Willy Loman as an Example of Schizoaffective Disorder

Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, takes place in the 1950’s and is about Willy Loman, an old salesman. Though he is essentially a failure in the business world, he sees himself as a very successful salesman and is obsessed with that notion. A volatile character, his mood swings violently, and he often gets lost in his thoughts while reminiscing and also sees and holds conversations with his brother Ben, who is deceased. He shows signs of schizoaffective disorder through his illusions of grandeur, bipolar episodes, and hallucinations. His mental disorder is also a defense mechanism to help block out the harshness of reality.

Willy Loman’s illusions of grandeur completely distort reality as he refuses to realize his personal failures. He sees himself as a “well-liked” and successful salesman even though in reality he is borrowing money from Charley and pretending that it’s his paycheck (Miller, 36). Though Charley often offers him a job, he never takes it because it would force him to realize that he confront the fact that he is not earning money with his own job, or later in the play, that he lost his job. He is in denial of the fact that he is just a lowly salesman and not an affluent man. By borrowing money he can perpetuate the notion that it’s only a temporary set back, instead of the fact that his entire career was unsucessful. Taking the job would force him out of his denial, and he would have to confront the reality of not being successful. Instead of pretending that he can get back on his feet on his own, he would have to realize that he really needs help and that he is not half as successful as he used to be. It is apparent that he is stuck in the past in the office scene with Howard. He keeps on talking about the past when he was much more successful. He yells at Howard, then muses over the past and then even talks to Howard’s father:

Now pay attention. Your father-in 1928 I had a big year… I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928! And your father came to me… it was right over this desk-and he put his hand on my shoulder… Frank, Frank, don’t you remember what you told me that time? (Miller, 82)

He cannot let go of the past and continuously refers to 1928, when his career was at its peak. His withdrawal into the past is a defense mechanism as he refuses to come to terms with his failure as a salesman. His illusions of grandeur lead to fierce exaggerations of himself. He tells Biff to “Go to Filene’s go to the Hub, go to Slattery’s, Boston. Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! Big shot!” (Miller, 62). He refuses to realize his personal failures and falsely believes that he is successful.

Those illusions also distort not only his view of himself, but of his family as well. He denies the fact that his sons are not successful, especially Biff. Whenever he begins to realize that Biff is not the popular and unquestionably destined for success boy he was back in high school, Willy gets very upset for a moment before retreating back into denial and flashbacks. In the beginning of the play, Willy yells about how Biff is too old to be finding himself, and a “lazy bum” (Miller, 16). He changes his mind a moment later and says, “There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy,” and then gets caught up in remembering how Biff was so popular in high school (Miller, 16). In his flashbacks, he tells Linda to shut up when she tries to tell him about how Biff is too rough with the girls. Also, when Bernard tries to tell him that Biff might not graduate, Willy calls him anemic and talks down to him, refusing to listen (Miller, 73). He doesn’t want to know if Biff isn’t the perfect son he believes he is. His grandiose delusions of Biff are so strong that he even convinced Biff that he was once a salesman for Oliver, instead of just a lowly nobody shipping clerk (Miller, 104).

When Oliver finally passes by him after six hours of waiting, Biff realizes “what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been. We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years” (Miller, 104). Not only Biff and his father believed the exaggeration of his role as a shipping clerk, but Happy and Linda also believed it as well. His delusions of success are so strong that they distort not only his image of his family, but also his family’s perceptions as well.

Willy Loman cannot tell the difference between the past and present, and often gets lost in his thoughts while reminiscing. He obsessively and constantly recalls his past as an attempt to live in denial, as well of delusions of importance. Denial is a defense mechanism that helps protect the ego from having to deal with the unpleasantness that reality may bring, but it is maladaptive when it becomes delusional, such as in this case (Grohol). One of the first indications of his mental disorder appears in the very beginning of the play, when he tells Linda about his drive home. He not only spaces out while driving, but he also thinks that he opened the windshield on the car, only to later realize that he spent the entire day thinking that he was driving the Chevy he owned when his sons were in high school. As long as his attention is diverted into better times, he can deny his current reality. Denial is a subconscious process, as in the case of the Chevy – He did not consciously decide to deny the fact that he was driving home with no paycheck. Rather, his denial kept him from realizing and having to deal with the truth of the present by recalling better times of the past.

