Is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman a tragedy or serious drama? Is Willy Loman, Miller’s lead character, a tragic hero compared to the likes of Oedipus? Or is he just a pathetic hero who never figured out that everything was exactly his fault. I don’t know. This is the conversation we had in class today and it struck me as interesting. The story is of a man, Loman, who spends his life chasing the “American Dream.” He just wants his kids to be a success, have a happy life and be known as someone that everyone likes. This end does not come to Loman and every move he makes plunges him deeper into obscurity. Willy Loman goes to his grave still thinking that he can save his family by the measly 20 grand he is trying to give posthumously to his son. So is this a tradgedy? Or is it just a story of a pathetic man? Yes it is. A tragedy has something of a fall from grace, while the pathetic hero is one who never was and can’t imagine himself as the reason for his own misery. As I read (the Sparknotes 😉 ) this play I was struck by the “patheticness” of this man and the tragedy of his demise. From a Christian worldview, this story is certainly a tragedy. However it may not be for the reasons serious students of theatre might catch.
The Tragedy of the American Dream
The American Dream is tragic in and of itself. This dream is one of selfish ambition, monetary game and self-justification. The American Dream says that in order to be successful you need money and you need respect because of your status. In the American Dream the self-made man is ideal. It is a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture. This “Dream”, in and of itself is an idolatrous pursuit. It is our way of building our own empires and establishing our own worth. It is our ladder of significance to climb. The gospel says, in contrast, that we have no inherent value (other than being made in the image of God). There is nothing to improve upon in us. We are dead and no matter how much wealth or power we accrue, we are still under the wrath of a God who is much more powerful and worthy than us. The gospel drives us to the pursuit of God as our greatest treasure. We cannot treasure God and gold.
Like any idol, the American Dream cannot satisfy. Our idols simply cannot withstand the weight of our love. Thomas Watson hits at this in his book, “All Things For Good.” Money is exhaustible. Power only lasts as long as you live, if even that long. Only God is eternal and our love for God will never be exhausted because God is inexhaustible. God’s glory will forever satisfy. Money is not worthy of our glorying in it. The nature of sin is the exchange the glory of God for the glory of His stuff. His stuff is not worthy of glory. Money, power, fame, us, none of it. All things created are to point to the glory of God in Christ. Only God is worthy of our pursuit, affectionally. This American Dream may not even be attainable. The problem with an idol is that it always wants more. Even those who reach their goals are forced to set larger goals so that they may further reach for what will finally affirm them. But nothing but God will ever save.
Willy Loman never saw the folly of his pursuit. He is pathetic in this sense. But are we all not pathetic, slaves to what are by nature not gods? Our rebellion from God takes different forms. The American Dream is just another form of man’s pursuit of joy in everything other than God and our attempts to justify ourselves. The fragility of Willy’s idols may never have been clear to him but they should become clear to the Christian leader. Money is not bad. The love of money is. Respect is good but it is to be a respect that comes from godliness and a magnification of the worth of Christ in our lives. The American Dream is a tragedy, if you reach it or if you don’t. Let us continually turn and trust Christ to save and satisfy!