Death of a Salesman: Integrity Versus Despair, Essay Example

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Essay

When analyzing a work of art, it is useful to consider the psychological constructs apparent in a narrative that make the story compelling. In Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman” Erik Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development become relevant in understanding the play. Erikson believed that children develop in a predetermined order, which determines how they socialize and how this affects their self-esteem (Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, 2011.) According to Erikson, developing a healthy personality that will include successful connections with other people requires completing each stage and moving on to the next one. Further, the inability to complete a stage may cause a decrease of ability to negotiate future stages that may create an unhealthy personality and low sense of self-esteem.

In “Death of a Salesman,” Erickson’s final stage–integrity versus despair–is the psychological construct that characterizes the drama most appropriately in the way it is emblematic of Willy Loman’s struggle throughout the play, which eventually leads to his suicide. His story is the tale of Everyman’s challenge to avoid becoming obsolete and useless in one’s old age, the clash between utopian fantasies of what one’s life has been contrasted with the realities of what it actually was and is; in addition, he faces the harsh realization that one is not omnipotent but rather, sadly fallible as well a failure in the areas thought to be the most successful.

In Erickson’s eighth stage, as people age, their productivity tends to slow down and they begin to view life from the perspective of a senior citizen. This is typically a phase where people tend to evaluate their accomplishments, leading to a sense of integrity if one can view himself or herself as having led a life filled with successes and contributions, both personally and professionally. However, if an older person looks back and regards his or her life as having been wasteful, unproductive, feels guilty about the past and believes that their goals have not been accomplished, a person may feel despair that can lead to feeling hopeless and depressed. Such is the story of Willy Loman, a man whose projection of the future as well as the past is confused and fragmented but idealized, and whose failure to actualize it, even within his psychic reality, causes him to destroy himself. Willy’s suicide occurs as a result of his realization that the tremendous change in the American economy in the late 1940s, when corporations grew into a huge bureaucracies which were hierarchical and impersonal, had left him behind, rendering him anonymous and obsolete (Cardullo.) Loman is experiencing the despair side of Erikson’s eighth stage, reviewing his life through the lens of failure because of the missed accomplishments of himself as well as his favored son, Biff, and his overwhelming despair is intolerable.

“Death of a Salesman” begins with Willy Loman coming home exhausted after the cancellation of one of his business trips; Linda, his wife, has been worried about him and asks him to request that his boss reassign him to work in his home area rather than being constantly on the road. Willy begins complaining to his wife about their son Biff, a promising high school athlete who flunked out of high school, ruining his chances to go to college and never achieving any kind of success afterwards. All of Willy’s hopes have been invested in Biff.  Happy, Willy’s other son, and Biff express concern about their father’s deteriorating mental state. They often hear him talk to himself as well as being incoherent at times. When Willy enters, he is angry that his sons have not accomplished much of anything so they fabricate a story that Biff is involved in some kind of business proposition.

The following day, Willy approaches his boss to request work that is more local while at the same time, Biff is involved in making his pitch to a company, but neither man is successful. Willy is fired when the boss tells him that he is no longer needed to represent the company, and should rest. At the same time, Biff has waited for hours to see an employer who doesn’t even recall him and is not open to his proposition. After leaving his boss, Willy runs into his friend Charley’s son Bernard, a successful attorney. Bernard refers to a past incident when Biff had planned to do well in summer school but after visiting his father in Boston, something happened that changed Biffs’ attitude about succeeding in school. Willy lapses into a flashback about what happened when Biff surprised him in Boston: Willy had been in a hotel room with a young woman when his son arrived, and when Biff saw what was happening, his attitude towards Willy changed forever and he began to drift.

The boys leave their father in the restaurant; Willy is confused and upset and returns home, but remains outside talking to himself. When the boys get home, their mother angrily chastises them for leaving their father, so Biff goes outside to try to placate Willy. Instead, they argue and Biff tries to convince his father that he was never meant to achieve anything great, that he is mediocre and that is something that he and Willy share. The scene ends with Biff crying and hugging his father while trying to help him give up his unrealistic dreams for Biff and to accept him for the person that he is. He assures Willy that he loves him. Willy realizes that his son has forgiven him for the past, but still believes that Biff is planning to seek a career as a businessman. He intentionally crashes his car and dies, in order to help his son start his business with the life insurance money. Instead, at Willy’s funeral, Biff reiterates that he does not want to become a businessman but his brother Happy, ironically, decides to follow in his father’s path to become a salesman.

