(Spoiler warning: I'm going to analyze the shiz outta this play, so if you haven't read it or care much about me cutting a work of beauty into teeny-tiny parts and studying how they writhewell, in the tradition of porn sites, please stop viewing this and instead click here.)
With images of sparkling mansions soaring upward as high as the hopes of those who yearn for them, the American Dream certainly seems the reward of capitalism. The gate barring one from success is malleable, to be hammered away with hard work and a bit of luck. To Willy Lomanfather, salesman, materialistin Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", this deceptively-easy-to-achieve goal of prosperity championed by an equally materialistic society defines his motivation. Though having slaved away at his job for thirty-four years, Willy has little to show for decades of hard work. However, he stubbornly clings onto his get-rich-quick fantasy, holding as his life's credo the words of his dead brother, Ben: "When I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!" Willy has tried to raise "perfect" sons who will succeed where he has failed, but he continually quarrels with his older son, Biff, whom he views as "a lazy bum". Willy's tendency to see Biff as a money vessel coupled with his literal adultery shows that his true fidelity lies only with his stunted version of the American Dream. Willy grows progressively more deranged throughout the story, until his failure to succeed manifests itself as a tragic suicide in an attempt to let Biff live the Dream through insurance settlements. Ironically, as the conflict between Biff and Willy climaxes into Willy's final act of altruism, Biff has realized that he cannot reconcile his own personality and desires with blind adherence to the American Dream.
Feelings of betrayal form the source of the conflict. Biff used to be a high school football star, his self-confidence stoked by his father, who remarks how thankful he is that Biff and his brother, Happy, are "built like Adonises" and constantly predicts how Biff will be "impressive..., well-liked." In Willy's materialistic mindset, "the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead", and so he inflates his sons with the importance of superficial trivialities, ego-inflating lies that Biff later remarks "blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody".
In following his own ineffectual advice, Willy unsurprisingly fails to succeed. Consequently, he must inflate himself, boosting his paltry earnings of two hundred dollars into an impressive $1200 when asked about the success of his latest business trip. Despite his braggadocio, he actually is estranged from his fantasy of success and finds himself alone on the road more often than at home"lonely..., terribly lonely". He has an affair with another woman, who gives him the self-worth he needs by distinguishing him from the other salesmen "because he's so sweet. And such a kidder....She'll put him right through to the buyers." However, when Biff learns about the affair, he is stung by his father's betrayal of the marriage and of his trust. He for the first time loses his absolute confidence in Willy, and as he sees the real image of his fathera lonely, unsuccessful liarhis faith in the American Dream starts to crumble. Years later an adult Biff, pressured insistently by Willy, attends an interview with his former boss, trying to borrow money to fund a homemade business scheme. In a fit of kleptomania that masks his aversion to following the Dream, Biff steals a pen and runs out of the officebut stops abruptly, in epiphany. "And I looked at the pen," he relates, "and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be?" As his faith in the Dream dissolves totally, Biff finally concentrates on himself and on whom he wants to be. He can unabashedly call himself "a dime a dozen" because he realizes that money does not determine worth. With Willy still refusing to release his desperate hold on his son and success, Biff understands that the Dreamboth Willy's obsession with it and Biff's own pursuit of itobscures his true identity. He implores, "Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?"
In Willy's eyes, though, Biff has betrayed Willy's expectations of him. Biff is unable to hold a steady job since his high school days; Willy thinks he's "no good..., no good for anything." The conflict represents Willy the salesman's failure to sell his son on the American Dream. Obsessed literally to death with the supposed fulfillment offered by financial success, Willy listens eagerly to the promises of his alter ego, Ben: "The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds, Willy." He, through Ben's words, transforms his suicide into the resolution of a skewed moral struggle, where he sacrifices himself for Biff's sake after realizing that "after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive". However, Willy's suicide helps no one and fails to fulfill his dreams or convince Biff to embrace the American Dream. His wife, Linda, says that "it seems to [her] that [he's] just on another trip", indeed that Willy's death has only perpetuated the same vicious cycle of material striving that initiated his suicide.
The real tragedy of the story ultimately is Willy's failure to see or appreciate his family's anguished but real love for him. Blinded instead by fantasies of wealth and grandeur, he never sees the meaning behind his friend Charley's statement that "no man only needs a little salary"that to be fulfilled one must also live a spiritual, emotional, family life. The play closes to a flute melody that symbolizes Willy's delusional, blind faith in the American Dream. With a stage empty except for the image of overwhelming buildings that had so distressed him, in his fruitless death Willy ends up as he had been: alone.