“I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts.”[i]
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller has one of the more memorable characters of American theatre: the aging, failed salesman Willy Loman. Willy Loman serves an important role in American literature as marking the failure of the American dream, and causing exasperation and depression to high school and university students saddled with reading of his plights. I have a complicated relationship with Death of a Salesman. I initially read it to better my knowledge of American literature (I am woefully underread in that department), and hated it. Not because it was poorly written, or even because it was boring; I mainly disliked it because it upset me so much. I mean, Loman commits suicide and then no one comes to his funeral. There are Shakespearean tragedies more cheerful than that. Now that I’ve been re-reading it with some of my students, I had an awakening. No, it is not my favourite play now, but what I realized is that there is something off about Willy beyond him merely being upset with his life circumstances. I think there is a sizeable case to interpret Willy as suffering from bipolar disorder. Now, I can almost guarantee Miller did not intend to write Willy as bipolar, but if we compare the signs and symptoms of bipolar type I with some of Willy’s behaviours in the play, you will see that my point isn’t completely crazy. I’m not the first one to make this claim either, I merely wanted to contribute my two cents. The first thing I want to do is clearly define the disorder before turning towards the play itself. If you already have a clear handle on bipolar disorder, feel free to skip straight to the exegesis.
According to The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder “marked by dramatic changes in mood, energy and behaviour…alternating between episodes of mania (extreme elevated mood) and depression (extreme sadness). These episodes can last from hours to months.”[ii] Bipolar disorder is broken down into two types: type I and type II. For our purposes, I only need to define type I, as I believe based on the severity of his attitude in the play, Willy Loman has type I, not type II or cyclothymic disorder. To qualify for type I, a person must have had at least one manic episode. I want to pay particular attention to giving a clear definition of mania, because many people assume mania just means you have high energy and you’re really happy, which isn’t always the case. The major traits of mania are as follows:
- Euphoria, feeling almost indestructible or invincible
- Partaking in risky behaviour. Making rash or extravagant decisions when it comes to finances, gambling, business dealings or relationships. Engaging in dangerous or unwise sexual acts e.g. cheating or drug and alcohol abuse
- More talkative than usual, typically a manic individual will be asked to “slow down” as their ideas jump so much and they talk so quickly
- Reduced need for sleep, either not sleeping or only sleeping a few hours a night and waking up refreshed
- Interest in activities not previously interested in, such as wanting to switch career tracks, or taking an excessive interest in sports when you hate to exercise
- Irritability, can’t sit still, can become violent
During manic episodes, it is possible to display psychotic symptoms as well, such as changes in perception, hallucinations, either auditory or visual, and unusual or false beliefs, such as sudden religious fanaticism. Depression follows a period of mania. The symptoms of depression are similar to those suffering from unipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression are below:
- Sadness or apathy, inability to care about anything
- Loss of self-esteem, only focus on failures, think you’re a burden to friends and family
- Slowed thinking, inability to concentrate
- Loss of interest in work, hobbies, spending time with friends
- Oversleeping or insomnia
- Changes in appetite
- Suicidal thoughts
Obviously, these lists are not exhaustive, but this should provide a good working knowledge of different experiences those with bipolar disorder have, cycling from weeks to months between mania and depression. It is possible to have mixed-episodes as well; the best way to describe a mixture between mania and depression is feeling “tired but wired.” Now all this information about bipolar disorder was not necessarily known and identified during the mid-20th century; however, Miller would still have had knowledge of this type of mental imbalance whether he knew it or not. Conceptions of mania and depression have been represented throughout history in medical literature (and regular literature) dating from ancient times to present. Medical writers of ancient Greece believed melancholia was a psychological manifestation of underlying biological imbalances, dating back as far as fifth and fourth centuries BC.[iii] Hippocrates attributed bouts of melancholia or mania to imbalance of the four humours (Sanguine, Melancholy, Phlegm, and Choler). An explicit iteration of manic-depression as a single disease dates from the mid-nineteenth century, with Falret and Baillarger postulating independent of one another that mania and depression could represent different manifestations of the same illness.[iv] Kraepelin and post-Kraeplinian definitions of the disorder further identified the distinctions between bipolar and unipolar disorder, but at the time Death of a Salesman was written, there was still a very limited focus on the treatment and identification of mental illness. So even though there have been descriptions and depictions of mania and depression in literature, it is unlikely that Miller knew exactly what he was doing with Willy Loman when he gave him the qualities he has, merely that Miller was giving him an idealistic and far-reaching personality, given to grandiose notions and plunges into uncertainty and despair when his expectations are dashed. Now that I’ve outlined what we’re talking about when we say “bipolar disorder,” let’s launch into the fun stuff of applying this information to the text.
