Compare and Contrast Essay of Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun
The Capitalist Monster:
What can be more morally invalidating than enslavement? Some say death. Others say torture. But what if enslavement is a combination of the two; an ultimate death spiral that captures the soul, debasing the heart and unhinging the brain? In Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, we see the effects of economic enslavement. Set around the same time, the two plays depict a morally impervious capitalistic monster at its pinnacle in American history. As protagonists Willy Loman and Walter Lee fight for social standing and economic prosperity, disputes and familial discord flourish, hopes and dreams evaporate, and immorality permeates the helpless and struggling families. As Hansberry and Miller magnify the constant suffering, dissatisfaction, sacrifice, and false hopes and dreams associated with the American economic system, the morality of capitalism is redefined and the immorality of an individualistic society reestablished. The vital question of “why” comes to the forefront in both plays as the gradated nature of life and its unfair distribution of success is put under the microscope. Why one manages to be rich and another poor and the struggles of the latter to transform into the former underlines the two plays’ mutual theme. However, to contrast the strict malevolent aura presented around capitalism, Hansberry and Miller analyze the incompetency of the Youngers and Lomans as to accredit their failures not to oppression of some kind but rather depression of one’s own abilities with the advent of pride that neglects to lay the foundation for success and discontentedness that undermines the opportunities for success. And it is with this that playwrights Hansberry and Miller balance the notion of an evil capitalistic America, and the plays transform into a deeper study of family dynamics and morals in the midst of struggle and adversity.
Economic Hardship & The Younger's Failure:
The Youngers and Lomans are saddled with the stresses of economic lack. The stage directions in A Raisin in the Sun depict “all pretenses but living itself having long since vanished from the very atmosphere” and in Death of a Salesman Willy drives hundreds of miles a week and still only barely manages to pay off his bills. Both families subsist on meager servile jobs, especially the Youngers who suffer an extremely prejudiced community. This pecuniary crater sparks extreme discontentedness. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter’s desire for wealth obviously surpasses his family members. In many parts Mama criticizes Walter’s dissatisfaction with his life. Ruth is also openly critical of Walter’s clamoring for money, however, secretly negotiates with Mama trying to persuade her to give Walter a chance by granting him a portion of the life insurance money in order to start a liquor store—hinting to a commonality of grievances. For example, Beneatha exclaims that George ( a wealthy boy that seeks to court her) is “shallow”, and Ruth inquires as to “what other qualities a man got to have to satisfy” her. This implies, therefore, that Ruth identifies wealth as a vital characteristic. Even Mama, who most vociferously proclaims contentedness, dreams of a new house and understands that only money will provide the way for such a transition. Moreover, as her main goal to become a doctor mandates that she have money, Beneatha relates to the familial ilk of materialism as well. Either plainly or subtly, all members of the Younger family are discontent. Their discontentedness leads to disunity, mutual animosity, and ultimately failure. Their failure to remain collected, failure to overcome in the midst of adversity, and failure to be content under the most disheartening circumstances reveals their lack of intestinal fortitude. The Younger’s deviate from success not because they fail to fulfill all their dreams, but because in pursuit of their dreams they lose sight of what really matters—family. The Youngers individualistic mentality and lack of humility, especially Walter’s, grows violently. This characteristic disposes of morality in favor of personal goals and aspirations. Walter’s liquor store is one example. Later the Youngers reestablish themselves by demanding Linder, a racist neighborhood manager, “get out”. However because this was more a result of pride than justice, it may be poor evidence of the Youngers’ character. All in all, with the acute frustrations associated with a most terrible economic environment for African Americans and the financial hoi polloi, the Youngers fail to resist depression (although their circumstances allow for nothing else), and while they eventually gain a house the means of their acquisition portray them as undeserving.
Willy Loman's Discontentedness:
To start Death of a Salesman, discontentedness is overshadowed by pride, as Willy tries desperately to build himself up in the eyes of others. Willy sees himself as “vital in New England” and pumps his son, Biff, up with hot air. “Be liked and you will never want”, Willy tells Biff just after assuring him that he will be “five times ahead of” Bernard. Biff’s superstar complex invites Willy’s obsequiousness, and Happy and Linda share in the false dream that Biff will support the family. All the while, Happy lifts himself up, essentially trying to extenuate his failure. “I have to take orders from those common, petty sons-of-bitches” Happy proclaims, suggesting that he sees his own ability as surpassing his superiors in the corporate office. Even though Happy obviously has very little experience he insists he be the boss. Willy never entertains the notion of failure, of mediocrity, or of anything less than perfection, and continually feeds his sons more lies of their popularity. And, in accordance with his flattery, Willy aggressively influences his sons (especially Biff) by telling them that a “man that is well liked wants for nothing”. This then entices the Loman brothers to focus not on hard work and dedication in the application of oneself, but rather the popularity and publicity of their image. Nevertheless, the guise of imminent success and pending glory vanishes once Biff fails to go to college and Howard fires Willy. The void becomes filled with discontentedness and a cacophonous aura. Willy—as opposed to before—antagonizes Biff, claiming that Biff “spites” him for not wanting to follow through with Oliver (Biff’s old friend who could give him a job). Linda ridicules the once praised Biff too, as her trepidations of Willy’s suicidal temperament grows. Happy fuels the fire by maintaining his pride and, in all intents and purposes, ignores the maelstrom of problems surrounding his family. Happy’s focus on women, as in the restaurant, suggests his disregard for family, selfishness, and lackadaisical attitude. As tensions rage, familial discord magnifies. Everyone in the Loman family has angst for one another. With the advent of their moribund state of being and dispositions towards each other, the Lomans fail to overcome. They fail to stay true to each other. They fail to stay true to reality. They fail to stay true to themselves. And they fail to stay true to what is really important—the nuclear family. The culmination of Loman disputes eventually leads to Willy’s death. This hints to Miller’s underlying message of life, family, and the human mind, beyond what financial failure in an evil capitalistic America could possibly incur. The Loman failures are as much terrestrial as they are spiritual—meaning the spirit of the family.
More than a Pecuniary Struggle:
In both plays, family finances and economic subsistence remain an integral part of the playwrights’ message. However, on a grander scale, they depict life at its core, the family and all its idiosyncrasies, the morality of humans, our thoughts, and actions; how struggles, economic or otherwise, transform family; how certain characteristics such as pride and discontentedness degrade family; and how, above all else, the ordinances of man define family. The origin of human morality—otherwise being the product of human instinct—remains a mystery. What makes something immoral but the mere fact that we deem it immoral? If we disregard religion, where do we derive the dictates of our conduct? Perhaps laws regulate moral from immoral, but who regulates laws but man? And so if we assume that it is man who regulates laws that regulate man, the question now becomes simply why do we regulate in the ways that we do, why do we opt for monogamy over polygamy, why honesty over dishonesty, and so on and so forth. Now, in response to that question we defer to the afore stated idea that man’s inclinations and predispositions in life are dictated not by some spirit or any other non-measurable entity, but rather originate solely from the ultimate randomness of life, the randomness of evolutionary progression, and the randomness of our world being random. So what could have possibly precipitated, however random a force of nature it may be, for example, human ordinance for one spouse. Surely, natural selection favors those with the most widespread genetic variation and therefore those that procreate most frequently? Sadly, there is no answer to this question. There is no explanation for human morality. However, perhaps herein lays the evidence of human preeminence, of human greatness. Perhaps with this peculiarity identified we may begin to define who we are, and why. Perhaps with this in mind, as Hansberry’s and Miller’s concoctions of human thought, of family, of community, and of morals unfold and present themselves, we may peer deeper into the essence of what makes us, us.