The complexities of human nature and familial relationships drive Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Though perhaps not deliberately meant as a psychological drama in the Freudian sense, Miller nonetheless has provided decades of analysis of human relationships via this play. The playwright created perfect vehicles for analysing human traits through a dysfunctional family whose actions and interrelationships magnify the basic Freudian concept of the human psyche.
Throughout the play, Miller delineates intense drama that compares to what Freud labelled basic human components which govern an individual’s entire behavioural pattern: the id, ego, and superego (Freud, Ego 10). These human elements are woven around a family whose central father figure, Willy Loman, an overly conflicted sixty-something salesman, drives and divides his family through psychological interplay, particularly between himself and his son Biff. Willy Loman’s id, that part of Freud’s most basic aspect of human development, refuses to accept the idea of failure. He possesses the innate idea that life is about taking what is wanted, what is needed in order to make a good impression. He passes this attitude to his sons, Biff and Happy (Harold), and their lives reflect this uncontrolled id. They appear to be guided by what Freud determined as the pleasure principle or the id which demands immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs (Cherry, 1). The real dilemma emerges when these needs are not instantaneously met. Anxiety, depression, and tension result.
In Arthur Miller’s description of the sons, he draws the picture of two well-built, athletic young men who are lost. Biff’s mother comments that Biff is just lost, has not found himself yet; that is the reason he came back from Texas, no steady job, nothing certain in his life (Miller 8). The reasons for this discomfort in Biff’s life emerge throughout the play. On the other hand, Happy appears more content, a powerfully built, sexually attractive young man, but underneath his outward display of bravado, Happy too has no direction in life. This becomes more evident when the two brothers talk about life in their old shared bedroom. Happy insists that 500 women would like to know what was said in this room (Miller 11). The talk continues in this vein interspersed with comments from their father who is actually talking to himself about days gone by in another part of the house. However, all the conversation and sub-talk demonstrate that none of the three grasp the idea that every need and desire cannot be immediately satisfied.
To counter these three, Miller draws other characters into the action, Willy Loman’s wife Linda attempts to drag her husband back to reality but with a gentleness borne of love. As Freud explained, the it’s control mechanism comes in the form of the ego which develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world (Freud, Childhood 3). Miller puts Linda in as a surrogate ego for her husband. However, Linda is not the only character attempting to draw Willy and the boys into reality, his neighbour and the only friend I have helps Willy with money and offered friendship (Miller 71). Willy’s id allows him to take weekly money from Charley, the immediate needs of paying bills and gratification must be met, but his ego refuses to accept the reality that he, Willy Loman, is not the greatest salesman ever and therefore cannot even bring himself to believe he failed as a salesman and accept a job offered by his only friend Charley.
Happy is drawn into the Willy world too. He cannot face the reality that he is not a top manager in his work, but merely as Biff reminds him late in the play, a lowly third level errand boy. Happy’s sense of reality is underdeveloped, his ego suppresses itself in the id, the childlike man whose gratifications come from sexual exploits and he brags about these to his brother. His bragging rights extend to the fact that he knocks over women who are engaged to be married to his managers, this is the third executive Ive done it to (Miller 15).
While the boys reminisce and cover their own inadequacies with false bravado, their father and mother play out the drama of id and ego in other parts of the house. Linda placates her husband, she loves him although underneath she recognizes his weaknesses and faults, but she refuses to let Willy down. In this she is keeping the id, the child in Willy alive, rather than allowing him to grow up, to let his conscience develop and recognize that reality kicks in and must be faced. For example in an early bedroom scene, Willy is facing himself in the mirror and he does not like his reflection. Im fat, or I talk too much comments in this vein and Linda, out of a misplaced sense of love, says he is the handsomest man (Miller 24). Linda infantilizes her husband; she only wants to keep his dreams alive, afraid that if he faces reality, he will self-destruct.
Neither his sons nor Willy himself manage to adapt to reality. This becomes more evident throughout the drama as the tension between Willy and his beloved son Biff draw to a head. Biff admits to his brother that he drifts from job to job, held more than twenty or thirty jobs since he left home before the war (Miller 13). But every time Biff works himself to a point of facing reality, his brother or mother, his pal, will not let this happen (Miller 38-39). They fear Willy’s reaction as he still envisions Biff as the high school athlete, the hero destined for great things (Miller 44-45). As Biff attempts to face reality, allow his conscience to come full circle, his attempts are thwarted by Linda and Biff.
