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The Presentation of Disillusionment in Literature

Updated on July 16, 2015

The rapid or gradual dragging spiral of disillusionment is presented in literature as having a significant influence on the development of a character or on society. The texts I have chosen to consider are A Room With A View by E. M. Forster, The Death Of A Salesman by Arthur Miller, The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, The Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger and the film The Lives Of Others directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. These texts explore a wide range of situations and contexts in which a character becomes disillusioned by an idea or society, showing the effects it has on the character or society as presented in Literature. Through the presentation of disillusionment in each of these texts, the authors reveal aspects of the human condition; our vulnerability, our compassion, our pride and courage, are all brought to life in literature. The strengths and weaknesses of these characters, their actions and decisions, reveal how the authors of these texts that I have chosen view disillusionment and how literature presents this very human process that is so relevant to us, as human beings.

E. M. Forster presents the theme of disillusionment in the novel A Room With A View through the development of the main character, Lucy Honeychurch. In the beginning of the novel she is a naive young woman, with a strict sense of what is “proper”, but as she travels and gains more experience, she develops, letting herself be ruled by the wild untameable thing that is present, subconsciously, in her music. It is Lucy’s experiences in Italy and her relationship with Cecil and all that he stands for that leads her to realise that the life she has imagined for herself is not what she wants and she grows disillusioned by the Edwardian English society that confines her. Through the author’s portrayal of Lucy’s dilemma, having to choose between a dull life governed by society’s norms or to break free from the boundaries of social restrictions to embrace a fulfilling and enjoyable life, he reveals several aspects of the human condition. E. M Forster explores the idea that human beings are complex people with many sides to our nature, and within each of us, is the ability to choose a certain part of our character and let our future unfold in that direction.

Similarly, the film The Lives of Others directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck also presents disillusionment as a turning point in one’s life, a questioning of one’s loyalties and ultimately a test of self-knowledge. Set in East Berlin in 1984, five years before the Berlin Wall was torn down, the presentation of Wiesler’s disillusionment with the Socialist Unity Party, Donnersmarck reveals how a man can be disillusioned by the very life he has been working tirelessly for, and when the perception of the life he was building is challenged by the corruption and impurity his eyes are opened to, how an individual can react. It also reveals a selfless aspect of human nature. Convinced that he is helping to build a better socialist society, Wielser realises that his post managing the “Operative Procedure”, which is constant surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Marie Sieland, is a sham. Understanding that it has more to do with high ranking Culture Minister Bruno Hempf’s attraction to Christa-Marie than Dreyman’s supposed disloyalty to the SED, he is faced with a dilemma. Unconsciously drawn into the lives of Georg Dreyman and Christa-Marie Sieland, Weisler comes to admire them. His subsequent disillusionment with the Socialist Unity Party prompts him to take decisive actions. In realising the conflict between the life he thought he was leading and the reality he is faced with, Wiesler sacrifices his own career and position to save Dreyman and shrug off this facade over the power of authority.

The Lives of Others Trailer

A play about common people in a typical middle-class society, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman also depicts the struggles the common man is faced with and the effect of having the illusions of success stripped away from you. Miller’s self-stated goal was to show “a little man battling to make his mark in the world while maintaining his dignity intact”. Willy Loman is a dreamer in the hopeless pursuit of elusive success. His aspirations to become a successful popular businessman, but his failure to achieve his goals, reduce him to a state of fatigue and depression. Through Willy’s superficial presentation of what matters and the influence of Willy’s lessons on Biff’s life, the author reveals the need we all have as parents, to shield our children from reality and make them believe in their own infallibility. As a result of the conflict between the ideal life he wants to have and the ideal man he wants to be and the reality of his own failure, Willy is disillusioned by society. The author reveals the human tendency to be defeated, ultimately, by our own expectations for ourselves, which is part of the human condition. The death of Arthur Miller’s salesman symbolises the concept of “selling one’s self” that exists in our society and in turn makes us question our own acceptance of it.

