A Modern Classic
Recently, I have been venturing into the 1940’s dramas and plays. And the Death Of A Salesman has been the third book in this expedition. Miller is indeed one of the best to get started with this genre.
The book is one of those modern classics that was spurned out as a consequence of the aftermath of the second world war. They perfectly capture the economic ups and downs, the changing social outlooks and religiosity that followed the brand new peace times. But we’ll discuss that a little bit later.
These modern classics have one big major point of similarity which differentiates them from the books that had come before in the genre of drama, may it be of Eyre or the Bronte sisters. A factor which affiliates us to them in greater spirit than the ones that came before: they ushered in the modern world as we know. In these books, we find cars, capitalism, shopping complexes and all the modern world experiences. Except, of course, the internet. We live in a world of constant yet abrupt changes and someday this point of relativity will vanish for the residing human generation but that day is not today.
But none of this is to say that these books lack the essence of the events that took place in those times. In fact, they are heavily influenced by those events. And damn, if those years were not marred by some big time happenings.
For the purpose of this essay, let’s divide these modern classical stories into three categories. This will help us gauge them by the events of those times-
- During the wars
As evident, writers Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams fall in the third category. And consequently, their stories and writing are heavily influenced by the world around them which is not that different from the one that we live in now.
Miller was born in the early 1900s in New York to Jewish parents who had immigrated to the Americas. They were one of the Jewish families that profited off the fast mover advantage of the ready to wear garment business and consequently, his early childhood was spent in wealth. However, the Wall Street Crash happened during his teenage years, as a result of which his family lost everything. This job insecurity and financial problems have found representation in his stories. For example, Death Of A Salesman which deals with topics of being laid off, job instability, unemployment, etc. One can find a direct correlation between the instability in the job market that marked the Great Depression and the career graph and experiences of the characters in the story.
A Lesson Mental Health
Miller’s The Death Of A Salesman is many things. It is a genius take on several complexities of life and family and also successfully ventures into themes of economy and work life. But hidden behind it all sits a relatively less discussed theme- mental health.
The play opens with a description of Willy Loman, our salesman’s house. This description gives an aura of a very pleasant atmosphere, the spell of which is broken when Willy enters the house. We are met with the first conflict here- Willy’s warm, peaceful outer environment compared to his internal state, his mind, which is in torment with immense stress. He is introduced to us in an almost scenic and calm environment, even the melody of a flute played in the background is described to be ‘small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon’. He is also welcomed by his loving and caring wife. But none of this is able to change this internal torment, his anxiety that finally drives him to death. It is also mentioned that although Willy hears the flute, he is not aware of it. If this pleasing outer environment is the metaphorical ‘the good things in life’, we see that mental illness is not something that has a direct correlation to your outer environment. It is a more internal thing. Often, we hear people who are misinformed about matters of mental wellness and depression perpetuating this very misconception about this topic.
Permit me a little digression here.
The British show Doctor Who has an episode on the painter Van Gogh, who is known to have suffered from major bouts of depression and finally took his life at the age of 37. In what can be called, one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of the show, The Doctor, who is a time traveller, brings Van Gogh to the present to Musée d’Orsay in Paris to show him what an effect his life work has had on the world and how the world does not forget him even after so many years passing his death. The doctor and his companion, Amy, do this because Van Gogh mentions that his art was something that will be lost in time. Van Gogh not surprisingly is taken aback and is overwhelmed with joy. After dropping him back home, Amy and the Doctor return to the museum and Amy runs inside expecting more art from Van Gogh as she feels that they have changed history since, Vincent, would’ve had a renewed sense of his worth and won’t kill himself at the young age of 37.
But she finds that nothing has changed and she breaks into tears as all the good they tried to bring to Van Gogh went inconsequential. At that moment, the Doctor says something which has now become one of the most famous dialogues of the show – ‘The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things. And vice-versa. The bad things don’t spoil the good things and make them unimportant.’
With the Salesman and his son, Biff also, the incoming good things in life are not enough to keep them satisfied and happy. Both of them drive away the good things that were coming their way. At the beginning, one might think that they are being ungrateful but as we go on reading, we realize that both of them have underlying issues which they are not able to satiate with the positivity coming their way.
In the first chapter, Willy almost talks about his mental illness. He tells Linda how he is unable to ‘keep his mind to it’ and how he forgot that he was driving and did not remember the last five minutes when he was driving at 60 miles an hour.
These are all clear signals that something is wrong with Willy, but Linda ignores it all and places the reason being a lack of rest and a restless mind and a need for new glasses. She, in a way, represents a very common reaction that people have when dealing with situations of mental illness.
Even the reader’s relationship with Willy is not one of empathy. Till the end, you do not really relate to him or understand him. And there is a very important lesson in that. More often than not, one will not truly understand what it is that is happening with someone suffering from depression and the like. It might be straight up frustration at times.
The interesting thing is that in 2018, there is a surge in the awareness and treatment of mental health issues. But the fight for this awareness began so long ago through plays and books like these. And the subtlety and ingenuity with which it has been done never fail to impress me. I really don’t know if Miller wrote it with that intention or in the attempt of an honest portrayal of human minds and relationships, he stumbled upon it, but it is impressive nevertheless. Funnily enough, Miller himself is supposed to have denied any mental illness on the part of Loman and has claimed that is actions and his decision to kill himself were borne solely out of stress. Also, we must remember that Miller grew up at a time when suicides sort of had a center stage what with the Wall Street crash and all. Then there are also the sufferers of the first and the second world wars. Wars take a toll and literature of the period also showcases the consequences of it for the survivors.
Interestingly, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller’s second wife was also known to suffer from depression until she finally took her own life.
Obviously, the book is nowhere near to being an informative guide about depression or mental health in general so the term ‘lesson’ might not be accurate. But somehow, towards the ending, it manages to convey empathy and understanding to its readers through a very everyday sort of story.