Who Am I?: A Question for the Ages Essay

From the beginning of time, the question has resounded through the population as individuals from every walk of life have wondered, ‘who am I?’ The solution found is not typically something that one can easily put into words but is instead a compilation of the actions, thoughts and emotions of each individual as they experience life itself. How they react and respond to the world around them begins to bring this answer into sharper focus, but it isn’t until they have to face what is deep inside them that people begin to understand what all this activity means in terms of defining the self. This important step in learning how to define oneself is illustrated again and again in literature throughout history. As long ago as Oedipus Rex, people were defining themselves without really knowing who they were while the lessons of Oedipus have still not been learned, as illustrated in more modern stories such as The Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie. Using these three stories, the development of self-definition will be traced through each story’s main character, Oedipus, Willie Loman and Tom respectively.
At the beginning of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is very proud to tell people that he is the man who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and even prouder to think that he has thwarted his prophesied destiny. His pride in himself is seen at the very beginning of the story when he sees his people gathered around him as if he were a god. His response to their superstitious behavior is “What means this reek of incense everywhere, / From others, and am hither come, myself, / I Oedipus, your world-renowned king” (4-8). His pride in his role is evident in the words he speaks in which he seems to be almost condescending to them for appealing to other forces than himself in their burning of incense to cloud the air. Throughout the remainder of the action, Oedipus’ personality clearly reflects a continued pride and a determination to force things to go his way. When Oedipus received his own prediction that he was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, he was determined to avoid this fate by taking his future in his own hands. As a result, he left his homeland in Corinth for the further realm of Thebes. He experiences the typical dangers while on his travelers, meeting with strangers and being involved in a fatal battle in which only the other side lost, and encountering a seemingly unanswerable riddle delivered by the Sphinx. When he is able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, a task that had not been accomplishable by anyone else, his natural pride in his own abilities rose to a new level.
This overwhelming confidence in his abilities is shown again when Oedipus determines “Well, I will start afresh and once again / Make dark things clear” (139-140). The eventual clarity of perception his investigation forces on Oedipus is what is referred to as anagnorisis. In Aristotelian terms, this word translates to mean recognition (“Aristotle”, 1998). For the audience, this is represented by the usually sudden realization on the part of the protagonist that he is the primary cause of the suffering or detrimental situation in which he finds himself. This epiphany can reveal not only the true role of the protagonist in the wrongs occurring, but also the true nature of the characters around them. He now looks back upon the events of his life and sees a rash and overly prideful man: “a curse / I laid upon myself. With these hands of mine, / these killer’s hands, I now contaminate / the dead man’s bed. Am I not depraved? / Am I not utterly abhorrent? / Now I must fly into exile and there, / a fugitive, never see my people, / never set foot in my native land again” (983-990). By being forced to face the truth of his past actions, Oedipus is forced to realize that he is not the shining, almost god-like specimen of humanity he’d thought he was but was little more than the blind homeless murdering beggar he is shown to be at the end of the play.
A similar problem occurs in Death of a Salesman as Willy Loman loses himself in the image he’s built up regarding who he is. A great deal of what his family knows about Willy is based upon the image he feels he must portray of himself, therefore preventing his family from knowing the true Willy Loman and isolating him in a world of his own creation. Bloom notes early danger signs revealed during a memory when we “detect the seed of later difficulties as Willy tries to impress his boys by exaggerating the importance and prestige of his job” (1996, p. 15). Through this exaggeration, the reader is made to understand that “Loman has a faulty vision of what makes a person successful, which makes him flawed, but regardless of the opposition and the ultimate cost to himself, he refuses to give up that vision, which makes him, in Miller’s eyes, a tragic hero” (Abbotson, 2000, p. 25). As he is finally brought to the realization that his slipping memory means he cannot work anymore, Willy finds himself grasping for a foundation within his family that cannot now be developed because of the way he has kept his true self hidden behind appearances. “Because material success seems so necessary to Willy, he believes that his sons cannot love him if he is not successful. Love becomes an item to be bought rather than something to be freely given” (Brockett, 1969). Likewise, his relationship with his wife only serves to remind him of how much he owes her, “you’re my foundation and my support” (18) even when he just finished belittling her ideas.
Throughout the play, there was little option for Willy to do anything other than what he did within the context of his personality and understanding. His absolute belief in the American ideal in which a father lived by certain principles to provide his family with their basic material needs was inextricably tied to his ideas of his status within the family unit itself. From this perspective, the only way to attain familial success was to first obtain business success. Upon realizing he had not achieved business success, Willy was forced to acknowledge he had not achieved familial success. His suicide in the belief that the family would receive the $20,000 life insurance benefit was the only way in which Willy could achieve the type of success he’d dreamed of within his capabilities. By clearing away the problem of business success through his provision of the insurance money, Willy was finally able to come to the understanding that his son had loved him all along, regardless of whether he had achieved some magic material number and he dies with a sense of peace he never had in life, finally able to define himself as a father.
Despite his attempts to escape his past by presenting The Glass Menagerie, Tom tells the audience at the end of the play that he followed “in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled around a great deal … I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something” (VII, 237). That something turns out to be the images, smells, sounds and other reminders of the sister he left behind, proving through the very act of telling the play that memories cannot be escaped regardless of how hard or fast you run. While Tom is now a member of the merchant marine and an accomplished traveler, this outward show of personal dream fulfillment is revealed as little more than an illusion of its own. In truth, Tom’s heart remains trapped within the small apartment he shared with his mother and sister. In Tom’s case, rather than helping him hide from reality, his memories serve to force reality upon him at odd moments throughout every day. His memories constrain the illusions he is able to conceive, forcing him to ‘come clean’ and tell what has happened in his life. At the same time, this final production of “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (I, 144) is itself an illusion for Tom, who feels in its telling he will escape the memories that have been haunting him, “Blow out your candles, Laura – and so, goodbye” (VII, 237). However, in the preservation of the story in printed word, the reality is that Tom will never escape these memories, either because he was never going to forget or because the play would always be there to remind him. Unlike Oedipus or even Willie Loman, Tom is not able to hide his true identity behind lofty dreams or prideful illusions because this memory of his past continues to haunt him and remind him that he is little more than the ‘bastard son of a bastard’.
All three of these characters were unaware of who they really were at the earliest point in time of each of their stories. Oedipus had no idea about his true parentage and thus was led into the trap of fulfilling the fate the oracle had proclaimed. Willie Loman lived his life under a false conception that his sole value as a human being lay in his ability to provide for the material needs of his family until the end of his life when he finally realized that his value to his family was simply in being him. Tom lived in anger and resentment toward the women in his early life, yet was tied to them in a more profound manner than he ever thought possible. It isn’t until these men are forced, primarily through outside factors, to review those elements of their lives that have molded who they are and what they think of themselves, that they are finally able to understand more completely and correctly, who they really are.
Works Cited
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Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Notes: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publications, 1996.
Brockett, Oscar G. “An Introduction to Death of a Salesman.” The Theatre: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Viking Press, 1949.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. F. Storr (Trans.). December 3, 2007 <http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/oedipus.html>
Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions Books: 1971.