This confusion between reality and our expectations of life is also presented through the narrative of Holden Caulfield, main character in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. An authentic novel depicting the painful transition of a teenager into adulthood, Holden Caulfield’s experience with school life and the phoniness of people he encounters is presented through a long flashback illustrating his disillusionment with the state of the world. The author reveals the vulnerability of the human condition in Holden’s susceptibility to hopelessness and failure. Disillusioned by the “phonies” whom he knows, Holden leaves school and tries to make new friends to replace the ones he has left behind, only to find that they are just as phony as the others. Holden suffers simply from the way things are in a world in which love is not sufficiently distributed. In deciding that he wants to be a “catcher in the rye”, catching the children as they run through a field, before they get too near the cliff, the author implies that he wants to save children – who love more easily, as they have not yet learned to hold back love – in order to spare them the eventual realisation that life is not perfect but it is harsh and brutal. Caught in the middle-class morality he has been born into, he is a victim of his society and attempts to find a fixed reality, free of the adult “phoniness” he encounters. Beaten by the system, he suffers from the state of the world, as it is. It is a journey of sorts, and like Willy from Death of a Salesman, Holden too is seeking an ideal world, where he will be able to make friends and become involved with people and live without the inevitable pain and disillusionment he has experienced in the past. Through the contrast between Holden’s ideals and the reality of the life he faces, the author reveals how the need to succeed and survive in a cruel each-man-for-himself type of society betrays the basic human condition of loving freely and being loved in return.

The theme of disillusionment is presented in the novella The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway through the main character, Santiago’s, struggle with a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. The author presents the disillusionment of Santiago through the symbolism of his defeat by the sharks that eat his great catch and his dashed dreams of success and admiration. Through this depiction of an old man’s loss of hope, Hemingway reveals an interesting aspect of the human condition – that one’s dreams and anticipation of success can replace reality to a certain extent and that the struggle is often worth defeat. Santiago’s quiet dignity and gravity makes him appeal to us as readers, humbled by his solitary existence and the depth of the relationship he has with the boy though they exchange so few words. This makes us warm to him and we feel sympathy for the physical and mental anguish he goes through with his struggle against the marlin, and the respect and tenderness he accords it. In the end, the sharks having destroyed the marlin, mutilating its proud body, and he cannot bear to look at it but earns the respect of the other fishermen for the fight he must have had to capture this beautiful fish. Once again, he dreams of lions on the beaches of Africa, and the author reveals that though we think we have lost our dreams and chance to succeed, the attempt to achieve it and fight to preserve one’s dignity is what brings us self-reconciliation and respect.


Each of these texts present disillusionment in different contexts, but together they provide us with insights into Literature’s presentation of disillusionment, the connections between them weaving together a complex association of differences and similarities, developing our understanding of this theme. Forster chooses to present Lucy’s disillusionment of Edwardian English society and conformity through the use of symbolism and contrast. The contrast between Italy, as a raw, natural place of passion and freedom and England, a dull society ruled by unwritten rules and expectations dictating what women should be, illustrates the choice that Lucy must make. Similarly, her relationship with Cecil and its failure is also a symbol of her disillusionment with the society she has been brought up in. There are several other contrasts, such as Classicism vs. Romanticism, Renaissance vs. Medieval and Lucy’s piano playing. This use of symbolism to represent an idea or society is similar to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman which also uses the outdoors – flowers, nature, trees – to represent the ideal life which Willy Loman envisages. So too is it similar to The Old Man And The Sea which is an extended metaphor in itself, the sharks a symbol for Santiago’s failure, the Marlin his courage and dignity.

In A Room With A View, Lucy’s repressed vitality and spirit is symbolised through her piano playing, Mr. Beebe remarking “Does it seem reasonable that she should play so wonderfully, and live so quietly? I suspect that one day she will be wonderful in both. The water-tight compartments in her will break down, and music and life will mingle.” This foreshadows Lucy’s eventual realisation that she cannot live the dull, strict English life she was brought up to live, and her disillusionment with Cecil and the rigid conformist life he represents is symbolised by her breaking away, like a kite tied to a string, and the string has finally broken.

