The American Dream means different things to different people. To Bigger Thomas, who was a young black man in a white man’s world in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, this means having the same rights and opportunities that Caucasian people have. Bigger’s American Dream is to live like the white people but is prevented by his melanin. To Willy Loman, an older white male who was in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, it means the ability to provide for his family monetarily, and to be well liked by his peers. Although they are being described as complete opposites by their respective authors, they do have one thing in common. Bigger and Willy both strived for their own version of the American Dream. They lived their lives wanting more, but because of Bigger’s fear and the racism he was subjected to daily and Willy’s self-inflicted denial and underlying depression, they both ended up not being able to fulfill their American Dreams.
Native Son was set in the Great Depression Era 1930’s Chicago with racial discrimination all around. Caucasian people were afraid of black people and wanted to keep them inferior. Black people feared white people because of the power that they had over many aspects of their lives. Bigger Thomas was a product of his environment in terms of economic
and social standings, therefore, he lacked better choices and opportunities. He and his family, which consisted of his mother, younger brother and younger sister, lived in the poor part of town in one room. The building in which they live is owned by the Dalton family, whom Bigger ends up working for. When asked about how far he went in school by Jan Erlone, he replied “To the eighth grade” (Wright 74). Bigger was then asked “Why did you stop?” (Wright 74) and he replied “No money” (Wright 74). Not having money, or other opportunities to make more money easily, had a ripple effect on him not being able to improve his life or his family’s lives.
Bigger constantly had mixed feelings of both fear and anger, stemming from and directed towards white people. He hated white people because of the opportunities in life that are denied to black people at this time. Speaking with one of his friends named Gus, he expressed his frustration. “Goddammit!” “What’s the matter?” “They don’t let us do nothing.” “Who?” “The white folks” (Wright 19). He also lives in fear because he knows he will be treated much worse if he commits the same crime as a white person.
Bigger was accustomed to robbing black people to get money, “If they could, it would mean some sure and quick money” (Wright 14). But one particular day he wanted to rob a white man’s delicatessen with his friends. But he was afraid to lose his new job as a chauffer at the Dalton’s and he also knew that the outcome would be if he got caught. So, he started a fight with his friends to avoid committing the robbery. Once again, Bigger made his decisions and choices based on fear.
Bigger’s ultimate action based from fear had two parts to it. Fear drove him to kill Mary Dalton because as a black man he didn’t want to get caught being in her bedroom by her white
mother, Mrs. Dalton. Although Bigger has a limited education, he was not a stupid man. After the deed was done, he knew that the crime he committed had serious consequences for him. “Mary’s death had caused him the most fear; not her death in itself, but when it meant to him as a Negro” (Wright 331). In another effort to shun Bigger, the media coverage during the trial also offered their unfair opinion on Bigger’s life and painted him as a “jungle beast” (Wright 279). He was everyone’s sacrificial lamb that needed to pay for what he did to the white woman. He is sentenced to death based solely on the color of his skin, not taking in to consideration the killing of Mary was an accident. In actuality, he did kill her, but he was denied a fair trial in the minds of the “six men in the rows of chairs” (Wright 329) because their decision was made even before the trial began. The jury saw an opportunity to put away a black man, and no matter how hard his Jewish lawyer Boris A. Max tried during the trial. Bigger was declared guilty and was sentenced to die. On the eve of his death, Mr. Max said to “You’re black, but that’s only a part of it. Your being black, as I told you before, makes it easy for them to single you out. …They do that to black people more than others because they say black people are inferior” (Wright 428). Despite his lawyer’s best efforts, Bigger was condemned right from the beginning thus not achieving his American Dream.
Another literary character chasing the American Dream is Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, which takes place in the late 1940’s, mostly in Brooklyn, NY. Willy Loman is a white traveling salesman “past sixty years of age” (Miller 12) who travels to New England for his job. His American Dream is to be well liked by colleagues and peers and also being able to provide financially for his family. But he is unable to achieve this due to his poor decision making, which results in denial and depression.