Within the stage directions, the first descriptions we have of Willy is that “his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties” and “turbulent longings”[v] are tolerated and admired by Linda, who is infinitely more mild-mannered than Willy, and although she too has ambitions of her own, will not pursue them in the same way Willy does. Characterizing Willy as “mercurial” immediately indicates that Willy has more mood swings than the average person does, as the OED describes mercurial people as “lively, quick-witted, or volatile.”[vi] My initial association with mercurial is to Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind, or her study of bipolar disorder and creativity called Touched by Fire, where she uses the term mercurial frequently. Willy may be intelligent and full of lofty goals, but there is also an implication in these stage directions that he is unstable.
Of course, the audience does not have access to the stage directions so you wouldn’t necessarily realize right away that Willy is a moody, slightly unhinged person. The first thing you learn about him in the action on stage is that Willy almost crashed the car (again) while he was driving, because he is unable to focus on the road and keeps driving onto the shoulder. This distractibility on the road is common, as Happy remarks “Jesus, maybe he smashed up the car again!”[vii] when he walks into the room hearing his father talking about cars. The play slips between past and present, with Willy often confusing what is going on in his head with what is happening currently, indicating not only that his character is driven by notable events of his past, but that he may be becoming increasingly delusional, for example when he is in a conversation with Charley, but instead addresses his brother Ben. Happy notices that something is not right about his father, confiding in Biff, “something’s—happening to him. He—talks to himself” and although Biff says Willy has “always mumbled,” Happy says that up until now it was never “so noticeable.”[viii] What is important to note about these situations where Willy can’t separate dream from reality, or when he engages in reckless behaviour when driving is that these are not new things to happen in his life. It’s not as if Willy has early onset dementia, or is merely having a “bad week,” but the pre-existing symptoms he has are worsening. One of the qualities of mania is that it comes with psychotic symptoms. Willy appears to be in a mixed-state during the events of the play (remember “tired but wired”) as he seems to have difficulty sleeping, is full of emotions, jumping from irritability to euphoria quickly, yet he frequently falls into despair, thinking his life is not worth living.
Willy successfully commits suicide at the end of the play, but he had had some practise, as this was not his first attempt. Linda confides to Biff that Willy has been trying to kill himself, as she was told by the insurance inspector that the car accidents they had been having weren’t accidents. While driving he “deliberately smashed into the railing”[ix] and drove into the water, only being saved because the water was shallow. Both Linda and Biff find the rubber hose behind the heater that Willy was going to use to kill himself, indicating that Willy has multiple plans in place for how he was going to end his life. Willy’s ever growing despair is certainly in part due to his increasing stress at work, but also as a result of his frequent mood swings. There is a higher rate of suicide attempts in many psychiatric disorders compared to the general population, and there is a 15% higher risk for those with bipolar disorder to attempt suicide as compared to the general population.[x] One of the suggestions about why this is has to do with impulsivity, with some results suggesting that a history of severe suicidal behaviour in patients with bipolar disorder is associated with a tendency towards rapid, unplanned responses.[xi] In this case, Willy seems to have been planning to kill himself for some time; this is not an impulsive decision, although he is a relatively impulsive person by nature. Consider for example his sudden urge to buy seeds and plant them in the garden late at night. While in the garden, talking with a hallucination of his brother Ben, he deludes himself into thinking that we will be a big hero if he kills himself for the insurance money, and he has a notion that his funeral will be large, that many people will come and remember the successful Willy Loman (although it has been a very long time since he has actually been a successful seller). His last moments before he gets into the car are ones of undeniable confusion, as “sounds, faces, voices, seem to be swarming in upon him”[xii] as he follows Ben and his delusions of grandeur and security for his family into the night.
