Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, and Paul Laurence Dunbar Research Paper

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Death of a Salesman/Beloved/Ant. Sermon

Miller's Death of a Salesman, Morrison's Beloved, and Dunbar's "Antebellum Sermon" share sacrifice, oppression, and identity loss as common themes. In Beloved, Sethe is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice of killing one of her own children for the sake of its own freedom; in Death of a Salesman, Willy sacrifices his own life to protect his dignity, and in "Antebellum Sermon," a poem with a plethora of double-meanings, God calls Moses to offer himself -- a sort of sacrifice -- for the people of Egypt, helping to free them from slavery. Like Moses, the poet Dunbar is putting himself into the position of Moses, to speak to the slaves and help them find the strength to fight for their freedom, which Dunbar believes is imminent. Both Beloved and "Antebellum Sermon" deal with oppression in terms of race and slavery while Death of a Salesman deals with self-oppression and the loss of self-identity. This paper will attempt to focus on these three themes -- sacrifice, oppression, and loss of identity -- in the three works of Morrison, Dunbar, and Miller. Though written at three completely different times in American history, the three works of fiction illustrate that sacrifice and a lack of self-identity are issues that can plague different races and different sexes for many different reasons.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Research Paper on Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, & Paul Laurence Dunbar Assignment

Arthur Miller once wrote, referring to his fictional character Willy Loman, "the tragic feeling is invoked whenever we are in the presence of a character, any character, who is ready to sacrifice his life, if need be, to secure one thing, his personal dignity" (Baym 2403). Willy Loman is a salesman who is willing to sacrifice whatever he needs to in order to achieve his dream of being a successful salesman. When the play begins, we meet Willy, a tired and aging man, returning from a sales trip, one of many that have led to his fatigue. His boys, Biff and Happy, are at home visiting and Willy is perplexed, questioning his wife Linda, about why his son Biff seems so lost in the world with no job and no money. Where did Willy go wrong in raising this son of his? This son with so much potential? Willy has ideas about himself, his sons, and the life that he has created that are completely out of the realm of what is reality. He is immersed in a world of illusions that are made up of the hopes he had for himself years ago and now the hopes that he has for his two sons -- specifically Biff. Willy is a tragic hero as he is willing to sacrifice his life -- including his relationships with his sons and his wife -- for his own pride and dignity, which is essentially why he lies to everyone.

When looking at the works of Miller, Dunbar, and Morrison, it is interesting to juxtapose the way America is portrayed. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a white man with a pretty good life when compared to the lives of the slaves in Beloved and "Antebellum Sermon." Willy completely believes in "The American Dream" and he is forever in quest of it. He believes that a well-liked and physically attractive man in business will succeed and thus acquire the material comforts that are offered by the American life. Willy says to Biff and Happy:

That's why I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. 'Willy Loman is here!' That's all they have to know, and I go right through (Miller 33).

Willy's emphasis on these superficial and material aspects is in direct opposition with the true meaning of the American Dream, which is about hard work being linked to personal and financial success. Willy's interpretation of what is important is quite materialistic and thus it leads to his eventual breakdown because he cannot accept the differences between the Dream and the life that he has created for himself that he believes to be not good enough. Willy loses his own sense of identity in his warped version of the American Dream for several different reasons, perhaps pertaining to his issues with abandonment. Instead of having a true sense of self, Willy would rather mold his family into his "perfect sons" and his "perfect wife." He cannot accept who they truly are and Willy proves his disgust with Linda by cheating on her. Willy fixates on Biff's inability to succeed; he has always seen Biff as the promise child and when Biff will not conform to Willy's image, Willy again feels abandoned.

In Beloved, there is also a lack of identity because slavery has destroyed it. There is no American Dream for these characters, but rather, there is an America that makes African-Americans feel like animals. This is illustrated when the schoolteacher lists the slaves "animal characteristics," calling them "creatures" that need to be "handled" just as livestock would need to be "handled." In many ways, the schoolteacher makes the slaves seem even less than animals because "unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin" (Morrison 172).

Both Beloved and Death of a Salesman focus on not just the emotional, but also the physical and spiritual devastation that is caused by oppression. In Beloved, the loss -- or destruction -- of identity is one of the worst impacts of slavery for the people in the story. Paul D. is so out of touch with whom he is that at one point in the story he is not sure whether someone else is screaming or if it is himself. Slaves were treated like lesser human beings, like animals, and they were traded as if they were merchandise. Because of such mistreatment, Paul D. has a very hard time seeing himself as a valuable person. He is constantly questioning whether or not he could ever be a real man. Likewise, in Death of a Salesman, Willy is fixated on his boys becoming real men. Willy, despite his lack of self-identity, has an over-inflated idea of himself. He believes himself to be very attractive and he erroneously believes that everybody likes him.

In the novel Beloved, Sethe is also treated as less than human. She, much like Paul D, does not believe that she is a worthy human being. She sees her children as aspects of herself that are valuable, but her children also have issues with their own identity. This is seen in Death of a Salesman as well. Willy has high hopes and big dreams for his boys but they do not seem to have the same beliefs in themselves. When Biff lets Willy down, it is as if a piece of Willy dies. In Beloved, Denver mixes her own identity with Beloved's and thus Beloved believes that her body is actually decaying. Slavery has also taken its toll on Baby Suggs. Slavery has taken away her family and taken away her right to being a wife and a mother; this fact has a huge effect on the way that Baby Suggs views her existence. Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Baby Suggs suffers spiritually; Paul D. is also much like Willy in that they both become very tired.

"Antebellum Sermon" has a much more positive outlook on life than Morrison's Beloved despite the fact that both works of fiction deal with the topic of slavery. The narrator in "Antebellum Sermon" is speaking to his fellow slaves about Moses and how Moses was sent by God to free the slaves from the Pharaoh, yet at the same time he is instilling hope because he is saying that freedom is sure to come to them just as freedom came to the slaves in Egypt.

Both Beloved and "Antebellum Sermon" bring up ideas about what it means to be part of a community. Though the characters in Beloved have, for the most part, lost their senses of self due to the institution of slavery, there is a strong sense that the characters need the support of each other if they are to survive under such horrific conditions. The narrator in "Antebellum Sermon" expresses this need for community perfectly as he continuously refers to his audience a his "brothahs" (brothers) and his "fellah christuns" (fellow Christians). In Beloved, Paul D. recalls how the slaves were all chained together and if "one lost, all lost" (Morrison 130). There is also an aspect to both Beloved and "Antebellum Sermon" that concerns language and identity. Both Morrison and Dunbar use dialects in their works. Morrison has the slaves manipulate language as a way for the slaves to speak to each other without… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.  (2010, November 28).  Retrieved May 31, 2020, from

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