Willie and Billie in Death of the Salesman: The Problem of Trust and Psychological Breakdown

Date:  2021-06-24 21:44:20
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University of California, Santa Barbara
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Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman' presents two antagonistic characters who, ironically, are a father and a son respectively: Willy Loman and Biff. Willy is a determined, invincible and marginally successful father who will want to see himself and his sons, including Biff, make the material success. Strong sense of aspirations drives him to transverse New England, serving as a traveling salesman. Unfortunately, his efforts seem not to yield material fruits, and he makes no remarkable breakthrough in the business world. In the first instance, his son Biff is passionate about his father and buys his philosophy that being liked and string personality is a key to successful life. He is a successful athlete who seems destined for greater things, until when he discovers of his father sees another woman, and unfaithful to their mother, Linda. The revelation of unfaithfulness marks the beginning of Biff's critical perception of his father, including his father's philosophy. His attitude suddenly changes to the extent of being a serial petty offender and spending lots of time incarcerated, believing that is a rebelling against the father. To Biff, the father is the unrealistic self-centered man who devises false image of what the father is: to himself, the family and the society. Willy similarly views Biff as an inept, lazy son who has failed to grasp opportunities to succeed in life. The question that arises then is, who, between Willie and Biff is to be Trusted? Willy's words? Biffs? Again, the rotation of time affect the reliability of the characters, and Willy evidently suffers from a psychological breakdown. This paper examines the reliability of the narrative of the Death of a Salesman against the backdrop of the turn of events as well as the characters psychological state. It is argued here that the narrative of the Death of the Salesman is not reliable as observed from the turn of events, and that neither Willy not Biff Can be trusted.

In the play, the characters words and actions cannot be trusted. In particular, Willys words cannot be trusted. Most of the times seems to have a problem with his memory, and most of the time he experiences reveries, which someone may thing he is talking with him or her while indeed he has gone back to the past times. He also seems to have selective amnesia. Selective amnesia a kind of memory disorder in which one loss up part of one's memory, and as a result only able to remember part of one's experience and not others (Rodrigues 40). This is what happens to Willy. He remembers having a conversation with a woman but has trouble differentiating from the conversation he had with Linda. While strongly castigating Willy, and while thinking that Willy is a man who lives in delusion and constructing a false image of himself to the family, community and Willy's self. Further, the rotation of time in the narrative affects the reliability. Willy recalls his memories. At one point, Willy is in the restaurant, but at the same time, he is having a conversation with other people. Biff too cannot be trusted since at one point he stole a football. He vilifies Willy, yet he is involved in the serial commission of a crime, some of which he expressly admits. For instance, Biff admitted stealing the football and is ready to share with Happy. In their conversation with Happy, he reports with a ranch I could do the work I like and still be something I wonder if Oliver still thinks I stole that carton of basketballs (Miller 14)." Implicitly, he admits having stolen the ball from the ranch where he was working. He also lies that he borrowed a ball from the locker room when his father asks him where he got one. He is therefore tainted with the same moral decay, a thief and a shameful liar, who castigates his father (whom he sees as an immoral man who has no respect for others) but has little moral standing. Happy's response too makes her be of questionable character. She seems to be happy with Biff's act and even encourages him not to worry because "Oh, he [Maurice] probably forgot that long ago. Its almost ten years." She even consoles him stating that Biff is "too sensitive." Evidently, she celebrates that Biff got away with the crime and was not fired.

