Death of a Salesman ends with the protagonist Willy Loman’s funeral, whilst A Streetcar Named Desire’s protagonist, Blanche, is escorted to what the reader can only assume is some form of mental institution. This illustrates that both characters have met a negative end, suggesting that for them reality is indeed victorious over fantasy. However, this is not the case for all of the characters.
In Death of a Salesman, for Willy – the play’s protagonist, reality is seen to be victorious over fantasy. Willy’s idea of success was earning enough money to provide for his family and to “be well liked”. At the beginning of the play, Miller hints at Willy’s future failure, using music to set the scene with a “melody…played upon a flute…telling of grass and trees and the horizon”. This suggests that Willy has an outdoors ambition because the melody is only “telling” of “grass and trees”, with the flute signifying Willy’s tendency to relive the past. This is juxtaposed with the reality of the “towering, angular shapes…surrounding [it] on all sides” that comes with the reality of living in the city, in a “fragile” house in the middle of a “solid vault of apartment houses”. This gives a sense of entrapment which could reflect the restriction Willy feels as a salesman, instead of the freedom he could feel if he had a physical job – foreshadowing his failure. This is supported by Willy Loman and the Lost Frontier which states that the “vault” is “oppressive” and “claustrophobic”. The juxtaposition illustrates that Willy is torn between the dream of being a successful salesman, and that of being as successful as his pioneering brother Ben, who he is jealous of, but rejects his ways as he’s not ruthless enough. Willy chose to become a salesman of his own accord – like Dave Singleman.
Similar foreshadowing takes place using stagecraft during the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire. On arriving at “Elysian fields” in search of her sister, Blanche’s expression is “one of shocked disbelief”, expecting “Elysian fields” to be much grander than its reality, as the name means ‘perfect afterlife’. This is ironic as Blanche finds herself in the middle of a small, busy, working class community which differed greatly from her upbringing at “Belle Reve” (meaning ‘beautiful dream’), therefore she feels out of place due to her prejudice. We are given the impression that Blanche is from an upper class family of Southern society, possessing a legacy of manners, class, and a sense of social superiority. Blanche illustrates this when she asks Stella “you have a maid, don’t you?” suggesting that she is used to being waited on through wealth, however the audience learns that there was no money at Belle Reve.
A tendency to cling on to dreams or to self-delude is evident in both main protagonists. Willy is constantly convincing his sons – and himself – that he’s “vital” to his company, suggesting that he is successful, and that the company would be unable to function without him. On meeting with Howard, Willy states that he has “averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions,” which we suspect is untrue. We can assume that Willy creates this fantasy in an attempt to make himself feel important, as he confesses to his wife Linda, that “[his colleagues] do laugh at me”, suggesting that his colleagues don’t respect him as a ‘successful’ salesman would be respected. We later find out that Willy is “working on commission”, and eventually borrowing money from Charlie saying that he will pay him back when he will never be able to, highlighting the family’s financial struggle. This links to Blanche’s delusion as she tries to hide her own fading looks by using lampshades and shadows, never telling Mitch her real age.
Much like Willy, Williams implies that Blanche is merely living a fantasy of this, with her “pearls”, “gold bracelets” and “diamonds”, which are actually rhinestones, and are “next door to glass” – cheap and tacky. Through the metaphor of her possessions, Williams shows that Blanche is not all that she seems. She creates a fictional version of herself through lying to Mitch about her age – claiming to be younger than Stella, “call[ing] her little in spite of the fact she’s somewhat older”, along with several other sugar-coated lies in order to keep up the pretence. The Role of Gender supports this, saying that Blanche is an “actress” playing “roles” and “performing”. When the secret of her past life is found out by Stanley, reality destroys her fantasy of a future with Mitch. The rape is the final triumph for Stanley. The audience empathises with Blanche because she was trying to make a new life for herself through her attempt at creating a fantasy about her past. Reality triumphed because the loneliness of her broken marriage comes back to haunt her, much like Willy’s affair with the woman.
Eventually, Willy is sacked highlighting the fact that Willy’s pretence of being a successful salesman was in fact a fantasy, which he could never live up to. This stemmed from Dave Singleman who “made his living” and “died the death of a salesman” – a successful salesman until his death. Willy looked up to him because it provided him with the father figure he was lacking. Miller put in a requiem dealing with the aftermath of Willy’s dream. It is ironic as Willy’s death was not like Singleman’s “death of a salesman”. Therefore, reality won over fantasy for Willy again as he didn’t achieve with regards to his job. It could be argued however, that the funeral was positive as it shows some achievement as it ultimately taught Biff a life lesson to be honest and realistic, whilst Happy continued to fantasise about success, following in the steps of his father. during his funeral, it is stated that “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made”, as it not what he planned to do, yet he had material evidence of his success here, illustrating Biff’s point that he had “all the wrong dreams”, suggesting that physical work should have been Willy’s reality.
