Silhouette of a grinning person wearing a top hat with a skull-like face and a red nighttime sky in the background

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

Start Free Trial

What signs do we have that Willy is in an unhealthy mental state?

There are numerous signs that Willy Loman is mentally ill throughout the play. Although Willy has always been a failure, he does not want to accept reality and continues to hold onto hope. Although he knows that his business is failing and his family cannot pay their bills, he continues to live in constant denial. Despite the fact that Willy's children are successful in life, Willy continues to believe that Biff will achieve the American Dream.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are numerous signs that Willy Loman is mentally unhealthy and unstable throughout the play.

The first sign that Willy Loman is mentally ill takes place when he admits to his wife that he almost crashed his car again because he could not stop daydreaming while he was driving. Willy's inability to remain focused on the road is highly concerning. Despite his failure to drive and comments that indicate he is completely exhausted, Willy holds onto the hope of attaining the American Dream. Although Willy is an unsuccessful salesman who cannot pay the bills, he firmly believes that he can still attain the American Dream, which is rather disturbing.

Willy's contradicting statements about his occupation and son also raise concerns about his mental health. Another sign of Willy's unhealthy mental state is the fact that he has a rubber hose and has been contemplating suicide.

In addition to Willy's thoughts about committing suicide, his constant hallucinations and inability to differentiate the past from present reality are also signs of his diminishing mental health. Willy continually speaks to his deceased brother and represses painful memories. He has difficulty remaining present during conversations and his thoughts constantly return to the past. Willy's inability to accept the reality of his situation also raises concerns about his current mental health.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Many of the signs that Willy exhibits is reflective of an unhealthy mental condition.  Willy's grip on reality is loosening.  His indulgence in flashback is so intense that it is not merely a stage direction.  In an authentic way, Willy jumps between the past and present, with an indulgence in the former that indicates his inability to deal with the latter.  The imaginary conversations he has with Ben are an example of a mental health that is far from solid.  Willy's highly emotional and and unstable state of being is another indication that Willy is not doing well from a mental health point of view.  He is unable to establish anything real and transcendent. Willy has embraced the contingent and transitory as permanent.  The result is that his construction of reality is not mentally sound.  It is for this reason that he can justify suicide with so much ease:  ""Why? Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero? ... And twenty thousand—that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there."  

Such a statement helps to indicate much within Willy that is not mentally sound.  Willy's continual belief in a mythological "American Dream" has caused him to move to a mental condition where little is of sound judgment.  This unhealthy mental state is what helps to define his character in a distinctive way. Rather than admit the reality of the forces around him, Willy's mental state has deteriorated into one where he still believes that he can define his subjectivity in accordance to a reality that does not exist.  It is for this reason that there are many signs that Willy is in an unsound mental health state.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team