The use of “static” characters in the text, that is, two dimensional characters that do not change, contrasts with Lucy, George and Mr. Emerson to emphasise their free-thinking and vitality. Characters such as Mrs. Honeychurch, and Freddy are often symbolised by rooms and the indoors while Lucy, George and Freddy are symbolised by views, the most obvious being “from her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the follows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam” and the outdoors, connoting wide horizons and the promise of an exciting future. This contrast enables the audience to understand the author’s perception that accepting one’s disillusionment with an idea or the society one is subjected to be part of, and acting on this, can only result in freedom and happiness. Although Lucy loses her mother’s approval and is ostracised from English society for the time being, she has the love of a good man, her freedom and happiness and her life is once again, a room, with a view.


The use of symbolism to present the idea of disillusionment is common in several of the texts considered. For example, in The Death of a Salesman, gardening and nature are symbolised to be the ideal life that Willy longs for, and charisma and good looks the ideal man he wants to be, while the woman laughing and stockings symbolise the pivotal point of Biff’s disillusionment in his father and the life he believed he had in store for him. The stockings which Linda darns symbolise the crises in his home life, which Linda attempts to mend. Willy’s anger at this depicts his desire to be free of problems and be a successful man with a pleasant life. The stockings he gives to Miss Francis, who he has an extra-marital affair with, also symbolise integrity and happiness, a bond of trust and loyalty which has been betrayed, as Biff realises, accusing him of giving away “Mama’s stockings”.

As the car, a symbol of power, progress and mobility contrasts with Willy’s life of hopelessness, decay and despair, so does the setting. Nature and simplicity are represented by elms and wisteria which are Willy’s memories of the past, and his dreams of having a farm with a guest house for the boys, but the reality, “not enough sun gets back there. Nothing’ll grow any more” symbolises the futility of Willy’s attempt to be successful on his own terms the conflict between these two polar opposites leads to his eventual disillusionment with his life and a world he cannot call “home”. At the end of the play Willy knows that he has little time left and has given up on life “The woods are burning. I can’t even drive a car” symbolising Willy’s incompetence and feeling that everything is hopeless – time, debts, human relationships. An interesting difference is the way the playwright chooses to use internal conflict and this is picturized through Willy talking to himself, as if he is talking to Biff. Willy and Biff’s disillusionment is presented through the eventual disintegration of Willy’s thought process and his internal conflict. While Biff is able to come to terms with his father’s failure, Happy has not yet accepted that Willy’s dreams were futile and his fantasy world is simply an illusion. Willy has sacrificed himself for popularity and success, and lost his identity in the process, and losing his hold on life, he wonders why he cannot call the world a home, and why he cannot achieve his ideal lifestyle.

Willy’s last name is a pun on the words “low man”. His imagination and deceit take over him, and his ideas about being attractive and charismatic “because the man who makes the best appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead” are principal in his life and these values become his downfall. We pity him for the situation he is in and his refusal to meet his own limitations. The Coles Editorial board makes a good point, saying, “what the salesman was attempting to sell, it would seem, was himself”. Willy is like every one of us, the New York Journal-American remarking in 1949 “If Everyman will forgive me, in Arthur miller’s Salesman there’s much of Everyman”. Like us, he faces all the decisions and temptations that we face in everyday life, but his actions arouse pity, contempt, fear and anger in his audience, making us question common assumptions about our society. According to Miller, Willy is searching for the “right way to live so that the world is a home”.


