may not have intended his play, Death of a Salesman
, to be a psychoanalytic work; however examples of Freud
ian theory seem to be on every page. The reason for the numerous examples of Freudian concepts derives from the fact that both the play and psychoanalysis
are about family, or more precisely familial relationship
s. Louis Tyson explains that family is important to psychoanalytic theory, because we are each a product of the role we are given in the family-complex? (Tyson 16). It is this family pressure (that is reinforced by society) that dictates the action in the story and subsequently Miller's indictment of business
If a psychoanalyst were cataloging the problems of Willy Loman, she would probably be concerned that Loman is repressing what Freud called the pleasure principal. Freud believed that the pleasure principal (the idea that if necessity did not dictate working, humans would simply do things for their own self-gratification) is innate in all humans, and when they repress it, there are consequences that may be harmful (20).
Loman is an extreme example of a person who is affected badly by repression of his pleasure principal, and it seems that Arthur Miller wants to use Loman as a model for America since business or working too hard aided in his psychological downfall. America's identity is based on the notion of the American Dream, which is a dream of self-improvement mainly through economic means or repressing self-gratification in a quest for something larger. Therefore it is logical to extend the Loman family's problems to America in general.
Just as society damaged Willy psychologically through the myth of the American Dream, Willy in turn damaged his children by extending and even magnifying those same values. (In fact Louis Althusser, a Marxist philosopher, has argued using psychoanalytical principals (in Lenin and Philosophy) that Willy's only purpose, so far as society is concerned, is to indoctrinate his children in the dominate ideologies of their societies (Eagleton 171).) He hurts his son, Happy, with his solution for alleviating the repression of his pleasure principal, that is casual affairs. Happy shows how he emulates his father both literally and psychologically when talking to his brother:
Happy: But take those two creatures women we had tonight now weren't they gorgeous creatures?
Biff: Yeah, yeah, most gorgeous I've had in years.
Happy: I get that anytime I want, Biff. Whenever I feel disgusted. The only trouble is it get's like bowling or something. I just keep knocking them over and it doesn't mean anything. You still run around a lot?
Biff: Naa. I'd like to find a girl- steady, somebody with substance.
Happy: That's what I long for.
Biff: Go on! You'd never come home.
Happy: I would! Somebody with character, with resistance like Mom, y'know? You're going to call me a bastard when I tell you this. That girl Charlotte I was with tonight is engaged to be married in five weeks. Sure, the guy's in line for the vice presidency of the store. I don't know what gets into me, maybe I just have an overdeveloped sense of competition or something, but I went and ruined her, and furthermore I can't get rid of her. And he's the third executive I've done that to. Isn't that a crummy characteristic? And to top it all I go to their weddings!
Happy's indifference to the welfare of the women he has affairs with follows a pattern in psychoanalysis that stems from Oedipal complexes. Since Happy was the younger son, and did not get as much attention as Biff from his father, it is possible that he was closer to his mother and thus feels like he is in conflict with his father for her. These feelings manifest themselves in a pattern called the good girl/bad girl attitude, which places women into two groups in the mind of the man affected. They are either good girls like Mom or bad girls and thus disposable (Tyson 19).
How it is likely an Oedipal complex is not all of Happy's motivation for having careless affairs. He is also probably relieving the anxiety he has over the possibility his father might declare him a failure. The anxiety is apparent in a discussion that takes place between the boys after Mr. Oliver does not lend Biff the money for their business:
Biff: You've gotta help me, Hap, I?m gonna tell Pop.
Happy: You crazy? What for?
Biff: Hap, he's got to understand that I'm not the man somebody lends that kind of money to. He thinks I've been spiting him all these years and it's eating him up.
Happy: That's just it. You tell him something nice.
Biff: I can't.
Happy: Say you got a lunch date with Oliver tomorrow.
Biff: So what do I do tomorrow?
Happy: You leave the house tomorrow and come back at night and say Oliver thinking it over. And he thinks it over for a couple of weeks, and gradually it fades away and nobody's the worse.
It is also interesting how weak a character Linda is in the play. This may point to another reason Willy has affairs, he wants to be emotionally removed from his wife. It is obvious to everyone how unstable Willy is by the end of the play, yet Willy doesn't want to face his problems. Through his mistress, Willy is able to use avoidance to separate himself from his wife.
Willy uses other defense mechanisms (psychological ways of avoiding painful experiences) in order to avoid facing any of his problems. His principal method of avoiding his problems is through regression. Loman does not just have flashbacks to previous times in order to avoid the present; he relives the events in his mind. Like dreams, regressive states usually hold some symbolic meaning coming from the unconscious (Tyson 15). Sadly, Willy is not far enough removed to interpret his unconscious mind. However, some symbols in his flashbacks offer an explanation as to when the Loman household fractured apart.
All of the flashbacks, even if they depict happy memories reveal a dysfunctional family pattern. The breaking point in Willy's life and in his relationship with Biff is shown in the scene in the Boston hotel room with the Willy's mistress. The symbolism in the scene is very straightforward. When Willy is pushing the woman out the door she says, "Where's my stockings? You promised me stockings, Willy!" In a previous flashback it is pointed out that Linda is always mending her stockings since Willy cannot afford to buy her any. This symbol is included in the flashback by Willy?s unconscious because it wants him to deal with his sexual and pleasure principal issues. Since Willy cannot afford stockings for his wife, yet he can afford them as a means to get gratification, he unconsciously represses his pleasure principal even more.
The consequences of the scene continue after Biff shows that his image of his father is completely shattered:
Willy: You mustn't-you mustn't overemphasize a thing like this. I'll see Birnbaum first thing in the morning.
Biff: Never mind.
Willy: Never mind! He's going to give you those points. I'll see to it.
Biff: He won't listen to you.
This was a complete change from how Biff felt about his father before he saw the woman. His father, shown to him real and unfiltered for the first time crushed Biff's identity; that is the golden son who always wants to please his father. Their relationship changed, and as a direct result Willy's personality changed for the worse, as seen in the regressions via flashbacks.
Willy, up until that point had been both "projecting" and "displacing" his failures onto Biff (although not exactly in the pure sense of the word), without Biff ever knowing about it. Biff had to live up to the standards that Willy "projected" upon him, which were standards that Willy himself could not live up to. In one sense, Willy was living vicariously through his son. Willy also displaced his failures in business upon Biff although this occurred much later in the play after Biff had returned from the west. Even though Biff enjoyed being a rancher it was not what Willy wanted him to do (Tyson 18).
Death of a Salesman demonstrates key psychoanalytic concepts including the idea that family defines the person; that social pressures can push a family into dysfunction; and that people are defined and can be understood through their sexual habits. If Miller wanted to show the dark side of the American Dream, then he was successful. If he wanted to prove that people and their problems fit well into a psychoanalytic model, he succeeded there as well. But even more, the play proved that byzantine, abstract concepts used in a therapist's office could be applied very well to literature.