Analyzing Death in Arthur Miller's Play Death of a Salesman


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Sigmund Freud is mostly associated with the psychoanalytic theory of personality in which he predicted that an individual’s personality develops through a number of stages and each of these stages is underpinned by some internal conflicts. The theory makes a basic presumption that human behavior is a product of interactions between the mind’s component parts and these include the id, the ego and the superego.

Psychoanalysis is a structural theory that places a lot of importance on the manner in which various conflicts between the mind’s parts shape personality and therefore human behavior (The American Psychological Association, 2009). According to the theorist, most of these psychological conflicts are unconscious and they develop early in childhood. Freud came up with 5 psychosexual stages that he later named the psychosexual theory of human development.

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In each of the psychosexual stages, a child is confronted with a conflict between social expectations and biological drives. The ability of any individual to successfully overcome these conflicts contributes directly to the mastery of the psychosexual stages and a mature personality structure emerges as a result.

A central feature in this personality theory is the division of the human mind into three component parts and the conflicts between these component pats forces a person to try and strike a balance that will help in approaching the world.

The Id

This is identified as the most primitive of the three components because it mainly seeks immediate gratification of all the physical urges irrespective of the means that will be used (The American Psychological Association, 2009). It is entirely unconscious and does not concern itself with ethics or moral standing provided that important urges are immediately satisfied. Whenever there is an urge for something edible for instance, this part of the mind will seek immediate gratification using any means, including stealing.

The superego

This is the part of the mind that is concerned with morals and rues of social existence. It is mostly identified as the conscience because it carries all the values that are consider right in every cultural disposition. It starts developing in childhood as someone learns the rules of social existence within their environment (Freud, 1923). Although it seeks the gratification of biological drives, it would not engage in events such as stealing because it is against every culture’s social norms. However, there are instances in which the Id is strong enough to overpower the superego and in such a case, the rules of social existence will be overridden and the biological urges will be satisfied irrespective of the means.

The Ego

The ego is the pragmatic and rational part of the mind and is partly conscious. It is less primitive compared to the Id and is the only part that Freud recognized as the self. In a practical context the ego tries to balance the needs of the superego and the Id (The American Psychological Association, 2009). Rather than stealing to satisfy some biological urges, therefore, the ego would guide someone into buying because it is the most rational and socially acceptable thing to do.

Freud was of the assumption that the three structures are always in conflict and that someone’s mature personality results from the resolution of these internal conflicts. According to the theory, a person with a stronger ego compared to the other structures would have a healthy personality and a failure to balance these conflicts would lead to a condition identified as neurosis.

The psychosexual stages of human development

Beyond the three structural parts of the mind, Freud also believed that the conflicts between the three parts transform over time and this led to the emergence of psychosexual stages of human development. He maintained that the conflicts proceed in a linear manner through five stages and these include the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latency stage and the genital stage.

In each of these stages, a person is presented with various conflicts that ought to be resolved before someone moves to the next stage. The inability to navigate the conflicts in one stage would lead to a concept called fixation and this contributed directly to the development of unhealthy personality traits.

Despite the numerous achievements made by Freud in putting together this personality theory, it must also be recognized that the psychosexual stages brought the greatest controversies to the Freudian works (McLeod, 2013). He theorized that children are born with a sexual drive that must be satisfied at some point but there is no scientific basis to support this assertion. Across these stages of development, a child is believed to seek satisfaction using a particular object and some form of mental abnormality would arise in an instance where a child did not successfully complete a stage.

The psychoanalytic theory is perfect in explaining human behavior and personality traits but it cannot be used to predict behavior. Owing to the fact that one of the major goals of science is to predict behavior, Freudian theories are not considered scientific because they are unfalsifiable (Furnham, 2017). The assertions made in his theory cannot be refuted or even proved to be true. For instance, it is barely possible to prove that there is an unconscious part of the mind.

The concept of attachment as presented in the psychoanalytic approach is consistent with other theories such as the social learning theory in which a child is intrinsically driven to maintain proximity to the caregiver (Furnham, 2017). The social learning theory emphasizes the concept that people learn through association and interactions with the external environment and this too is consistent with the psychoanalytic theory because some of the personality traits develop out of association with primary caregivers and the environment at large.

Criticisms of the Freudian theory

A narrow focus

In an attempt to explain the structure of the human mind, Freud believes that it is only the Id the ego and the superego that shape human behavior and therefore all the personality traits. He paid little attention to the basic fact that personalities and human behavior could be influenced by the environment and culture. Most of his theories are focused too much on pathology, ignoring the concept of normal functioning and this is only a narrow focus that cannot contribute meaningfully to the prediction of behavior (Jacobson, 2013). Freud also has a myopic fixation on human sexuality, which limits him from focusing on other important factors that could be used to explain and predict human behavior. He may have focused on wider areas such as dream analysis but this too was used to explain behavior and not necessarily predict a person’s personality traits.

No scientific basis

The theories presented by this philosopher are not supported by any empirical evidence and as more scientists looked into the scientific basis of his works, it became apparent that most of his works could not be proved. Before a theory can be termed as valid scientifically, it must be falsifiable with the help of scientific evidence.


Modern critiques and feminists have been critical of the Freudian theories on the basis that most of the assumptions and analyses made are purely patriarchal. Karen Horney followed Freudian works greatly but she argues that most of the philosopher’s works are founded on masculine narcissism (Jacobson, 2013). Betty Friedan is also critical of the psychoanalytic theory, insisting that penis envy is socially biased and consistent with the Victorian era.

Beyond these criticisms, there have been Neo-Freudian approaches to personality and these have either countered or built upon the Freudian theories. Some of the most notable Neo-Freudians include Adler and Erikson, and they both agreed with the Freudian concept that childhood experiences play an important role in shaping someone’s personality and behavior.

Alfred Adler is the most notable Neo-Freudian theorist who made a significant contribution to the psychodynamic approach. He founded a school identified as individual psychology and most of the concepts explored in this group are similar to the Freudian theories. Adler focused on the natural drive to avoid feelings of inferiority and this is consistent with the biological drives identified by Sigmund Freud.

In summary, the psychoanalytic theory is one of the most popular among the theories of personality and despite the numerous controversies surrounding it, the theory has been used widely to explain human behavior. Sigmund Freud focuses on the structure of the human mind and how internal conflicts contribute to the development of behavior and personality, an aspect that makes his theory unique.

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