Death of a salesman: Family Dynamics

The complexities of social interaction within one’s familial unit have been the focus of artistic works and philosophical contemplation for millennia. The conflicts, resolutions, and compromises that make day to day life possible also determine the overall nature of the group’s relationship. In the works of Fences by August Wilson and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, the common dysfunctionality of the family is portrayed with certain redeeming elements inherent in the individual character developments. On the contrary, these positive attributes are not reflected in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. The dysfunctionalities are not only disregarded by the host of characters as a whole, but the circumstances often push characters in the story into deeper spirals of destructive and unhealthy behavior.

In Death of a Salesman, the family dynamic is strained, however they are constantly pushing each other to be greater. Poor relationships within families most often stem from the lack of love and attention from a parental figure, however this is not the case with the Loman family. When the two sons were younger, Willy strived to be the perfect father, and his only desire was for his son Willy to be successful. Willy’s father left his family when Willy was only four years old and was left without a father figure in his life to guide him, and this is why Willy is excessively involved in his children’s lives: “Dad left when I was such a baby, and I never had the chance to talk to him and I still feel-kind of temporary about myself” (Act 1, page 51).

In “A Clarification of the Concept of Psychological Father Presence in Families Experiencing Ambiguity of Boundary,” Pauline Boss examines how a high degree of psychological father presence correlated with family functionality. Using data collected from several families, she proved that there is a negative correlation between the two. The absence of Willy’s father created an internal need for Willy to be overbearing in his children’s lives, and this negatively affects the functionality of the Loman family. The Loman family has their fair share of issues, one of them being how Willy overlooks Happy as he is caught up in Biff’s successes. While Biff does not believe in any of Willy’s dreams, Happy is the son who never doubted his father and his dreams. In Susan Forward’s book “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life,” she says that “many toxic parents compare one sibling unfavorably with another to make the target child feel that he’s not doing enough to gain parental affection. This motivates the child to do whatever the parents want in order to regain their favor. This divide and conquer technique is often unleashed against children who become a little too independent, threatening the balance of the family system” (Forward 33).

In her book, she argues that unhealthy families discourage individual expression and forces the children to conform to the thoughts and actions of the toxic parents; this is especially apparent when Biff thinks he will become a salesman to appease his father. When Willy and Biff’s dreams in life collide, Willy struggles to accept that Biff wants to be independent and pursue a career working outdoors. He tries to drive Biff’s career towards his idea of success rather than letting him pursue his dreams. At first, Biff desires to become a salesman to appease his father and his dreams for him, but their relationship becomes extremely toxic when Biff discovers Willy has been betraying his mother and cheating with another woman in Boston. When Biff learns of this affair, he loses all motivation and Willy

does not take responsibility for this and this drives Biff even farther away: “And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!” (Act 2, page 131). Despite all of this, the only dream Willy strived for was to give his sons a good life. Ultimately, Willy attempted everything in his power to ensure that his sons had a good life that he ended up committing suicide, providing Biff with a good fortune to pursue his dreams. Since Willy knew that he had failed in his career, he wanted his children to have the opportunity to succeed.

Similarly in Fences by August Wilson, the central conflict centers around Troy’s refusal to allow his son Cory to play football, which destroys Cory’s chances of going to college, which causes him to resent his father. Wilson analyzes how parents who have experienced failure in their lives affect the dreams of their children. Throughout the play, Cory expresses his frustration with his father’s overbearing stance on his goals. Cory states that his father went to his school and told the coach he could not play football anymore, and expresses to his father that he is inhibiting his dreams just because he was unsuccessful himself and that he is just scared that he will be overshadowed (Act 1, page 58). Because Troy was denied the chance of playing football because of his race, his bitterness changes the way that he runs his household and treats his son Cory. Troy’s father viewed his family as a trap and Troy himself often feels the same way and says his duties to his family keeps him stuck in a career that he despises. Both Troy in Fences and Willy in Death of a Salesman are unhappy and ultimately failures in life, but both want the best for their family since they individually failed to attain their own version of the American Dream. In Narayanan’s Re-evaluation of Death of a Salesman, he examines how family issues can be stemmed from characters that have positive motives with selfish faults, and explains that

