Psychological Elements in Death of a Salesman

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      According to Daniel E. Shneider “a great work of art is a dream turned inside out a brilliant perception and portrayal of the impossible and impermissible ways in which we hurt ourselves against reality and, failing dream out action and consequence as we sleep in our own inner universe of wishes”. Miller’s Death of a Salesman can lift a proud head of being able to stand and surpass this definition. Willy Loman, the protagonist of the play is what his dreams make him. He tries to keep up with the “maniac” of a refrigerator whose cost of operation eats up the very food it is designed to preserve, or like the twenty-five year mortgage on the house which is empty of the sons of the family by the time the father has paid for it literally with his life and life insurance. The maniacal refrigerator, the life sentencing mortgage, the ironic insurance—these things take on the aspect of sardonic gods of the mountain. These are symbols of one theme of the play—describing a society in which man is a wandering Pedlar lured from reality by the pink clouds of magic sales; talk a word in which the burden of parenthood is enormous and where the common man has nothing to sell but himself, his pride, his youth.

      The entire play is loaded with psychological implications. The play may be said to abound in psychological symbolism. At the opening of the play we see the salesman coming home carrying the two battered, black sample cases which are his cross; they are like his two sons, whom he has carried throughout his life. They are a burden to be set down with honor, yet they prove to be his coffin. His broken words, his gasping for breath proves that he has lost; control of them first as he has no control over his sons. Insanity and suicide hang on him like the axe of the final catastrophe. As the play progresses towards its finale, Willy becomes increasingly obsessed with the vision of Ben.

      Transitions of scenes and arrangements of the events in the play is suitable to its psychological nature. The first act moves from despair to false hope. The second act moves from a vestige of love to an orgy of hate and death. A deep psychological conflict dominates the play as it does in All My Sons. In both the plays, the sons get disillusioned with their fathers.

      The inner psychological theme of the play also finds its manifestation in the play. To his sons, Willy Loman is not a man but a god in decay. They have tremendous faith in him, his potential and influence. But due to ‘something’ Biff has developed a strong antipathy towards his father. In the scene when Biff discovers his father involved in a clandestine, adulterous affair with a lusty woman, the myth of sexless godhood is shattered. This is the repressed scene of infidelity and smashed authority, dramatized in the restaurant.

      The play is not far from the Oedipal problem. A son finally recognizes that the father is not a sexless god but a sexual man, prone to every human temptation. But there is a little variation in the Oedipus theme in the play, a variation which says: “He who pretends to Godhood over me must fulfill his Godhood or be revealed as madman”. It is the murder of a father by all his sons that can be the theme of the play, which is an irrational Oedipal blood-bath, given seeming rationalization by converging social themes of the worn out salesman.

      The play is made psychologically effective by a castration panic. Willy is told flatly that as a salesman he is no good and never was. He is told by his nephew that at seventeen ‘something’ happened to Biff which destroyed the boy, a hint of Willy’s infidelity. In the last scene we find the climax of the Oedipal theme when Biff goes into maniacal fury at the mother’s defence of the father and exposes him as a philanderer and a fake, and is about to strike the tottering Willy. At the climactic moment, Biff who has lived like his father is overtaken by pity and love and falls weeping into the stunned father’s arms.

      Miller follows in the play, not the technique of flashback but of psychic projection, of hallucination, of the guilty expression of forbidden wishes dramatized. Willy Loman does not go back to the past. The past as in hallucination comes back to him—it comes back to him as the inner logic of his ’erupting volcanic unconscious.

      Finally, we can say that the play does seem to be the inside of Willy’s mind as Miller had intended.

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