When telling Stella what happened at Belle Reve, Blanche says that the ”Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep“. The ”Grim Reaper“ is a personification of death, however this is meant literally, and surprisingly, Blanche is realistic about this but uses dreams to escape from the horror and that of her failed marriage. Williams uses music to show how her past haunts her, in a similar way to Miller using the flute with Willy.
It is apparent that Blanche is suffering from a drinking problem, as she ”pours a half tumbler of whiskey and tosses it down“. Drinking in this way suggests that Blanche is trying to escape or hide from something she’s experienced. However she tries to cover this up by denying her consumption to others who offer it; like Willy, she is deluded. The play ends with Blanche getting taken away by a ”doctor” and “matron”, implying that Blanche ends up going to a mental establishment, which would suggest reality’s victory over fantasy through her real past, of tragic widowhood and subsequent sexual misbehaviour, being discovered. The rape tips Blanche over the edge after the loss of ‘Belle Reve’ and the failure to marry drive her to drink.
Throughout the play, the Willy is haunted by the refusal of going to Alaska with Ben – who became successful through doing so, stating “by God I was rich”. Ben is the voice of the past and Willy’s final conversation was with his dead brother before he killed himself. Willy was obsessed with the idea of easy money; therefore he decided to crash his car, with the intention of providing for his family using life insurance.
In both plays we see that it is possible to make dreams become reality. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella is shown to have adapted to fit her surroundings by becoming part of the working class. Stanley states that he “pulled [Stella] down off them columns and how you loved it; this metaphor symbolises the change in her class status. We can also infer that Stella actually wanted this life, and loves it, triumphing in the reality of marriage. This is also confirmed by Stella saying she is “thrilled” by the way she and Stanley now live, and that she is genuinely happy. This shows reality’s victory over fantasy. Stella represents a compromise between reality and fantasy which is key to her survival. In contrast, Willy failed to compromise and therefore was unable to survive.
In Death of a Salesman, Bernard is shown to have achieved the American Dream, as he works on a big “case” and has a wife and a family. In this instance, reality of hard work has won over fantasy; however unlike Biff who was taught the wrong values – “be liked and you will never want”, Bernard has worked really hard to be successful and “made the grade”, unlike Biff and Happy who are fantasists and consequently fail. Likewise, Stanley, a very different character to Bernard, represents the reality of brute force and the new America. Stanley also achieves an aspect of the American Dream. In the Role of Gender, Stanley is said to represent the “new meritocratic world” based on “family”, “democracy”, and “entrepreneurism”. The first time the audience sees Stanley, he wears “denim”, the uniform of the working class, illustrating that immigrant Stanley is living the new American Dream of physical work to secure land and his own place to live – he even has also a wife and son. In addition, Stanley gives orders to his friends, “[yelling] Sit down!” showing Stanley to be the Alpha male as he is listened to when he gives such orders. This implies that he is highly respected and has status among the group which is also highlighted by Williams’ animal imagery, describing Stanley as a “baying hound” showing the brutality of his reality. As Stanley achieved his dream of financial independence and employment, fantasy had won over reality for Stanley; however he made it his reality. This has contributed to his pride and ego as he not only destroys Blanche who represented the old ways but was also able to manipulate Stella into the betrayal of her own sister.
In conclusion, both plays end with the depiction of reality’s victory over fantasy for the most part, as in Death of a Salesman, although Biff has learnt, Happy has not and Willy had to die for something good to happen. Likewise in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella has adapted to her surroundings and Stanley has achieved the American Dream, but Blanche has had all of her fantasies destroyed which is the undoing of her. Likewise, Happy is still deluding himself about a business success, and Stella chooses not to believe Blanche about the rape, as she “couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.” However, it could also be argued that Willy’s suicide and the subsequent matter of life insurance was possibly fantasy’s victory over reality, as at the funeral Linda tells Willy that she “made the last payment on the house today”. This suggests that she had some means of income – Willy’s life insurance, and in this aspect, Willy’s fantasy managed to create security for Linda. Arguably, Blanche and Willy both managed to escape reality, as Willy killed himself to escape from his financial issues, and Blanche convinces herself that she is going to see Shep Huntleigh rather than admitting that she is unstable and is being taken to get help.
Death of a Salesman, Miller, Arthur, Penguin Classics, 1949
A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams, Tennessee, Penguin Classics, 1957
Willy Loman and the Lost Frontier, Lister, David
Role of Gender in “A Streetcar Named Desire”