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Willy Loman: The American Dream and The Development of Depression

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Currently, depression and its impacts on society has become a mainstream concern. The development of depression has been widely debated with theories ranging from a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain to a mental state created through an inability to accept faults in life. In Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, main character Willy Loman struggles to attain the American Dream and in failing to do so, develops depression and becomes suicidal. Miller’s use of Willy Loman’s mental progression shows that Miller’s perception of depression comes from the second of the previously mentioned theories, but that the tragedy created through Willy’s death was not caused by anything that he did or did not do; Willy’s tragedy was created by a fundamentally flawed society. During the time period that Death of a Salesman was written, the American Dream meant “If you worked hard and played by the rules, the government should guarantee financial security, education, health care, and a home”. The ideal presented through the American Dream is often unobtainable and since that reality has continued to persist over seventy years after Death of a Salesman was written only proves Miller’s point that society is flawed. Unfortunately, the progression of life portrayed by Willy Loman echoes in the lives of youth today, particularly students, due to socioeconomic factors, quixotic hope, and identity loss, resulting in the boom of depression currently seen in the world.

The belief in the American Dream that through hard work one can attain their rightful place in society, only appears reasonable in theory. Hard work alone does not automatically lead to success. According to a journal article published by Princeton University, “Almost half of the cohort born in the 1930s was upwardly mobile [their job was in a higher category than their father’s job]” and continues on to say, “among men born in the 1960s and 1970s, downward mobility is almost as prevalent as upward mobility”. Therefore, while Willy Loman may have a reasonable chance of reaching his goals through hard work, the longer he waits for success he has an increasingly smaller chance of success for both him and for his sons. Willy believes “if a man is building something he must be on the right track” (Miller, 65) and always refers to building something when asked about his future, but when Willy’s future finally arrives he has nothing to show for all the time and effort he has put into the company he works for. Even in current society with youth working hard to obtain post-secondary degrees, this trend of staying in the same socioeconomic class persists because “higher education does not promote social equality as effectively as it often claims to do”. In a second article published by Princeton University, Haveman and Smeeding argue that “In sum, the allocation of educational services (especially services of the highest quality) is concentrated among youth from families with the highest economic status, and the concentration appears to be increasing” If universities and colleges only focus their efforts on the richest students, students from low income families are left struggling to complete their degrees making it much more difficult to get a well-paying job to support an average lifestyle keeping those low income families no better off than when they started – just like the Loman family. Consequently, the decreased chances of elevating one’s socioeconomic status through work or education leading to depression in youth is unsurprising after realizing that their “world was simply not good enough”, especially after the realization that their work in striving to achieve the American Dream was pointless.

Despite the appeared futility of working to achieve one’s dreams, a key feature of the American Dream is the hope in overcoming obstacles. However, even hope can still lead to depression if one’s perceived needs are not met. Oettingen and Mayer from the University of Hamburg studied the link between having too much hope and depression “to understand how student populations can be simultaneously more depressed and more aspirational than ever” and found that “when educational aspirations exceed educational expectation” students with “a greater discrepancy between … aspiration and expectation was associated with greater depression” (qtd. in Greenaway). This tendency to hope high and predict low termed “quixotic hope” creates a mindset where any positive outcome is met with disappointment. If it is allowed to continue, this mentality develops depression from the overall inability to feel happy. In Death of a Salesman, Willy believes that “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead” and attributes likability as the cause of Dave Singleman’s success. Willy’s beliefs stemming from his quixotic hope cause his refusal to accept reality and end with him creating illusions to cope with his disappointment. An example of this is after Biff’s meeting with Bill Oliver about becoming a proper salesman, the encounter ending with Biff stealing Oliver’s fountain pen. When trying to explain the series of events to Willy, Biff is continuously interrupted until he finally said, “Dad, you’re not letting me tell you what I want to tell you” (Miller, 85). This statement causes Willy to become angry then enter a dissociative episode. Willy’s practice of being overly hopeful is seen repeatedly in the play and always ends in anger followed by him retreating into his memories. Willy’s response of “Maladaptive anger… can contribute to feeling victimized, sulky, or stuck in a feeling of being wronged. … dragging [him] down and deeper into a state of anxiety or depression” (Firestone). Quixotic hope leading to feelings of dissatisfaction can create a state of mind where depression thrives causing the lives of students and the Loman family to be negatively affected.

The third main factor contributing from the rise in depression is youth lacking a core identity. A study performed on Ph.D. students by researcher Sarah Bentley discovered that “students who only were able to draw on a single student identity expressed high levels of uncertainty and difficulties in … understanding what their Ph.D. was for” meaning youth without the background to create identities as multifaceted individuals are unable to establish themselves outside their roles as students. This lack of a sense of self creates youth who struggle to discover their true selves and thus prone to developing depression from that struggle. In connection to Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman prides himself on being a salesman, but his pride blinds him to his accomplishments outside his job. For example, while talking to Charley, Willy says, “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man” (Miller, 30) when referring to the work he has put into his house and is clearly at his happiest when he works with his hands. However, Willy’s pride as a salesman prevents him from fully appreciating his achievements because “even [his father] was better than a carpenter” and so he ignores a large part of himself that contributes to his overall identity; from this Willy suffers identity loss without his job and is unable to recover, leading to his death. Ultimately, an identity is what makes a person able to live a fulfilling life and without such a guideline, there can be no happiness only rampant depression.

In Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman aspires to be a great salesman because he attributes having a job in the business industry to success based on role models found in his life: his father, Dave Singleman, and his friend Charley. Willy’s unwavering belief in this idea forces him to chase the American Dream with his quixotic hope but becoming depressed from his stationary socioeconomic status, discrepancies between his dreams and reality, and his identity loss after he fails to achieve his dreams of becoming a good salesman. Youth today often find themselves depressed for the same reasons as Willy Loman leading one to believe that the subtext in Miller’s play – that society is fundamentally flawed – is as true today as it was over seventy years ago when the play was written. 

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