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Mental Illnesses in “Death of a Salesman”

Updated May 5, 2022
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Mental Illnesses in “Death of a Salesman” essay

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Mental illnesses can occur to anyone, it doesn’t discriminate. Mental illnesses are conditions such as mood disorders, eating disorders, trauma-related disorders, and personality disorders. Illnesses like these have affected humans throughout the course of history. However, new technology in neuroimaging and genetic engineering has enabled us to figure out the way these illnesses take place and develop in our brains. Our new technology can decipher whether some diseases are more psychological (the brain), or more physiological (the body). However, some conditions such as anxiety and depression are purely biological and thus harder to treat. Mental illness has touched countless works in literature, such as this one, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Psychoanalytic Theory

In a psychoanalytic viewpoint, Willy is a very insecure and mentally unstable man who is stuck and obsessed about his own unrealized dreams in his past.

Signs of his mental instability are presented very early in this play. Willy Loman comes home clearly mentally and physically exhausted from his long standing job, and he exclaims “I’m tired to the death” (Arthur Miller, 13), therefore, this points to foreshadowing in relation to the title of the play Death of a Salesman. Throughout the play, Willy Loman’s mental instability develops in such a way where it is almost threatening, hence this scene, “I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts” (Athur Miller, 14). It is worth to note that Willy struggles a lot throughout the play, creating an atmosphere of sadness that envelops the whole play. What induces Willy’s sadness is his attachment to his past and his young childhood dreams, “Remember how they used to follow him around in highschool? When he smiled at one of them their faces lit up. When he walked down the street… he loses himself in reminiscences” (Arthur Miller, 16). He does this a lot throughout the play, often ranting about the past when he talks to his two sons Biff, Happy, and Linda, “Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it” (Arthur Miller, ). Although it sounds like Willy is simply being pessimistic, this quote can be linked to his failed quest for the American Dream. One aspect of the Americna Dream involves owning a home. This quote also connects to the requiem after Act 2, during which Linda mourns Willy’s suicide. While she is alone, she speaks to Willy’s grave: “I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home”. Willy glorifies the past, he’s a man who resists change and daydreams about the past often “I don’t like change” (Arthur Miller, 17). Willy is deluded, he contradicts himself here “Biff is a lazy bum” (Arthur Miller, 16) and “There’s one thing about Biff, he’s not lazy” (Arthur Miller, 16). He disguises his anxiety with the belief that he’s a hugely successful salesman, when in fact his career is failing. In fact, all of these quotations are very early in the book thus giving us a strong sense of his failing mental health.

Willy’s temper and frustration are root causes of his relationship tensions. During the scene with Charley, Willy becomes enraged at him because of his delusional hallucinations and his growing denial for his developing insanity. This part of the book is where his mental instability becomes apparent. Willy is centered on money and his career. Ben, his dead brother, his success is a nagging reminder of Willy’s own failures. Ben is the one character who appears often throughout the play “Ben’s music is heard. Ben looks around at everything” (Arthur Miller, 44). Ben often reminds Willy of their father, comparing the two generations “That’s the way I’m bringing them up, Ben, well liked, all-around” (Arthur Miller, 49), Ben makes Willy feels that he is an amazing father, hence his strong attempts to look big and powerful in front of them like how he used to be. On the contrary, Biff and Happy aren’t as content with their father anymore, they realize that he failed to show them how life really was. The two sons, especially Biff, have had trouble with life and finding a job for a long time. Yet, Willy tries his best to stay in their lives, often searching for jobs for Biff “I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time!” (Arthur Miller, 16). Willy believes in working outside and being strong like his father, but he ends up being complacent about his salesman career, setting a bad example for his two sons.

Willy’s deteriorating mental health leads to the final act of the play, his death. The second act of the play is very dark, it is the climax of the play. After the humiliating interview with his boss Howard, he feels very subservient towards his work life; “[He looks for his lighter, WILLY has picked it up and gives it to him.”] (Arthur Miller, 80 ACT 2) Ironic, as Willy is known to not like the job of office boys and now he is doing the exact thing he despises. He is lowering his standards to get a job that he may not even like. “Records things. Just got delivery yesterday” (Arthur miller, 76), he completely ignores Willy’s request to talk, possibly showing that he does not look up to him anymore or is simply not interested in anything he has to say, despite the close relationship between Willy and Howard’s father. You can feel Willy’s developing desperation throughout this, the desperation to escape from his mind and never be rejected again. Willy has been trying so hard throughout the play, too hard, his endless struggle has yielded nothing; he should have walked away and reassessed himself. After his death, their mourning is often focused on Willy’s dreams, “BIFF- He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.” (Arthur Miller, 138). Willy’s whole characterization is centered around the idea of the American Dream. The fact that he ‘had the wrong dream’ emphasises the tragedy of his death. This is how far an untreated mental illness can go, it can lead to suicide.

Mental Illnesses in “Death of a Salesman” essay

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Mental Illnesses in “Death of a Salesman”. (2022, May 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/mental-illnesses-in-death-of-a-salesman/

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