Desire in Death of a Salesman When Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was written and produced in 1949, America was in the midst of profound and powerful tensions and contradictions. On the one hand, the nation had just won a major world war, bringing with an unprecedented sense of confidence, prosperity, and security…
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Death of a Salesman is a scathing criticism of the American Dream, which stated that success was equated with the collection of material goods and social acceptance. Miller, like many post-modern writers, was captivated by the psychology of Sigmund Freud, which defined human existence through the human consciousness. The Death of a Salesman has been heavily influenced by psychoanalysis as described by Freud. Salesman was analyzed by psychoanalysts almost immediately after its debut on Broadway in 1949. According to Susan Haedicke, literary scholars have always been fascinated with the psychological processes of the Lomans and have analyzed the play in purely psychoanalytical terms. As a matter of fact, many of Miller’s plays tend to lend themselves well to Freudian analysis. Willy Loman’s flashbacks, for example, are a type of dreams and full of Freudian potential. They have been discussed at length and are the cause of Willy’s friends and family’s concern for his sanity throughout the play. BIFF: Why does Dad mock me all the time? HAPPY: He’s not mocking you, he... BIFF: Everything I say there’s a twist of mockery on his face. I can’t get near him. HAPPY: He just wants you to make good, that’s all. ...
HAPPY: I think the fact that you’re not settled, that you’re still kind of up in the air... BIFF: There’s one or two other things depressing him, Happy. (1.131-140) Another aspect of Miller’s play that lends itself to Freudian analysis is the theme of desire. Freud has much to say about desire, and not just sexual desire. Death of a Salesman is full of characters longing for something. Willy Loman, for example, desperately wants the American Dream, and his son Biff desperately wants his father’s love and approval. For Freud, one’s desires express themselves in one’s dreams; Miller uses the motif of Willy’s flashbacks, which are really hallucinations that only he and the audience can see, to present Willy’s dreams, and by extension, his desires. According to Freud, “Desire is the subject’s yearning for a fundamentally lost object” (“Subject’s Desire”). There is nothing as lost as the American Dream for Willy, and for Biff, his father’s love. For Freud, any search for an object is an attempt to “refine” the object of one’s desire. All the characters in Salesman, especially Willy and Biff, spend their time attempting to do this. Being a tragedy, they both fail—Willy because the American Dream is an unattainable goal, at least for him, and Biff because his father’s love and acceptance depends upon Biff’s success and for, like Willy, accepting the Dream. Miller’s point is that the American Dream is impossible to obtain, making the Lomans as a family, as well as individuals, tragic figures. No wonder Willy descended into madness and resorted to hallucinations and eventually, to suicide. Fortunately for Biff, however, he was able to escape the unattainable by rejecting his father’s dreams, BIFF: ...
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