Fallacy in Fred Ribkoff’s Shame, guilt, empathy, and the search for identity in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Modern tragedies are a direct representation of many people’s life in the present day. Some would be able to realize their tragic flaws and try to distinguish their identity or purpose, but for some, raw emotions can blind them from realizing and can end in tragedy.
In Fred Ribkoff’s Shame, Guilt, Empathy, and the Search for Identity in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman discusses the emotions of “shame together with the sense of inadequacy and inferiority manifest in the need to prove oneself to others” and how it is displayed by Willy and Biff which shapes their sense of identity. According to Ribkoff, Willy and the rest of the Loman family ended up tragic because of Willy’s inability to come in terms of his guilt and shame but it was the false ideals he believed in to achieve the American dream and imposing it on Biff that caused his downfall.
These ideals however fails to grip Biff as he finds his own self and ideals not because of the “feelings of guilt” and shame as Ribkoff argues but it was merely the hatred he had for his father. Ribkoff argues “it is the denial of such feelings that cripples Willy and the rest of the Loman family”. In reality the reason why he gets crippled is due to his false ideals on achieving the American dream and imposing all his hopes and dreams on Biff.
The American dream to start of itself is a far-fetched goal but for Willy it was his fuel to keep working not knowing his efforts will go in vain due to his false ideals. Willy believes being liked by everyone is the key to success. He uses this belief to ask Howard a pay rise and a desk job as he cannot drive around selling anymore. He was hoping his boss would accept due to the fact Willy named his boss Howard as a baby and was close with Howard’s father. Unfortunately he gets fired and charley explains “Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything?
You named him Howard but you can’t sell that” (Miller, 75). Willy’s ideals were once beneficial but his world changed to being more capitalistic where it all drives down to numbers and skills where his achievements don’t matter anymore as he lost his skill as a sales man. Due to the actions of his belief he brought himself and his family to poverty thus, it can be argued as Willy’s tragic flaw. His other tragic flaw was entrusting Biff with all his hopes and dreams but not on Happy. Throughout the play Willy never makes a comment on Happy’s failure or achievements.
He always talks about how Biff “flunked” (Miller, 85) math, in high school and how he is such a “lazy bum” (Miller, 5) but when Biff seems to be productive like when he was planning to talk to Bill Oliver on a proposition, Willy becomes excited and says” you got all kinds of greatness in you, Biff, remember that you got all kinds of greatness in you”. This reflects the amount of expectation he has for Biff but unfortunately it cripples him when Biff reveals his true identity as a “dime a dozen” (Miller, 105) which Willy disappointed and angrily says “you vengeful, spiteful mut”.
Ribkoff argues that “his father cannot empathize with him because he is incapable of facing his own feelings of guilt and shame” but in reality he does feel guilty and tries to face it by making sure Biff is successful and doesn’t make the mistake he did. Willy knows it was his exposure of his infidelity to Biff that made him lose his ways and it is the guilt that drives Willy to impose his views on him to be successful and not Happy as it resolves his own guilt.
Willy is crippled by his failure to make his son successful which would have ultimately resolved his guilt. Ribkoff argues it is “the confrontation with feelings of shame that enables Biff to find himself” and “not that is until he is in the process of stealing a fountain pen” from Bill Oliver he gets his sense of identity. This is not accurate because there was no shame or guilt with Biff in the first place and he found himself early in the play in the hotel room in Boston with his father. Biff had high respect for his father, he was his role model nd this can be seen especially during the conversation he has with him in the hotel where he asks for help to ask his math teacher to pass him by saying “you gotta talk to him before they close the school. Because if he saw the kind of man you are and you just talked to him in your way, I’m sure he’d come through for me” (Miller, 92).
The tragic truth is revealed when Biff finds “the women” in the same room and breaks down crying realizing his father’s affair. He takes back his help and says “never mind” (Miller. 5) and says “I’m not going there [university of Virginia)” (Miller, 95) as he walks away from the hotel room while his father “order” (Miller, 95) him to come back because he longer believes his father’s high stature can help him pass high school. This was moment of realization for biff where his mask built by his father gets broken as it was “fake” (Miller, 95) revealing nothing but him. It was his own self that decided to walk away ignoring his father which proofs his sense of identity. There is no “feelings of shame” involved in this process as none of this situation was Biff’s fault.
Therefore Ribkoff’s argument on Biff’s shame and how and when he found himself should be dismissed. Logically his admiration for his father turns bitter resulting in an aggressive emotion of hatred but not shame. Hatred was the driving force for Biff throughout the play, especially towards his father. He makes sense of his emotion, but this feeling is wrongly conceived by Ribkoff as guilt, when he argues, “he makes sense of his guilt by confronting the shame buried deep in his sense of identity”.
Towards the end of the play, his final confrontation with his father gave him the opportunity to makes sense, and put an end to his hatred by making his father realize his true identity. He says, “pop, I am, nothing! I’m nothing, pop cant you understand that? There is no spite in it anymore. I am just what I am, that’s all” (Miller, 106). An individual who senses his or her guilt will not reveal it and even if they do it is often evoked and forced with hesitations.
As he reveals himself to Willy there is a sense of desperation which displays frustration but not guilt as there was no hesitation. The fact that Biff was stubborn to talk to his father by saying “No. we’re gonna have an abrupt conversation, him and me”( Miller, 99) shows an emotion of anger mixed with frustration rather than shame. During this confrontation he calls his father by his name or “the man” and says “there will be no pity for you, you hear it? No pity! ” (Miller, 104). These words are a reflection of hatred and rage where guilt would have created a less aggressive conversation.
The tone of Biff’s approach proves his daring quality which adds to his identity but even this was wrongly argued by Riboff as he states biff’s “wrongdoing and feelings of guilt lies shame and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority”. An inadequate and inferior person wouldn’t fight for himself in an “abrupt” conversation. In conclusion, Fred Ribkoff’s argument that the denial of shame and guilt is the reason that Cripples Willy and the rest of the Loman family should be dismissed because it was the false ideals and excessive hope on Biff that truly cripples the whole Loman family.
Along with Ribkoff’s argument on Biff having shame and when he find himself is incorrect because he never had shame in the first place but rather hatred and it was the unveiling of his father affair that showed his true identity as it separates him from his father. Willy’s desperation to make his son successful so he can resolve his guilt and Biff’s desperation to make sense of his hatred gives both characters their sense of identity and purpose in the play.