What Miller leads up to in the drama is the tension between Biff and his father which revolves around an incident that destroyed Biff when he was only seventeen and was the underlying reason for calling Willy a fake. This conflict and tension exploded when Biff was turning a corner at age seventeen from an overdeveloped id to a fractional ego (Padel 270). Finding his father in a Boston hotel room with a woman cracked Biff’s delicate sense of reality and from that moment he drifted, left home, left any prospects of college, or becoming a football star. Biff’s budding ego deflated at the sight of his father’s promiscuity, betrayal of Linda, from which he ran for over seventeen years (Brenner 400). Miller leaves his audience to determine if Biff returned home because as he himself admits Im no good and further announces his thievery, time in jail for this crime, and wishes finally to face reality, by begging Willy to let me go (Miller 99).
The next level in Freud’s psychological profile is the superego. According to Brenner this superego is a functionally separable structure (Brenner 397). The superego rules standards for good behaviour (Cherry 3). Because the superego holds all of our internalized moral standards and ideals and is the last component of Freud’s behavioural model to develop, Biff’s return to confront Willy after seventeen years away demonstrate perhaps that he finally recognized the path toward personal redemption (Cherry 4; Brenner 400). While Biff struggles with this newly discovered sense of right or moral behaviour, his father and brother debase him for facing this challenge (Miller 98-100).
Linda too refuses to allow anyone, even her beloved Biff, to present this reality challenge to Willy. Rather than accept that Biff is struggling to find a moral compass, Linda turns away from her son, demanding he leave and never return (Miller 91-92). Throughout the drama, Linda and Happy and Willy’s friend Charley, brush away the fact that Willy failed all his life. His dreams were unattainable, as Charley says at the graveside Willy was a salesman and that a salesman’s got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory (Miller 104).
In those salesman’s dreams Willy’s superego never had a chance. His dreams came in the form of his dead brother Ben who left home poor and three years later was a rich man, he had discovered diamonds in Africa. Though dead, Ben’s image appears to Willy during the drama, he insists that Willy should join him. Come on kid, he beckons, it’s a good life but not until the final scene on the cement stoop when Willy is fruitlessly planting seeds, does he listen to what his brother’s image is telling him (Miller 101). This becomes Willy’s direction, and the tension created by his overdeveloped id which needs instant gratification, oversteps the boundaries of reality, or the ego as Willy begins to contemplate his final act (Brenner, 402; Cherry 3; Miller 100-101).
Willy’s suicide, the Death of a Salesman, exhibits the pathos of a confused and yet loveable character. He leaves behind a wife, alone and free of debt, and who says today I made the last payment on the house, were free, were free, and therell be nobody home (Miller 104). Charley emphasizes to Biff at the graveside, that no one dast blame the man (Miller 103). Willy had his dreams, but the final analysis draws itself from Willy’s intent, his separation of id, ego, and superego. It becomes obvious from the play’s very beginning that Willy’s senses of right and wrong had no real boundaries or balance.
Freud made clear that he believed individuals acquire their sense of right and wrong from both parents and society (Freud, Ego 15). In the analysis of the conscious or the ego Freud maintains that even in sleep or dreams, the conscious the ego develops repressions including those which control our sense of right and wrong (Freud, Ego 17). The nature, origins, and timing of conflict and compromise formation in mental development occur at various stages of life, beginning at birth with the id, and according to Freud, the other levels of our behaviour come during an individual’s earliest years. It is only the id which announces itself immediately. A baby automatically reaches for its mother for food, while parents, according to Freud, prepare the foundation of right and wrong, the ego and superego (Cherry 3-4). In Willy Loman’s case, his father deserted the family when he was a young boy, his mother died and apparently Willy had little contact with her. Therefore according to Freud’s theories, Willy’s senses developed by supplementing in his own mind qualities of likeability, the smile brought rewards and success. Willy brought his own boys up to believe as a gospel truth. This gospel according to Willy became a destabilizer for both Happy and Biff, however, in different ways. At the graveside, Biff acknowledges that his father’s dreams were all wrong but he, Biff, finally knows who he is. But Happy in an angry reaction to his brother’s honesty rejects this reality and claims
Im gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream it’s the only dream you can have to come out number one man. He fought it here and this is where Im gonna win it for him (Miller 104).
Freud’s analysis of the delicate balance between the three components of the human psyche, the id, ego, and superego regenerate in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to be studied, analyzed, and argued over and will continue to be interrogated through the brilliance of this stunningly crafted American drama.
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