Conquering the Flow of Expectations
Pressure to conform to the societal norms of a culture can often be so weighty that those who oppose against it are likely to be crushed. Usually the world wins in a very few cases though, the individual comes out the victor, beating the odds, a stronger human being as a result. In the case of Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman, the world devours Willy Loman in his search for the American Dream. It broke him down and eventually destroyed him. Nora Helmer, of Henrik Ibsens A Doll House, was also consumed by the world, but after being broken, fought her way free and defeated societys expectations of her. Both seek fulfillment in their lives, falsely finding it in societys expectations; Nora discovers this division between what she should be and who she really is and sets out to amend the problem; Willy on the other hand, cannot handle the stress of facing his true self and flees.
Societal pressures urge Nora and Willy to mold themselves into the people they think they should be, ignoring their true selves. Nora grew up the plaything of her father and became the same to her husband, adopting their tastes and opinions as her own because society expected women to support the dominant males in their lives whole-heartedly. According to society, Noras duties lay within the home caring for her children and husband, not bothering herself with the matters of the world and its workings. This innocence though, directly caused her to take out an illegal loan in her fathers name. Under the impression that her actions would be understood because they aimed only to save her husbands life, Nora deludes herself into thinking that she still fits into the role society created for her. The moment Torvald discovers her lies, though, he immediately denounces her, calling her an unfit mother, a criminal, (949) and a featherbrained woman (947). Within seconds of his scathing condemnation though, Torvald learns that his reputation will not suffer from Noras actions and he forgives her with an open and willing heart. Nora finds strength in realizing her failure, resolving to find herself as a human being and not in what society expects of her.
Noras recognition comes when Torvald so easily changes his mind about her guilt based on the fate of his own reputation. At this point Nora realizes that all she fought and struggled for in life were lies. Lies put in place by society telling her that if she acted just so then life would work out. When faced with this realization, she chose to fight back and won. She sees clearly that to society, reputation and play-acting governs all things and that she has never once been her own person. She lived her life as a doll passed from hand to hand, never thinking for herself, wearing the clothes handed to her, speaking in the manner spoken to her, and behaving as instructed. She realized that all her life she had sought more, but upon reaching the limits of acceptable behavior, stopped short and turned back. Once the illusion of societal perfection and innocence had shattered, Nora was able to see her blank canvas underneath, and she knew that she would need to fill that canvas on her own so as to become a fully-fledged human soul and part of the world around her.
Willy, like Nora, had a dream. Willy dreamt of success: personal success, success in his family life, and success for his sons. For him, salesmanship was the measure of his success; throughout the many flashbacks he would often exaggerate his sales, boosting his image in the eyes of his children. He felt as though his place as a meaningful member of society hinged on this success. Therefore, he would only admit his shortcomings to Linda, who understood and never judged him. In the eyes of his young children, Willy could do no wrong: he made top sales records; he was great man, nothing could defeat him, further adding to his societal pressures (1054). Willy also had to deal with the pressure from his brother who had struck diamonds in Africa by mistake, constantly living in that shadow, that shame as the little brother who turned down the chance of a lifetime and instead became a salesman. Pressured to pursue his American Dream, Willy gives himself over to the overwhelming waters of society, drowning himself in its expectations and demands.
Willy sees through the lies that pass for his life he tries to run from reality, first into madness and finally to suicide. Willys life has two main recognition points that the audience witnesses. In the first, as a flashback, Biff discovers his fathers affair and denounces him as you fake! You phony little fake! You fake! (1093) That realization destroyed the first two pieces of Willys American Dream, family and personal success. Willy hid from the truth as long as only he knew it, but once Biff knew his fathers true identity as a lousy salesman and adulterer, a fake, Willy could no longer hide and the guilt began to consume him, causing him to hallucinate and lose touch with reality. The knowledge that he did not measure up to societys expectations overwhelmed him, sucking him into an inescapable void of depression, remorse, and guilt. The second deadly blow came when Biff collapsed on him, crying and broken. Willy saw that despite his best efforts to make his sons successful one was nothing more than a petty thief and the other a philandering bum (1055). He finally saw the last remaining shreds of his dream flutter to the ground like tattered rags and die there; this final realization gave him nothing left to live for, the only logical course of action then became suicide.
For someone as lost and hopeless as Willy, it almost seemed the kind way to end the play, letting him live would have meant forcing him to suffer through the remainder of his life without the dreams of great American life that had driven him for so long. Under pressure one of two things can happen, an object can compress and become indestructible and solid, or it can shatter into a million pieces never to be reunited. Through Death of a Salesman and A Doll House illustrates the views of individual vs. society. As the pressures of society are passed down to generations, we all must decide a path just as Nora and Willy have. Will we be like Nora, where she solidifies under the pressure of society and becomes something more resilient, more determined, and more stable? Or as Willy who shatters and blows away into the wind, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.