Dealing as it does with the American Dream and its shortcomings and failings it seemed best to compare Death of a Salesman with an American novel, which also deals with the same ideas of dreams and so in this piece I will explore the comparisons and contrasts between Miller’s Death of a Salesman and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in particular focusing on comparing Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby. It is clear that in both novels dreams and the death of dreams is a prevalent theme.
We see in Willy Loman the characterisation of many of the dreams, a desire for his family to do well, as well as desire for wealth, status and the consumerist luxuries of 1920s America. Jay Gatsby shares many of these characteristic desires and the two characters also share many traits. Falsity is one of the traits they share. Willy Loman is at times in the play almost a farcical character in terms of the delusion of family and his own destructive self-delusion. This is typified when he contradicts himself, he builds up an edifice of success and when he fails to live up to this artifice he becomes angry and confused.
One examples of this contrast is “Chevrolet, Linda, is the greatest car ever built” immediately followed by “That goddam Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car”. Similarly Jay Gatsby, or James Gatz, deludes those around him. He throws lavish parties and spends exorbitant amounts of money, when in reality he grew up on a farm in North Dakota. By allowing rumours of his being a bootlegger or in one case a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II only served to distance the extravagant Jay Gatsby of West Egg from the dull James Gatz of North Dakota.
The idea of dreams is probably one of the most important themes in both novels. In Death of a Salesman Willy Loman is obsessed with a desire for economic success, and in a much deeper way to leave his mark on the world, an inerasable testament to his life. Gatsby similarly desires something, the love of Daisy Buchanan, and the green light that he gazes at on the end of her dock, is deeply symbolic of this. Their ambitions however provide a point of difference. Initially it may appear that they are the same but in reality they are quite different.
The vast pretence that Gatsby builds is only for one purpose, the acquisition of Daisy Buchanan and he centres his whole life round it. However for Willy, the ambitions are not as clear-cut. It may be that he wishes Biff to be proud of him and feel as if he is better than what he is “I am not a dime a dozen! I’m Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman”. However a number of other concerns enter his mind such as advancement in his profession, the tireless quest for financial success and the desire for consumerist status, which will prove him.
In fact one of the only considerations that doesn’t enter into Willy’s mind, in direct contrast to Gatsby, is that of love. He takes Linda for granted and then cheats on her, much in the way that the aristocratic Tom Buchanan cheats on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson. Despite this one difference in their ambitions the original positions of Willy Loman and James Gatz were not dissimilar. Both came from the West and tried to make a living in the East, struggling in the daily rat race of city life. Where Willy failed however Gatsby triumphed.
Through his relationship with Dan Cody he attained the wealth and status he needed to impress Daisy whilst Willy Loman still toiled in the lower classes. This difference may be highlighted in that Gatsby lives in West Egg but seperating this from New York is the Valley of Ashes, which in The Great Gatsby represents the social cost of the decadence of the Jazz Age. For those in positions of wealth then it seems that there is a far greater dispensability of objects, which for Willy Loman are a commodity which he struggles to afford.
Indeed it is not too hard to imagine Willy Loman himself living in the Valley of Ashes, next door to the emotionally and socially unfulfilled George Wilson, struggling against the cast-offs of the social elite. Both The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman contain social criticisms of contemporary American society. The former is set entirely in the 1920s, in what Fitzgerald liked to call the “Jazz Age” whilst the latter is set in the 1920s only in Willy’s memories though this is when the defining events of the Loman life occur. Both novels question the validity of the rampant consumerism of the period.
Willy is periodically financially crippled by credit payments and for Gatsby, though these luxuries are affordable to him, they prove fruitless in his quest for Daisy Buchanan when after all his years of toil she seems paralysed into inaction when asked to leave Tom. It is also worth noting that both of these characters died in symbols of this consumerism, Willy in his car and Gatsby in his pool, and despite devoting their lives to the acquisition of these luxuries both had desolate funerals. The methods used to describe the characters by the authors also serve to create an aura of decay about them and their environment.
Delayed character revelations create the effect that the characters are being deconstructed. For example Gatsby”s reputation precedes him. He is not even introduced as a speaker until Chapter 3 and the revelations about his early life are not made until Chapters 6 and 7. By titling the novel The Great Gatsby we are immediately presented with this mystical reputation of the man who we later find out is a fraud. Similarly Willy Loman, in the first “concurrence of past and present” is presented as a success “I knocked em dead in Boston”.
This serves to characterise a a society in which impressions are everything and when the reputation is pierced the reality is shown to be quite different. Despite his criminal past we are more drawn to Gatsby for his upholding of morals and his devotion in his quest for Daisy than we ever were for the aloof host of the party and similarly though Willy”s treatment of Linda was reprehensible we cannot help but be touched by the realisation of Biff”s love for him. In this way the imposed self-invention of society is shown to negatively affect the characters. The morality of the American society at the time is also questioned in both novels.
In the 1920s the opulence which Fitzgerald shows through the parties thrown at Gatsby”s mansion belie the underlying immorality of them. For Fitzgerald from the mid-west the decadence that was prevalent in the Jazz Age is an immoral thing. This immorality came about as a corruption of the idea of the American dream. This supposed ideological purity is symbolised in the novel in The Great Gatsby, through Nick and Gatsby”s involvement in the Great War and in Death of a Salesman through the idealisation of the pioneering, individualistic spirit by Willy and Ben.
Both authors also question the class system of the time. As we have already seen the roots of Gatsby and Loman are similar but only one achieves success. This is because Gatsby attaches himself to the aristocratic Cody and receives an inheritance from him. Willy commits himself to the life of a salesman and so is little more than a “drummer boy”. It is necessary to question the integrity of someone achieving wealth through swindling the aristocratic classes and another being doomed to obscurity for trying to be a “self made man” in a country where a man has the “inalienable rightâ€¦to the pursuit of happiness”