The tragedy that occurs at the end of “Death of a Salesman” is certainly related to the Eriksonian stage of integrity versus despair; much research has been done regarding the topic of involuntary job loss and severe depressive symptomatology on the part of older workers. There are many reasons that would explain this phenomenon. For example, individuals who are older and faced with involuntary job loss may experience significant financial stress due to the loss of income, loss of benefits such as health insurance and possibly most significantly, diminished opportunities for reemployment (Gallo, 2006.) In addition, losing a job for an older worker may represent a loss in social status and interaction, interrupting the balance that normally occurs between time spent at work and at home; since many people derive their identity through their careers, this can represent a significant loss not dissimilar from a death or divorce.

In addition, Willy’s decline in his mental status also involves his overinvestment in his son, Biff, and the degree to which he appears to measure his own success through his idolatry of his son, which was destined to cause disappointment and a sense of failure. Willy’s sense of his own achievements was so closely intertwined with his unrealistic dreams for Biff that he is destined to experience an emotional dive because of Biff’s inability to achieve some measure of success. Contributing to Willy’s sense of failure is also the shame he feels about the long-ago incident with the other woman in the hotel room that was discovered by Biff. Willy had a great deal of shame about this, and contributing to that shame is his belief that Biff viewed him as a fraud.

Willy’s job as a salesman has been a vital part of his identity, as exemplified by various quotes from the play: for example, he believes that he is well-liked, and that that is an important part of being a salesman when he says, “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.” (Miller, 1976.) He also remarks, “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” (Ibid.) When Willy is fired, he demonstrates his despair when he says, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away–a man is not a piece of fruit” (Ibid.) Finally, he remarks that “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive,” foreshadowing his eventual suicide. When he comments “I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been,” the depth of his depression is palpable. His entire identity has been based on being a salesman, and without that he feels useless, discarded, and devastated by the loss of his career/identity. His desperation is apparent when he says, “I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.” The seeds and gardening references are a powerful metaphor for Willy’s feeling that he has lost everything and has nothing to count on or look forward to.

Willy’s family has decidedly mixed feelings about his career. His wife, Linda, expresses concern about him and appears to recognize that he has been a failure in his professional life, and encourages him to change, as when she engages in a conversation with him about cheese: she has purchased a new type of American cheese which she views as a change and somewhat exotic contrast–it is after all “whipped”–unlike the Swiss cheese which Willy is used to and which he prefers. Although Linda’s intentions are positive, she is apparently encouraging him to make a change in their lives, which has become somewhat ordinary and uneventful because of Willy’s professional failures. In this as well as other parts of the play, Linda disguises her amusement at Willy’s stubbornness and she appears to regard her husband laughable as a man, a husband, and a salesman.

Willy’s two sons love their father and are concerned about his mental stability but ironically, it is Biff in particular who expresses the notion that both he and his father are mediocre. After the boys leave Willy in the restaurant and later on there is a confrontation between Biff and his father, Biff tries to explain to his father that he is not destined to do anything extraordinary, that he is an ordinary man, just like Willy, that the two of them have this in common. It is clear that Biff does not regard his father as a success, nor does he see himself as that. Still, Willy rejects the notion that Biff is not the divine creature he has always imagined him to be, and only focuses on his relief that Biff has apparently forgiven him for the indiscretion from years ago, and he continues to believe that his son will be able to become a successful businessman.

As Willy’s behavior becomes more and more depressed, this is demonstrated in the play by the disorganization and incoherence of his thoughts, with more chronological disruption, flashbacks, and internal dialogue. Although many parts of the play are characterized by flashbacks, these increase as the play proceeds and Willy’s descent into depression and madness continues to worsen. The only way that the audience can clearly establish whether or not events are happening in the past or the present is that when they are happening currently, the characters are bound by the physical parameters of the set, such as opening and closing doors to enter or leave the scene. Conversely, when scenes occur from the past, the characters are able to drift onto the scene through walls. While Willy’s mental state progressively declines, these boundaries between past and present merge. In addition, his inner voice becomes increasingly present, angry, and desperate.