Willy is indeed having a psychological breakdown. He is occasionally having problems with his memories. For instance, he cannot differentiate the present from the past. Besides, he always talks to himself. At one time while at the restaurant, he is having a conversation with other people who are not in the scene. These are evidence that Willy has the psychological disorder of hallucination and delusion. In both psychological disorders, individuals' memory is impaired, so that they experience things that are not in place in reality (Smeets et al. 531). Delusions and hallucinations complicate Johns frustrations with a strenuous life where he worked but received a reward far much lower than he would have wanted. Arguably, the hallucinations could be an impact of stress while at the same time a coping mechanism, because while in this state, hallucinating individuals gets into a psychological detachment from the harsh reality of life Smeets et al. 531). Biff always believes that Willy is talking to him during those regular reveries, and as a result, he never takes his father seriously. Also, characters in the play lie to each other a lot. Willy lies to Linda that she is the only woman in his life when in reality he has another woman in Boston. One then cannot tell many other lies that he has made on the play. Biff too lies to the father that he was lent a ball from the safe by the coach, yet this is also not the case. If it is true that he was lent the ball, then the question arises as to why since then he has not returned the ball. Again, After being thrown out of the house, Biff tells the mother that it is because I know hes a fake and he doesnt like anybody around who knows!" (Miller 42). This response is not a genuine one because the real reason behind his conflict with the father is the realization of the father's unfaithfulness. So, no character in the narrative can be trusted since their attributes are not consistent; consistency is critical to being accorded credibility. When characters keep lying across a narrative, then it becomes differ cult to judge on what to believe or to dismiss. Further, the play is overly exaggerated. For instance, quick rotations of time, as seen with the acts of Willy shows too much exaggeration. Both the tone and the subject of the play do not seem to have any relevance today. The play presents a family embroiled in endless conflict, and evidently stating together. Even those who have attained the adult age like Biff are still in most cases closely monitored by the parents. The play, therefore, depicts highly collectivist American families, in which everyone strives to be one's keeper and where many family members stay together in one place. Today's American society is typically characterized by strong individualist inclination and strong respect for individual choices (Vargas et al. 195-199). Again, in most cases, family members will have diverse working stations, sometimes even in different states. It is extremely difficult to enjoy the kind of ties that the family portrayed in the play appears to enjoy. As a result, the family lifestyle may not link up with American today for its lack of the contemporary cultural appeal.

The narrative reveals how families struggle to realize their dreams. It portrays how America Dream affects families. The pursuit of American dream, characterized by wealth accumulation, luxurious lifestyle and accessed to quality homes, education and health care are largely depicted through Willy. He toils over and over, moving to Boston as a salesman, hoping to make a difference in life. He makes only marginal success, and the wealth never come. He soon realizes the fame, notoriety, and wealth is not forthcoming, and at one time he complains to the women to whom he sells. In expressing his frustration, he reports to her "you'll retire me for life on seventy goddam dollars a week? And your women and your car and your apartment, and you'll retire me for life! Christ's sake, I couldn't get past Yonkers today!" ((Miller 28). Marriage, owning a car and owning a home symbolizes American dream. The disanointed tone Willy uses depict obsession with wealth, even though he has nothing to show for it. This epitome of American dream remain mere fantasy that Willy will not manage to secure. His pessimism emerges when he complains "Where are you guys, where are you? The woods are burning! I can't drive a car " (Miller 28). Although the writer reflects the expectation of families in realizing the American Dream, the narrative is overly unrealistic. For a struggling salesman of Willy's stature, it is unrealistic to expect that Willy's efforts merit the material possession Willy regrets not having got. One of the considerations that the author should consider is a connection between reality and the fiction that the writer depicts. One may not exactly sympathize with Wilie because he seems to be living the life of his equals (low-income earners).With this perception, Willy and his family's struggle may be viewed as disserved and a common occurrence that may not attract audience' attention. In a similar note, Willy is unfaithful to his wife, and this can be related to the motif of stealing. While Biff steals objects such as a ball and therefore fits within the literal meaning of stealing, Willy's case is the difference. He steals' sex and companion, which should have been for his Wife, Linda. As a result, Linda gets deprived of her right to enjoy the marital vow that Willy possibly made, to have her to the exclusion of no one else. The motif of stealing is a symbol of the play and further the plot and overall meaning of the play by portraying the different traits of the characters, and how it affect their relationships. Biff realized his fathers unfaithfulness, which affected their relationship. Biff then referred his father as fake. Even then, the aftermath of this realization is questionable; one wonders why Biff had to react with extremity, than even his mother who is the one offended by the fathers unfaithfulness. Bill is just too bitter with the father. Reaction to his fathers deeds should have been expected from his mother, rather than Biff himself.

Works cited

O'Brien, Larry. "Death of a Salesman." Accessed at < http://booksellers.penguin.com/static/html/teachersnight/classroom/excerpts/deathofasalesmanexc.pdf>

Rodrigues, Susan. "Using chemistry simulations: attention capture, selective amnesia and inattentional blindness." Chemistry Education Research and Practice 12.1 (2011): 40-46.

Smeets, Feikje, et al. "Evidence that onset of psychosis in the population reflects early hallucinatory experiences that through environmental risks and affective dysregulation become complicated by delusions." Schizophrenia bulletin 38.3 (2012): 531-542.

Vargas, Jose H., and Markus Kemmelmeier. "Ethnicity and contemporary American culture: A meta-analytic investigation of horizontalvertical individualismcollectivism." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 44.2 (2013): 195-222.

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