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Shame, Guilt, Empathy, and the Search for Identity in Arthur Miller's Death ofA Salesman FRED RIBKOFF Among other things, tragedy dramatizes identity crises. At the root of such crises lie feelings of shame. You might ask: what about guilt? There is no question that guilt plays a major role in tragedy, but tragedy also dramatizes the way in which feelings of shame shape an individual's sense of identity, and thus propel him or her into wrongdoing and guilt. In fact, Bernard Williams examines the relation and distinction between shame and gUilt in his study of ancient Greek tragedy and ethics, Shame and Necessity. He "c1aim[sl that if we can come to understand the ethical concepts of the Greeks, we shall recognise them in ourselves.'" In the process of establishing a kinship between the Greeks and ourselves, Williams provides an excellent foundation upon which to build an argument on the dynamics of shame, guilt, empathy, and the search for identity in Arthur Miller's modem tragedy Death of A Salesman. Williams states that We can feel both guilt and shame towards the same action. In a moment of cowardice. we let someone down; we feel guilty because we have let them down, ashamed because we have contemptibly fallen short of what we might have hoped of ourselves .... ... It [guilt] can direct one towards those who have been wronged or damaged, and demand reparation in the name, simply, of what has happened to them. But it cannot by itself help onc to understand one's relations to those happenings, or to rebuild the self that has done these things and the world in which that self has to live. Only shame can do that, because it embodies conceptions of what one is and of how one is related to others.2 In order to understand the identity crises of Miller's tragic characters in Death ofASalesman, and especially the late, climactic scene in which Biff confronts Willy with the truth, it is necessary to understand shame's relation to guilt and Modern Drama, 43: I (Spring 2000) 48 Identity and Death ofa Salesman 49 identity. It is the confrontation with feelings of shame that enables Biff to find himself, separate his sense of identity from that of his father, and empathize with his father. Moreover, it is the denial of such feelings that cripples Willy and the rest of the Loman family. Until Biff stops to examine who he is, while in the process of stealing the fountain pen of his old boss, Bill Oliver, feelings of shame determine his selfperception as well as his conduct. Even before discovering his father with "The Woman" in Boston, Bifrs sense of self-worth, like that of his brother Happy, is dependent on his father's conception of success and manhood and on his father's approval. In fact, because Willy is abandoned at the age of three by his father, his elder brother, Ben, becomes the measure of success and manhood for his sons to live up to. Ben is, in Willy's own words, "a great man!" "the only man I ever met who knew the answers."3 "That's just the way I'm bringing them up, Ben - rugged, well liked, all-around," says Willy while reliving Ben's visit in the past (49). Early in the play, we see Biff through the proud memory of his father. Willy asks Biff, "Bernard is not well liked, is he?" and Biff replies, "He's liked, but he's not well liked" (33). Biff inherits from his father an extremely fragile sense of self-worth dependent on the perceptions of others. "Be liked and you will never want," says the proud father of two sons who are, in his own words, "both built like Adonises" (33). But according to the true Loman heroic creed, it is not good enough simply to be "liked." As Willy points out to Happy earlier, "Charley is ... liked, but he's not - well liked" (30). Shame, together with the sense of inadequacy and inferiority manifest in the need to prove oneself to others, is evident in both Loman sons, and of course, in the fatherless father...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 48-55
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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