Like The Death Of A Salesman and A Room With A View, The Old Man And The Sea also uses symbolism to present the disillusionment of the old man Santiago. The sharks come to symbolise Santiago’s defeat, “Eat that, galanos. And make a dream you’ve killed a man” and the futility of his efforts against these monsters of the sea. The great marlin, his equal in courage symbolises his strength and dignity, the lions on the beach symbolise his dreams of success and happiness, of times when he was a younger, stronger man, and had respect. Like The Death Of A Salesman, this text also explores the idea of an ideal lifestyle, an ideal man, and how not being able to achieve these goals can lead to a character being disillusioned not only by society but by humanity. Willy Loman’s struggle to maintain his dignity is shown as he consistently refuses to accept a job from Charlie, trying to keep his self-respect even as he realises his own failings as a man, a husband and a father. This is mirrored in Santiago’s struggle with the great marlin, dreaming off how much he will sell it for, and how the boy will go fishing with him again. Through this we realise how much his 84 days of catching nothing meant to him and the inadequacies he felt as a man and a fisherman.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck expresses the disillusionment of Wiesler through his actions. His realisation that Hemf simply wants to put Dreyman in prison in order to make a move on Christa makes Wiesler question the authority he has worked for with unwavering loyalty all his life and this difference in the perception of the life he thought he was leading and the reality he is faced with, prompts him to react to shrugging off his empty shell and question where his loyalties lay. Other events also influence his decision such as the young Stasi boy who tells his comrades a joke about Honecker and is then reprimanded for “political agitation”, and threatened with harsh consequences though half in jest. Wielser’s compassion makes him meet Christa-Marie and advise her to be true to herself, showing his sensitivity and the depth of his sympathy for her difficult situation “Don’t I need the whole system? They can destroy you, despite your talent and your faith. Because they say what we play, who can act, and who can direct it”. Like Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye, Wiesler is also disturbed by the state of the world and the vulgarity he witnesses in the lives of others, and reacts by taking strong actions. His disillusionment is expressed through his hesitation to take his superior’s phone call, his decision to make fictitious reports and ultimately, his decision to remove Dreyman’s typewriter is the final sacrifice he makes, losing his career, his ambitions, but gaining instead the hope that people like Dreyman and Christa will restore the Germany he believed in.

Lives of Others Scene

As does The Lives Of Others, the main character The Catcher in the Rye also takes strong actions and decisions which present his state of disillusionment. Through Holden running away from Pency Prep, and his search for “real” people who are not “phony”, the author illustrates his disillusionment with the society and people he has known previously and his need for real love and affection, and wanting to see people genuinely being nice to one another. His experiences with the seedy, vulgar life in New York symbolise his disillusionment with society and growing up “New York’s terrible when somebody laughs on the street very late at night....It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed”. Unlike A Room With a View, The Catcher in the Rye portrays the process of growing up as a negative self-realisation. While Forster perceives the acknowledgement of disillusionment and acting on it as a positive action, resulting in the gain of self-knowledge, Salinger presents the negative effects of acting on ones disillusionment. At the end of the novel, Holden can no longer make an absolute judgement about anything, “I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy”. He is irrational and confused, bloated with the experiences and feelings over the last four days and he cannot make sense of it, he just knows that the world as it is, could not have been born this way, it is people who have made it like this. His moral sense of justice forces him to detect the flaws of the society he lives in, and he is horrified by it and cannot escape his disillusionment of society and humanity to lead a normal life “I’d have this rule that nobody could do anything phony when they visited me. If any body tried to do anything phony, they couldn’t stay”. He still does not know the answers and still suffers from the lack of love for him and in the world, cutting a pathetic figure against Lucy Honeychurch’s liberation.

Holden’s time at Pency Prep can be seen as a symbol, a microcosm of the individual’s relationship with society. The pretence of team spirit, that “life is a game” infuriates him and makes him detached from the philosophy of his society. Holden sees “the game” as a parallel to the competitive nature of society, its tendency to put success on a pedestal and its cruelty to failure. It depresses him as he wonders how society came to be this way, and Pency Prep is the epitome of this disillusionment in society due to his limited experiences thus far. In contrast with A Room With A View, in The Catcher, experience makes you even more sickened and disturbed by the world, a reversal of the 19th Century conviction that experiences teach one about life. While Holden’s decision to go West is not an escape into an ideal world but a rejection of his quest for a way of life that does not change “Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone”, but Biff and Happy plan to go West to escape the confrontation of their failure.