His brother Ben is a symbol of luck and wealth, and though deceased, appears to Willy in his “daydreams” or hallucinations. Hallucinations are one of the main elements that differentiate psychosis from neurosis (Butcher. J, Mineka, S., Hooley, J.M.). Ben appears to Willy several times throughout the play, the first of which is when he plays cards with Charley:

Ben: Is Mother living with you?
Willy: No, she died a long time ago?
Charley: Who?… Who died?
Willy, unnerved: What do you mean, who died?
Charley: What are you talking about? (Miller, 30)

The jumps he makes between conversation between Charley and Ben leave both him and Charley very confused. One of the most prominent indications of Willy’s psychosis is at the end, when he concludes with Ben that he should commit suicide. Not only does Willy suffer from both visual and auditory hallucinations (in the form of his deceased brother), but those illusions encourage him to take his own life. Suicide or self-harm also has a high comorbidity rate with affective disorders, and especially so with bipolar disorders (Journal of Family Practice). Since Willy looks up to him with almost a childish dependence, which may be another reason why his hallucinations of Ben are so influential on him.

Willy’s mood often fluctuates violently, and he is clearly bipolar. Whenever he starts to come to realizations of reality and depression, his mania takes effect and he falls right back into denial. When his beliefs begin to unravel, he tries desperately hard to deny them and maintain his delusions instead. His mood changes rapidly, and he is also “prone to cheerfulness turning to irritability, paranoia, and rage…” one of the characteristics of schizoaffective disorder (NMHA). One moment he may be yelling about Biff and the next moment he’ll say extremely exaggerated things about how great Biff is. In the scene between him and Bernard he alternates between praising or admiring Bernard on how successful he’s become, with getting sour and yelling at him. That is a clear display of how his cheer turns into irritability or rage at the drop of hat. In the restaurant, after he gets fired, he sinks into denial and refuses to hear any more bad news.

In the restaurant he almost begs Biff to lie to him: “So don’t give me a lecture about facts and aspects. I’m not interested. Now what’ve you got to say to me?” (Miller, 106). He ignores and interrupts Biff when he tries to tell him the truth, and fills in Biff’s story for him: “What’d he say? Betcha he threw his arm around you… Is that when you had the drinks?” (Miller, 107). Willy cannot come to terms with his eldest and favored son being unsuccessful and whenever be begins to realize it, his attention diverts elsewhere. He refuses to face reality and creates an alternate and much more pleasant reality for himself in his head. Whenever his delusions are challenged, he becomes increasingly moody and bipolar, and his rage or mania blocks out the truth.

His thoughts are often odd or disorganized, a symptom of schizoaffective disorder. The DSM-IV criterion for schizoaffective disorder includes “breaks or interpolations in the train of thought, resulting in incoherence or irrelevant speech, or neologisms” (DSM, 1994), all of which Willy displays. In the beginning of the play he rants at great length about how crowded the city is, and then suddenly remarks, “How can they whip cheese?” (Miller, 12). He also often contradicts himself, as in the case of calling Biff lazy, or saying that Chevy’s are the greatest car ever built, only to change his mind a moment later and holler about how atrocious it is that they can even be manufactured. People with schizoaffective disorder often “perplex others with their strange behavior and inappropriate emotional reactions” (NMHA, 2001), which Willy undoubtedly does with his sporadic comments and frequent self-contradictions. He also tends to mutter to himself, or his hallucination of Ben. That also places a variety of distress on the people around him, save for perhaps Linda, who has learned to accept his muttering. The way he gets lost in his memories, his muttering and his random or contradictory comments are obvious indications of his thought process being much less linear than most. His disorganized thoughts are a symptom of his schizoaffective disorder.

It is clear that Willy Loman suffers from schizoaffective disorder: it is shown through his illusions of grandeur, bipolar episodes, and hallucinations. His mental disorder is also a defense mechanism to help block out the harshness of reality, since his illusions of grandeur completely distort reality and blinds him to his personal failures. Those illusions also distort not only his view of himself, but of his family as well and are so strong that they rub off on his family’s own perceptions as well. Willy cannot tell the difference between the past and present and he often gets lost in his thoughts while obsessively and constantly reminiscing of his past. His musings of his past are an attempt to live in denial, as well as delusions of success. He also has visual and auditory hallucinations in the form of Ben, who is also posed as a symbol of success. When Willy’s own delusions of success are compromised, he becomes bipolar and his moods fluctuate violently as he becomes increasingly volatile. His thoughts are often also odd or disorganized, which is another symptom of schizoaffective disorder. It is extremely apparent that Willy Loman has schizoaffective disorder.

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