethics. He pressures his son to be successful in business, although he is a picture of failure himself. He envies Charley for his success, while his son is also doing well in life as a lawyer. Willy becomes obsessed with material success, which alienates him from his wife and sons. As a result, instead of happiness and success, he has a dysfunctional family where his children despise him and his wife fears his suicidal tendencies.

The tragedy of being a commoner is staying one until death, because of their learned need for deception. Nienhuis believes that Aristotelian tragedies often rest on great people, but in A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, common people can also experience great tragedy. He cites Miller who contends that A Streetcar Named Desire is a indisputable tragedy, in the essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” where he stressed that all that is essential for tragic standing is a hero eager to “lay down his life” to secure “his ‘rightful’ position in his society” (Nienhuis 3). Indeed, Blanche uses all her cards of charm and refinement to take a jab at happiness. In the end, she loses everything, including the love and trust of her sister. Willy also maximizes his relations to provide his sons better economic opportunities. Unfortunately, he and his sons all end up becoming poorer in the long run. Elliott argues “Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman are tragic protagonists in at least one classic sense: their self-delusion (the hamartia, or error) ultimately leads to their destruction” (41). The tragedy of life, however, is not always received, but also done upon oneself. Willy has had a lasting extramarital affair with a woman he met on the road in Boston, which is the cause of his guilty behavior toward his wife. Biff’s detection of his father’s affair becomes a catalyst for his denunciation of Willy’s urban dreams. Blanche was fired from her job, due to her sexual relations with a seventeen-year-old male student, and she confesses that she has “had many intimacies with strangers” (Williams 146). Stanley’s finding of the truth of Blanche’s past, and his disclosure of it to Mitch, dashes her hopes for her future and provides “the seeds for her destruction” (Elliott 45). Hence, these plays also show that people are actors of their fates. Their society cannot be entirely blamed for their tragic ends.

Gender inequality hinders women and gay people from expressing their dreams and desires without being harshly judged and condemned. Homosexuality threatens the free expression of desire and one’s identity. Blanche’s idea of a perfect life broke to pieces, when she discovered her husband is gay. She uses harsh words that compelled her husband to be ashamed of who he is and to commit suicide. Stella marries a violent and selfish man, instead of a man who can give her security and love. Blanche judges Stella for marrying a brute. Still, Blanche also suffers from the judgment of society. With her declining looks and age, she feels the box closing around her- the box of conventional beauty that states that only young women can be married and happy. Mitch is another example of unexpressed desires. He is a bachelor, because he submits his decisions to his mother’s will. Excessive masculinity presents problems in the Lowman’s family too. Willy wants his children to be moral and successful, qualities that he does not have. As a bad role model, his two sons “breathe in the easy morality of their father” (Eisinger 101). Eisinger describes the Lowman’s home as filled with “empty optimism and the phony maxims of the business ethic that Willy mindlessly repeats” (Eisinger 101). Instead of promoting good values, Biff becomes thief, while Happy seeks refuge in his promiscuous sexual activities and sharing lies about his stature in life (Eisinger 101). Happy and Biff remain stuck in their menial jobs, but inform others and believe themselves that they are persons of significance in the business community (Eisinger 101). Like Willy, his sons have used their dreams of success as their cornerstone for their illusions (Eisinger 101). They generate impracticable schemes for making money: a run away to the great West where they will become ranchers, or the business of sporting goods through the development of rival athletic teams that will play each other all over the country. These schemes are childish, however, and Willy’s “corruption” disables his children from attaining a mature manhood (Eisinger 101).

Femininity constrains women too; especially those who belong, or feel they belong, to the upper or lower class. Blanche presents an oxymoron, because she acts as a flirtatious Southern belle, when she cannot control her sexual desires. Henthorne argues that when Blanche rides two streetcars, one called Desire, the other Cemeteries, Williams foreshadows the “images of death and desire” in the play (3). Sexual desires ruin Blanche, as she becomes a prostitute and fired from the teaching profession, because of her affair with a seventeen-year-old student. Stella, on the contrary, does not have to control her raw sexual desires. Heims asserts that notions of morality and decency do not stifle the lower-class’s sexual desires and its expressions (60). Stanley is not afraid to flirt back with Stella, because for him, she represents another sexual conquest. Stella narrates to Blanche that Stanley “smashed all the light bulbs with the heel of my slipper” on their wedding night (Williams 505). She actually relished this display of physical prowess, as if it was a sexual act. When Blanche complains that Stella “must have sufficient memory of Belle Reve to find this place and these poker players impossible to live with,” Stella explicates, “There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem- unimportant” (Williams 509). Heims indicates that the lower class has greater opportunities to attain sexual enjoyment than the upper class, because they do not have to repress themselves. Stella, furthermore, expresses satisfaction already with her gender oppression and social position. She no longer questions, but rather revels in, Stanley’s brutish behaviors and attitudes. Stella feels she belongs already, which makes it easier for her to believe in Stanley’s lies than Blanche’s truths.

A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman undercut the existence of the American Dream for the working class. They depict the tragedy of being a commoner until death, because of the nonexistence of social and gender equality in the American capitalist system. At the same time, characters also choose attitudes and actions that spiral them further to their poverty and unhappiness. Deception and violence do not give any of these main characters an access to love, wealth, and happiness. In the end, tragedy befalls them, especially Blanche and Willy, who ironically gave it all, only to lose it all.

Works Cited

  • Eisinger, Chester E. “Critical Readings: Focus on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: The Wrong Dreams.” Critical Insights: Death of a Salesman (2010): 93-105. Print.
  • Elliott, Kenneth. “Critical Contexts: Uncommon Tragic Protagonists: Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman.” Critical Insights: A Streetcar Named Desire (2010): 41-55. Print.
  • Henthorne, Susan. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Masterplots (Nov. 2010): 1-4. Print.
  • Heims, Neil. “Critical Contexts: A Room That I Thought Was Empty: The Representation of Repression in A Streetcar Named Desire.” Critical Insights: A Streetcar Named Desire (2010): 56-71. Print.
  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 1949. London: Methuen Drama, 1977. Print.
  • Nienhuis, Terry. “Death of a Salesman.” Masterplots (Nov. 2010): 1-3. Print.
  • Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947. New York: Library of America, 2000. Print.
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