Willy “sticks to his perception of ‘truth’. He fails to understand social reality as it really is. He does not recognize that there is ‘depth’ in each and every aspect of issues related to man and society” (Narayanan 5). Troy and Willy are both laser-focused on materialistic items and social status that they do not understand the true meaning of family. They both try to live vicariously through their sons and when their sons refuse to follow in their father’s footsteps, it causes tension and frustration in each relationship. The sons both have their own idea of the American Dream and reject their father’s interpretation of it. Both Troy and Willy are so blinded by their illusions of success that they drive their families apart.

However, throughout the stories, the fathers hold good intentions for their families. While they lack loyalty and commitment in their marriages and also to their family, they only want to provide to them what they lacked in their lives. Both families become stronger because of their father’s lack of loyalty and affection, just as Karen Casey argued in her book, The Good Stuff from Growing up in Dysfunctional Families: How to Survive and Then Thrive. Author Karen Casey interviewed children who have suffered through dysfunctional family life and shared their stories to prove that good can come from a rough childhood. Although Troy’s father sabotages Cory’s chance at a future in football, his decisions stem from a place of genuine concern for his son being able to play on the team since he is African American. Death of a Salesman delves into the idea of a father’s ineptitude to conform to changes in society, while Fences explores a father who denies to recognize the changes within himself, and this affects the dynamic of each family.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet has stood the test of time to remain one of the most influential and popular plays in the world. The power of the play is derived not only from the circumstances of tragedy and betrayal, but also in its sharp portrayal of family dysfunctionality without truly redeeming any of the story’s characters. Unlike plays to the likes of Fences and Death of a Salesman, Hamlet does not seem to develop a story whose point focuses less on the characters, even the titular one, than on the tragedy and horror of the very events. One of the great metrics one can utilize to determine the integrity of a characters morality is how they approach their familial bonds and responsibilities, both those they chose and those they did not. The lukewarm approach to the suffering of others, even those they care about, by the majority of the characters is evident of a lack of redeeming qualities in every character from the King to Hamlet himself.

Through this, the play explores the different levels of dysfunction in families. In functional families, parents are mostly in control of their own self-image and aspirations and are well intentioned when making decisions that involve the children. In Hamlet however, the family dynamic is so broken that the characters are driven to madness. The tension between the parent and children causes stress and eventually violence within the family. The unhealthy relationships between the family members cause them to have a constant desire to take revenge on one another. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius’ jealousy goes as far to poison and murder his own brother, King Hamlet, in order to take over the throne.

Hamlet is so angered that his uncle murdered his father and is now sleeping with his mother that he immediately resents him and desires the ultimate revenge against him, to kill him. Hamlet also curses his mother for marrying the uncle so soon after her husband’s death, and this is self-destructive because he isolates himself from all of his family. In Andreas and Watson’s academic journal, “Moderating effects of family environment on the association between children’s aggressive beliefs and their aggression trajectories from childhood to adolescence,” they studied how children’s family environment influence their development of aggression from childhood to adulthood. The study proved that

when there is aggression in the family environment, the child is predisposed to abusive tendencies and therefore becomes abusive later in their life. This is demonstrated through the tendencies of Hamlet after his uncle murdered his father. Hamlet and his father’s relationship was generally positive, but because the uncle and Hamlet’s tense relationship, Hamlet is primarily driven by jealousy and frustration throughout the play.

Ultimately, these complexities woven into the fabric of all three narratives work to address issues that are inherent to the human experience. However, regardless of the circumstances in the stories, the nature of the characters are well reflected by their relationships and status. It is also important to note, that both the great successes and the great failures of all three plays can be attributed to the actions of the other elements of a character’s inner circle, definitely demonstrating that one’s support system is crucial in personal and professional development.