The main characters in each of the texts considered, all contribute to generalisations about the presentation of disillusionment in Literature. A revelation of a man’s downfall, Willy Loman’s destruction roots from the very shelter of illusion he builds to protect himself. As a result, the individual is destroyed and his children, fattened on their father’s flattery and life philosophies, are “wrecked upon the rocks of reality”. The Death of A Salesman is effectively a challenge to the modern American dream, salesmanship replacing the historic ideals of hard work and courage. Through Willy’s disillusionment with the mask he wears as a salesman; the imitation of a well-liked smooth-talking man with “personality’ and the discrepancies of this with the reality of his aged overweight body and failure to make sales, leads to the conclusion that Arthur miller perceives disillusionment as a reality check of one’s life and through this, the symbolic collapse of the competitive nature and concept of selling oneself prevalent in society.

Ultimately, we can conclude that E. M. Forster sees disillusionment as a process or a journey that one must go through in that transitional period of Youth. The author also regards it as a crossroads, or a choice, where one can consciously choose a certain pathway, to break away from the main road and continue on with the life that was planned for you, or to choose the more difficult yet eventually more satisfying path as a self-aware new woman. Therefore Forster regards disillusionment as a conscious discarding of ideas and ideologies that one has been inculcated in, and the path to self-realisation. Likewise, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s perception of disillusionment is also that it is a process of questioning ones morals and where ones loyalties lay, a time for delving in the strength of our courage and faith, resulting in personal growth. Through Donnersmarck’s presentation of disillusionment on a political level, the audience is able to get a better understanding of how a hard-working man of principles can become be motivated to go against everything they believed in and “switch sides” and act upon this disillusionment of their cause.

Through Hemingway’s presentation of Santiago’s disillusionment with his ability as a fisherman and as a human being, and the obvious references to Christianity, Santiago not only a fisherman but a parallel to the “fisher of men”, one can conclude that the author perceives disillusionment to be a period of questioning ones faith and self-knowledge. This suggests that maintaining ones dignity despite the trials we face in life and remaining true to our virtues is more important than winning. Similarly, Miller also proposes that our world has become a fight for survival and winning, each man for himself, and it is only at the end that Biff realises what Linda knew all along, that unconditional love is what truly matters and it cannot be bought on material terms. Like Forster, Miller also regards disillusionment as a journey. But while the presentation of disillusionment in A Room With A View is that of youth shedding the naivety of childhood and developing into an adult, this is presented in The Death of a Salesman as a sort of final reflection on one’s life and one’s success or failure. And while other texts see it as a conscious choice one has to make, this play emphasises the absolute hopelessness, highlighting the plight of common people. Willy’s idea of success is in the end the agent of his own failure. His unrealistic approach to life, spending his life in a dream world, trying to pursue goals he may never achieve, is what brings about his downfall.

The use of flashbacks all make the same point, that Willy is disillusioned from his attempt to live like he sells. He is blind to the basic conflict between his career as a salesman and his self-realisation as a man. Like The Catcher and the Rye, we are forced to consider how our world came to be the way it is. Willy represents every one of us and the fight to better each other, while Holden’s painful narrative depicts the seedy, vulgar nature of life in the “real world” that only children and saints seem to recognize, the banality of evil being so commonplace to us. To a lesser degree, Lucy Honeychurch also makes us challenge the norms of society that exist, through her disillusionment with the strict restricting English society she was born into and Santiago gives us insight into the self-disillusionment that Santiago experiences when he does not meet the expectations he has of himself, or those that society has imposed on him. These texts, in presenting the disillusionment of the main characters with society, force us to consider, have we created a society so hostile that it threatens an individual’s ability to survive? And if so, why are we not disillusioned by the monster-spawn we have created, and what does this say about us as human beings.



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