Nowadays, nearly everybody jokes about his own “dysfunctional” family. When individuals argue with one another or exhibit idiosyncratic behavior, they are immediately labeled with this term. However, a truly dysfunctional family falls into definable category with discernable characteristics. In literature, the Loman family of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman typifies a true dysfunctional family. Steven Farmer lists in his book Adult Children of Abusive Parents several symptoms of dysfunctional families.
They include denial, unpredictability, lack of empathy, lack of boundaries, role reversals, mixed messages, extremes in conflict and social isolation (Farmer, 2004). To these, Dr. Dan Neuharth adds emotional intolerance, ridicule and disrespect (Neuharth, 1999). To combine the categories set forth by these authors, a dysfunctional family would demonstrate the following traits: denial, unpredictable behaviors, poor communication skills which include mixed messages, ridicule and disrespect. The family is also fraught with bizarre and unpredictable behavior patterns which are difficult to deal with due to their inconsistency.
These behaviors can include emotional outbursts and a lack of emotion when it may be necessary. Hap seeks comfort in a variety of women, while committing to none. Willy sometimes drives around aimlessly without being sure where he is going. He smashes the car time and time again in instances that the insurance company says are not accidents. He holds conversations with people who aren’t there. At times, he mumbles, often to Biff, which is a source of embarrassment to Hap. To ease his disappointment of not having hit upon the same good fortune as his brother, he holds conversations with his brother Ben.
This sort of behavior is indicative of some sort of senility, but the other family members, particularly Hap and Linda, allow it to continue without argument. However, a normally functioning family could work together to deal with family members’ behaviors, no matter how strange they may be. This is not the case with the Lomans. They are a family who alternate between placid denial and a lack of concern and emotional outbursts. Denial is a key trait of individuals and families with problems. Both Willy and Linda are heavily weighted by denial. Willy is still able to convince himself that he is well-liked and valuable to his company.
Linda, although she is aware of the rubber hose in the basement, denies that Willy has a problem and fights valiantly to protect him from conflicts with his two sons. She remarks, upon admitting of the hose’s existence to Biff, she reveals that she is ashamed to tell him. “How can I mention it to him? Every day I go down and take away that little rubber pipe. But, when he comes home, I put it back where it was. How can I insult him in that way? ” (Miller 1358). Willy also commences to plant a vegetable garden in the concrete slab of their back yard.
Biff and Hap, while probably more aware of their father’s bizarre behavior, choose to remain emotionally distant. Biff is especially uncaring toward Willy because he is harboring the resentment and disillusionment of finding his father cheating on his mother. This has affected his ability to get a job, causing him to hold, as he says “I’ve had twenty or thirty kinds of jobs since I left home…” (Miller 1327). Likewise, Hap avoids the family as he seeks companionship in the arms of nameless, faceless women. Communication is almost always lacking or inappropriate in families suffering from dysfunction. This family is no exception.
Conversations are replaced by fighting, ranting and the voicing of denial. Biff has never been able to talk to his father about his issues with him, and Willy shares the same problem. Linda notes to Biff that “I think it’s just that maybe he can’t bring himself to-to open up to you” (Miller 1345). Biff interprets all of his father’s comments as disrespectful putdowns; he asks Hap, “Why does Dad mock me all the time? Everything I say there’s a twist of mockery on his face” (Miller 1326). It is this lack of communication, both in the silence and in the conversation, that ultimately tears the family apart and leads, in part, to Willy’s death.
Emotionally, the entire family is infantile. Willy knocks back and forth between the real and the illusion, spending more and more time in the illusion. It is this illusion that leads him to his suicide back up plan. He admits to resorting to violence when he is called a walrus by a coworker. He refuses a job from Charley with a retort “I’ve got a job” (Miller 1369) after he had been fired. IN addition Willy still lives in the past, when Biff first disappointed him. During his last semester, Biff fails to graduate. “No, no,” he screams years later, “You had to go and flunk math.”
Biff fares no better. When he fails at Oliver’s office, he steals a fountain pen. Instead of facing the interview, he flees. The entire family faces the consequences of years of festering problems. Erratic behavior, denial, lack of appropriate communication and emotional immaturity contributes to the tragedy that occurs at the end. Although Willy’s life ends in suicide, help is available for others. Though the family doesn’t understand Willy’s choice, the reader is left hopeful that the remaining members of the Loman family may improve themselves.