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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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How do hallucination scenes in Death of a Salesman reveal Willy's motivations?

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Willy Loman's world is based on illusion, or, it's a world in which he drifts back and forth between recognizing his true situation and still imagining that he is something other than a superseded cast-off of the system. The hallucinations are a projection of his mind, of his unrealistic dreams, but they are also symbolic of the general fantasy which many in US society cling to about what it has become a cliche to refer to as the American Dream.

Willy's brother Ben, as Willy recreates him in memory, symbolizes both a promise and a rebuke to Willy. Ben represents "success," the mythic goal. Willy, even in his overworked, burnt-out condition, still fantasizes that he can go on and on and that his boys will become great achievers in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. But Ben, as well as a symbol of success, is a reminder to Willy of his own failure, of his inability to acquire the fortune supposedly waiting for him.

As Willy talks to himself, even in the early scenes of the play, he reimagines and hallucinates the past, the time when the boys were young and still were bonded with him, or he believed they were. His own failings have alienated them, and the dreamlike episodes that present themselves, the flashbacks to the boys' youth and to the hotel room where Biff discovers Willy with a woman, are symbols of Willy's guilt and self-destruction.

To the end Willy continues to imagine that he's someone of importance to the system, that he's not "a dime a dozen." In some sense the entire action of the play can be considered a hallucination, a grim dream or nightmare of the deterioration of a man's soul.

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Willy's hallucinations feature his brother Ben. Ben stands as the image and definition of success for Willy. 

Ben is a bold and adventurous man with great charisma who uses his talents to make a fortune. Willy sees greatness in his brother and attempts to find that greatness in himself. 

Importantly, Ben appears only in the form of a hallucination. Willy's image of success is literally a delusion in this regard. Despite the illusory nature of Willy's dream for himself and for Biff, Willy clings tightly to it, choosing to die instead of admit defeat. 

The hallucinations serve to provide the reader with a source for Willy's dream as well as a demonstration of Willy's mental state. Though his demented visions are benign, they nonetheless clearly suggest Willy's state as one of illness, fantasy, and rather profound disappointment. 

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