What is the catharsis in Death of a Salesman?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, the main character, has for years been living among the illusions of the past. He thinks the world should be as it was, never changing as, for instance, his job and the market place in which he works, changes.

Willy remembers with regret that his brother Ben had encouraged him to go to Africa to become rich, and he has dialogues with Ben all the time, though Ben is dead through flashbacks, but unfortunately, this is where Willy spend a lot of time.

Willy has two sons. His oldest is Biff. When Biff was in high school, he was the star football player, with a scholarship to college. However, at the end of his senior year, Biff fails math and does not graduate. All of his prospects disappear. However, for Willy, Biff is still this man who is well-liked and can do anything. He imagines that Biff can get any job he wants, and that other people see Biff as Willy imagines him to be.

Near the end of the play, Biff has been trying to do what his father asks: go to an old boss and ask for a job. Biff's life is nothing like Willy imagines it, but Willy will never listen when Biff tries over and over to explain. Finally, unsuccessful to even get in to see his old boss, Biff snaps and tells his father how things truly are in his life, and that he is not the man his father believes him to be. He insists that there are no bad feelings on his part for his father, but begs Willy to see him as he really is; he sobs holding onto his father.

This catharsis removes an enormous weight from Biff's shoulders so he can stop trying to be what his dad wants him to be, and simply be Biff, which is a hard job for him in itself. Willy is touched by Biff's behavior and realizes that his son loves him. This is an awe-inspiring moment for him. But the illusion seems to linger: Willy still believes that his son is going to be a great success.

Instability has been growing in Willy throughout the play. And even it appears that he reconnects with Biff, Willy loses the battle to keep his "head above water" in terms of the sorrows and disappointments that weigh him down, and he takes his own life. Biff argues at the funeral that Willy was trying desperately to find out who he was.

The catharsis has allowed Biff to begin to move forward, stating the he knows who he is. While Willy's death is tragic, we see that perhaps Biff will finally be able to turn himself around and experience the satisfaction Willy could never connect with.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Catharsis is a Greek word that means "cleansing," and in the literary context, it is a critical, passionate moment when a character in a drama experiences a radical change leading to their emotional rejuvenation. Catharsis is defined as an emotional discharge through which a character achieves spiritual renewal and moral restoration while simultaneously liberating themselves from unwanted stress and anxiety.

Throughout the play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman and his sons live delusional, unsuccessful lives, where they create their own realities in order to cope with their failures. Biff Loman, Willy's oldest son, was once a successful high school athlete, who failed math and never enrolled in college after he witnessed Willy cheating on Linda. Throughout Biff's life, he struggles to keep a steady job and is an unsettled thirty-four-year-old man with no achievements by the time he moves back into his parents' home. After Biff's eye-opening meeting with his old boss, he realizes that he and his family have been living delusional lives.

The moment of catharsis takes place towards the end of act 2 when Biff finally accepts the reality of his situation and comes to terms with the fact that he is a failure. Biff tells his mother that he is the "scum of the earth" and says to Willy, "This isn’t your fault; it’s me, I’m a bum" (95). Biff goes on to say,

"I stole myself out of every good job since high school! . . . 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!" (98)

Biff then tells his father that nobody will feel sorry for him if he commits suicide and says goodbye to Willy for the last time. Overall, Biff's emotional discharge leaves him feeling spiritually renewed and liberated from the stress and anxiety of living a false life.