There is a blind spot at the core of every suicide, an inherent inability of survivors of the bereaved to ever fully comprehend the mind and motivation of the deceased, and therefore the reasons for the suicide.[xiii] Willy’s family grapples with the confusion, anger, and sadness left in the wake of his death. Linda expresses the most incredulity at his death, even though she knew he had been making suicide attempts previously, remarking, “I can’t understand it. At this time especially. First time in thirty-five years we were just about free and clear.”[xiv] Willy had been struggling for a long time, and even though there were external stressors, such as losing his job, affecting his mood, for someone with depressive or mixed symptoms, you don’t always need a “reason” to commit suicide, not a reason that necessarily makes sense from a rational, objective standpoint anyways. He is a man of high expectations, which are only enhanced by his periodical feelings of invincibility brought about through mania. As Charley eloquently puts it, Willy is “a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine”[xv] Life’s disappointments in conjunction with his frequent changes in mood are ultimately more than Willy can handle.
I don’t think a reading of Willy Loman as mad drastically changes our understanding of his character in the play. Regardless of whether he has a mental illness or not, he is still a man broken down by what life has thrown at him, doomed to replay past mistakes over in his head, indicating to the audience that there are moments in a man’s life that can define him forever, for better or worse. As Biff declares, Willy is still merely a “hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them.”[xvi] What I do think this reading does though is lend greater insight into Willy’s apparent instability. During my first readthrough, I was confused by Willy’s behaviour; he seemed far more distressed than a “normal” person experiencing similar stressors. Considering him as bipolar though, I am able to understand his mood swings, his psychosis, and his ultimate suicide in what I think is a better, and perhaps more sympathetic, way. Furthermore, considering Willy as bipolar makes for interesting reading for anyone suffering from the disorder, or who is curious to understand some of its more extreme effects. Attitudes towards and knowledge of mental illness are constantly improving, but there is still a lot of misinformation and stigma attached to those suffering from depression, schizophrenia, etc. We see Willy when he is fully collapsing, showing what I argue is the more agitated side of mania, or else a mixed episode before his suicide. Nonetheless, we see a full range of the disorder, and all its blessings and curses through the description of Willy’s life, from his sparkling, ambitious dreams, to his dark, empty depressions. He is a character both infuriating and likable, pitiable and unforgivable, and always, inescapably human. As mentioned before, I do not believe Miller intended to write Willy as bipolar, or if he did, he did not necessarily have a name for what Willy suffered from. Regardless, I think this reading of Death of a Salesman is a constructive one for deepening our sympathy and understanding of Loman’s psyche, as well as providing a haunting, potential case study for untreated bipolar disorder.
[i] Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1949, 14.
[iii] Goodwin, Frederick K., and Redfield Jamieson, Kay. Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, 3.
[iv] Ibid, 5.
[v] Miller 12.
[vi] “Mercurial. 2.” OED Online. 1995. Accessed 9, January 2015.
[vii] Miller 19.
[viii] Ibid 21.
[ix] Miller 59.
[x] Baldessarini, Ross J. “Reducing Suicide Risk in Psychiatric Disorders” Current Psychiatry. Accessed 9 January 2015. http://www.currentpsychiatry.com/home/article/reducing-suicide-risk-in-psychiatric-disorders/f74c753eefb80237aa9747886cef7999.html#0209_Suicide-tab1
[xi] Swann, Alan C. et al. “Increased Impulsivity Associated with Severity of Suicide Attempt History in Patients with Bipolar Disorder.” Psychiatry Online. 162.9. (2005: 1680-1687). Accessed 9 January 2015. http://psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.162.9.1680
[xii] Miller 136
[xiii] Jordan, John R., Robert A. Neimeyer, and Diana C. Sands. “The Meanings of Suicide: A Narrative Approach to Healing.” Grief After Suicide. Ed. John R. Jordan and John L. McIntosh. New York: Routledge, 2010. 249-483, 268.
[xiv] Miller 137.
[xv] Ibid 138.
[xvi] Ibid 132