The Sense of Guilt in 'Death of a Salesman' and 'Crime and Punishment'

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According to Sigmund Freud, ‘to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.’ Guilt is a feeling that one experiences when he or she regrets or feels bad about a wrongdoing. Those who have studied Freud’s view of guilt have reported that “like other emotions, there is no one explanation for guilt. The traditional Freudian view is that guilt resides under the surface veneer of our behavior. The psychodynamic theory of Freud proposes that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we would experience if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were. ¨ Those experiencing guilt express their guilt through depression, anger or even insanity. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the protagonist, Willy Loman, is blatantly suffering from madness which is derived from his guilt. Much like Willy, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment suffers from his guilt. His guilt shows in the form of physical illness as well as insanity. The guilt of Willy and Raskolnikov have caused them to carry out actions that they would not normally carry out. It is the guilt of one’s actions that results in these emotions and which ultimately cause Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to do things they may not have done with a clear conscience.

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Those experiencing guilt express their guilt through depression, anger or even insanity. In the case of Willy Loman, his guilt is expressed through madness. Willy had an affair with a woman, and even 16 years later, the guilt haunts him. Willy hallucinates and hears the woman’s laugh while out at a restaurant with his sons. Willy tries to get the woman’s laugh out of his head and tells her to stop, but the laughing continues. Her laugh does not cease because Willy’s guilt is still present. On Page 113, the woman’s laugh started to distract Willy from reality, and he starts to talk as if the woman is really there asking him who is at the door. Willy experiences many flashbacks due to his insanity. One of these flashbacks was when Biff and Happy were in High School, Willy was a successful salesman, and the family was happy. These flashbacks show Willy when he was sane. However, the rest of the flashbacks are to traumatic events in Willy’s life such as Biff discovering the affair. The reliving of this guilt sends Willy into a tizzy. This guilt causes Willy to lash out on Biff. If Willy did not cheat on his wife, he would not be experiencing this guilt. However, due to his mistakes, and his regret of those mistakes,Willy thinks and acts differently than he normally does. Willy yelling at Biff in the restaurant caused a domino effect of events. For instance, after Willy leaves to go to the bathroom, Happy gets embarrassed and lies to some girls that he trying to impress. He lies about Willy not being his father. Being the lesser of the two sons, Happy craves the attention of others because he does not receive any from his father and is ironically, unhappy. The guilt one feels may directly affect that person, but his or her action affect others.

Willy’s remorse for his actions caused a deterioration in his relationship with his family. Even though his wife, Linda, has no idea about the affair, Willy still feels culpable. Through dramatic irony, he says to Linda “I’ll make it up to you, Linda. I’ll…”. Willy tried to adjourn for his wrongdoing, but his madness takes over before he had the chance to fix it. Willy feels awful about what he did to his wife, but he shows his remorse in a few different ways that are not normal ways of showing remorse. This is due to Willy’s madness from his guilt. For instance, at the beginning of Act I,Linda is mending her stockings and Willy yells at her telling her that she is not permitted to do this in his house and that she must throw them out. Critics believe that “because reparations for immoral acts focus on cleansing the individual who committed the acts, immoral behavior should prompt similar levels of reparations regardless of the recipient of the reparations. In contrast, because reparations for guilt focus on repairing the damaged relationship, guilt should prompt reparative behavior only toward a person whom the guilty person has wronged. ” Due to the setting of the play, late 1940’s, Linda obeys what her husband says. The reason why Willy acts this way is that the stockings are symbolic of his guilt and reminds him of the affair. Willy acts out of anger because his guilt made him act differently than he normally would. Not only does Willy’s guilt affect his relationship with his wife but with his son, Biff. “The Woman is shown to be the cause of alienation of Willy and his son Biff. . . In a way women in this play are all like Eve who tempted Adam to commit sin and caused his downfall. ” When Biff caught Willy cheating, it drove a wedge in their relationship. Biff went from admiring his father to barely tolerating him and getting into arguments with him. Due to his madness, Willy switches between being angry with Biff to praising Biff. These contradictions are a result of Willy’s guilt-caused madness. At one moment Willy states “Biff is a lazy bum!” but then moments later he Willy brags “And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy. ” Willy contradicts himself like this all the time, such as the time after his accident in Yonkers when Willy contradicts himself about the windshield of the car.

The feeling of guilt can cause one to act differently then he or she would if innocent. Both protagonists and tragic heros suffered from guilt. They have lashed out on those they love and they have performed acts that are abnormal had they been of a clear conscience. Willy Loman, had an affair with a woman in Boston, and discovery of that affair by his son, Biff ruined Willy. From that point on, Willy has been consumed by his madness. Raskolnikov on the other hand suffered from the guilt of his crime through paranoia and illness. According to Sigmund Freud’s psychodynamic theory, guilt is the underlying motivation for one’s actions. Guilt is the reason why Willy’s relationship with his son is ruined and why he commited suicide at the end of the novel. Guilt is the reason why Raskolnikov was paranoid and why he turned himself in. These men suffered from their guilt and sought the best way to escape their guilt. In Willy’s case, it was death, but for Raskolnikov it was doing the right thing and turning himself in. The protagonists of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment support Sigmund Freud’s Psychodynamic Theory. Guilt is the reason behind one’s actions, and in effort to avoid this guilt the mind reacts in various ways such as sadness, anger or insanity. As Enlightenment thinker Voltaire one said, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” 

In both works, the protagonists are tragic heroes. In Crime and Punishment, “Raskolnikov’s tragic flaw is his error of judgment, his conviction that there is a quick, sure-fire way to wealth; easy solutions to his personal problems; and an easy way to bring about equality in society. ” (Umagandhi) A few examples of Raskolnikov’s lack of judgment occur in the initial few chapters of the novel. Raskolnikov meets a drunkard at a bar by the name of Marmeladov who tells him about the misfortunes of his life. Raskolnikov walks home with Marmeladov and gives him money for him and his family. Additionally, in the following chapter, Raskolnikov, while walking home, witnesses a young, drunk girl being harassed by an older man. Raskolnikov gets a policeman involved and gave the policeman some money for a cab to take the young girl home. As he leaves, Raskolnikov realizes that as soon as he leaves, the policeman will let the man continue to harass the girl, and the policeman will pocket the money. This misjudgment demonstrates the tragic hero’s tragic flaw, but the characterization of the hero. Raskolnikov’s character is best described by critic Shikha Sharma who says that “his psychological condition is depicted on the onset of the novel, he is presented to the readers as sickly, hungry and short of money who is socially withdrawn. ” Raskolnikov is a dropout student, with no money, in lots of debt, especially to his landlady, and he has isolation issues. This characterization enlightens one of Raskolnikov’s other flaws; his desire to quick-wealth. This flaw was one of the motives for Raskolnikov’s crime, which in theory is the cause of his guilt and the reason why he turned himself in.

07 July 2022

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