Death of a Salesman-Is Willy a Modern Tragic Hero?

Topics: Tragedy, Tragic hero, Poetics Pages: 6 (2256 words) Published: April 7, 2005
"Attention, attention must be paid to such a man". In which parts of the play can Willy Loman be considered "great", and where does he seem a "low man". Do you agree that he is truly a modern tragic figure?

Death of a Salesman is a play that has come to redefine the concept of modern tragedy. A challenge to Philip Sydney's judgement that "tragedy concerneth the high fellow" Death of a Salesman is the tragedy of the common man of the low-man. Many critics charge that Death of a Salesman falls short of tragedy and is therefore disqualified as a "great" play. Tragedy is developed as a form of drama that incorporates incidents arousing pity and fear, to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions. The ancient philosopher, Aristotle, wrote the first, and in many ways the most significant, thesis on tragedy in his Poetics. He argued that the protagonist of a tragedy must be a man of noble birth, who due to some predestined flaw, or hamartia, in his character, suffers greatly. Aristotle argues that many tragic representations of suffering and defeat can leave an audience feeling not depressed, but relieved and perhaps even exalted. He also argues that a tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if he is of higher than ordinary moral worth. For Willy to be a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, he would have to be a man of obvious virtue who has a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall. This would place the blame for the events of the play firmly on Willy's shoulders, even though the punishment is extreme.

Willy Loman does not fit the criteria of a traditional tragic hero in one telling way – he is not of noble birth. Miller believed that "the common man is as apt for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were" and that it mattered not whether he "falls from a great height or a small one." People who are atop the social hierarchy can still hold a high place in other peoples' hearts – we can see that Linda adores Willy, and until Biff's discovery of his affair with the Woman, he and Happy idolise him. Willy aspires to be a tragic hero; he is man of "massive dreams" not high stature, although Biff's proclamation of him in Act II as a "fine, troubled prince" draws comparisons with Hamlet. Miller argued that our notion of the tragic hero should change with the times and that people can no longer relate to kings. Modern tragedy needed an "every-man" that the masses could relate to – Miller provided them with Willy Loman, the average American. Willy is the "every man" of America, there is nothing that makes him stand out from the crowd, we can see that he has journeyed into the world of business, acquired a range of modern appliances, raised a family and has problems with his mortgage.

Miller was determined that the protagonist of Death of a Salesman should be an ordinary man in order to demonstrate the fate of those anonymous people who supported a system which casts them aside when they need it most. In fact the idea of the common man being belittled in this way connects with audiences to perhaps a greater extent now, as capitalism and consumerism advance across the globe. As a "challenge to the American dream" Willy's failure in the so-called land of opportunity leads the play to connect well with American audiences who may have encountered the same experience. America, the home of "the American dream of unrestrained individualism and assured material success" has ultimately proved barren for Willy who strives to succeed in the business world and fails. The capitalist system of free enterprise and big business undeniably had its rewards but it was not without its problems. In Willy Loman we see a man who has fallen foul of this system. We see how an obviously proud man is reduced to begging for scraps from his boss and his neighbour, just to survive, and then pretends to his wife that it is his pay. It is obvious that Death of a Salesman is a powerful attack on...

Bibliography: Arthur Miller - Timebends
Arthur Miller –Tragedy and the Common Man, the New York Times, 1949
Susan Harris Smith – Conceptualising Death of a Salesman as an American Play
Dennis Welland - Death of A Salesman
Philip Sydney quoted in Arthur Miller and Company edited by Christopher Bigsby
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