Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

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How does dementia function as a way for Willy to cope with the failure to realize his ambitions in Death of a Salesman?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Dementia is a cognitive disorder that negatively affects a person's memory, reasoning abilities, and emotional control. In this play, Willy Loman is a struggling salesman who has not attained his dreams of becoming successful and amassing wealth. Willy continually hallucinates, daydreams about Biff and Happy's adolescence, and has extended conversations with his deceased brother. In addition to his frequent hallucinations, Willy struggles to stay on topic during conversations, misremembers certain events, and even represses difficult memories.

Despite the negative effects of Willy's dementia, one could argue that his cognitive disorder allows him to dismiss the bleak realities of life and return back to better times, when Biff had enormous potential. Instead of dwelling on the present, which is both unfulfilling and depressing, Willy's dementia prevents him from embracing the harsh reality of his situation. Willy's distorted memory provides him with a sense of comfort and familiarity in the past, when he was ambitious and enthusiastic about attaining the American Dream. Tragically, Willy Loman has embraced the wrong dream and decides to die by suicide.

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e-martin eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Willy's dementia allows him to dwell not only on but also in better times that he is experiencing during the "present" moment of the play. 

Happier times are recollected in this hallucinations and flashbacks, with Willy visiting with his successful brother Ben and basking in that success. Willy also re-lives the days of Biff's football success. In his dementia, Willy is sometimes buffered from his current travails and conflicts.

It is notable, however, that these flashbacks and hallucinations that define Willy's dementia also define the nature of Willy's failure. In his discussions with Ben, Willy's vision of success is articulated. At the same time, Willy's inability to achieve this particular (material and popular) success is also examined in these moments. 

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