According to the article by Van Hiel and Vansteenkiste, intrinsic goal attainment of older adults contributes positively to subjective well-being and ego integrity, and negatively to despair (Vansteenkiste, 2009.) Indeed, Erickson argued that people need to solve their final psychosocial identity conflict during the last part of their lives by trying to achieve a sense of ego integrity while simultaneously avoiding despair (Ibid.) By this formulation, the character of Willy Loman becomes more and more tortured by this lack of resolution of the integrity versus despair conflict as he is not achieving success as a salesman during a time when the job of being a salesman is becoming more bureaucratic than personal. He places a high value on being liked as the path toward success when in fact not only is this not a successful strategy, but it appears that in fact he is not well-liked as he has imagined. The constant indications that he is not valued as a salesman contributes to his growing sense of despair and depression because he does not look to any other possible options to achieve success by his definition. Instead, he withdraws into himself, fantasizing about the glorious days when, he believed, he was valued and successful in his career and denying evidence to the contrary. In addition, he has been carrying around a great deal of guilt about his liaison years before so that on some level, he recognizes that his identity is based on a false image that he has presented both to himself and others.

In normal chronological time, one would expect a character to experience images of the future as well as from the past and present. In Willy Loman’s chaotic psyche, however, his only projection of the future involves his grandiose fantasies of his own as well as his sons’ successes which are based on distorted memories from years long past. It is unclear whether or not and how much of these memories may have existed at all. As a narrator, Willy cannot be relied upon to present an accurate vision of what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen because of his immersion into his fantasy life which is rapidly deteriorating. As such, the play presents a nightmarish story which repeats names and numbers that produce an echo chamber of mockery that illustrates Willy’s failure to achieve his dreams (Ardolino, 2008.)

What kind of supports might have prevented the central tragedy of “Death of a Salesman” from occurring? Nowadays, because of the tremendous number of layoffs and outsourcing, there is more recognition that losing one’s job can have tremendous implications, financial, psychological, and physical. As a result, many companies offer career counseling, as well as psychological counseling opportunities in order to assist their former employees in managing these involuntary situations. Human resource departments specialize in helping people cope with job loss by providing counseling of all types, out of concern for the employee as well as to avoid litigation. In addition, it is more likely that Willy would have been encouraged to seek counseling outside of work because his family would likely recognize that he is at risk for depression as well as demonstrating signs that his mental state is deteriorating. When the play originally debuted in the late 1940s, the very notion of counseling would have been unheard of as well is very stigmatizing.

The iconic character of Willy Loman has remained one of the most well-known and emblematic characters in American literature, because he represents the struggle of salesmen– or employees in nearly any occupation–to remain relevant and valued in a changing world. His situation became especially dire because of the point he was at developmentally: in the last stage of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial growth when an older adult evaluates his or her life accomplishments and either gains a sense of integrity or despair. Clearly, despair leads to a variety of negative consequences from family conflict to depression and in the worst scenarios, a sense of worthlessness that causes suicidal ideation or behavior. Such was the fate of Willy Loman, a prototypical casualty of a changing world, combined with the realization that one’s life has been a failure. The cautionary words of the play sum up the risks of such a situation: “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” (Miller, 1976.)

References

Ardolino, F. (August, 2002). “I’m Not a Dime a Dozen! I am Willy Loman!” The Significance of Names and Numbers in Death of a Salesman. Retrieved June 18, 2012, from Journal of Evolutionary Psychology: http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=EAIM>.

Cardullo, B. (n.d.). “Death of a Salesman” and Death of a Salesman: Swollen Legacy of Arthur Miller. Retrieved June 18, 2012, from The Columbia Journal of American Studies: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cjas/june_miller.html

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. (2011, November 29). Retrieved June 18, 2012, from AllPsych Online: http://allpsych.com/psychology101/social_development.html

Miller, A. (1976). Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin.

Vansteenkiste, A. V. (2009). Ambitions Fulfilled? The Effects Of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goal Attainment on Older Adults ‘Ego-Integrity And Death Attitudes. International Journal of Aging and Human Development , 27-51.

William T. Gallo, E. H.-M. (2006). The Persistence of Depressive Symptoms in Older Workers Who Experience Involuntary Job Loss: Results From the Health and Retirement Survey. Journal of Gerontology, S221-S228.

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