The Redefinition of Tragedy in Death of a Salesman
The definition of a tragic character is something that has been considered set in since the times of ancient Greece. Aristotle’s Poetics defined what makes up a comedy and tragedy, and that definition has been widely accepted since then. However, Arthur Miller believes that Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero is flawed. Through the character Willie Loman, Miller redefines what makes a tragic hero in his play Death of a Salesman.
Traditionally, tragedies have been defined by their trends of dealing with the highborn, such as members of royalty or of other noble birth. These tragic heroes are generally forced to fight against a fate forced upon them by the Gods or some other supernatural force, and ultimately fail this fight due to some sort of tragic flaw. Ultimately this results in the doom or at the very least the loss of status for the tragic hero. This is seen through many classic tragedies such as Oedipus the King and Hamlet. Arthur Miller defies this trend through the use of Willie Loman as a tragic hero. Willie’s status as the American everyman is a stark contrast to the strong noble status that defined many of the tragedies from before it, but his life and the events surrounding it keep him strongly defined as a tragic hero.
Willie Loman’s position as a common man is a defining factor that stands him apart from the tragic heroes before him. Traditionally, tragic heroes were required to have a position of prosperity that could be lost tragically, limiting them to roles such as kings, nobility, and wealthy aristocrats. However, Miller believed that the traits of losing out to a tragic flaw were something that was common to everyone, not just those who were prosperous to begin with, saying “when the question of tragedy in art is not at issue, we never hesitate to attribute to the well-placed and the exalted the very same mental processes as the lowly” (Miller, Tragedy and the Common Man). Because anyone could suffer from the same tragic flaws and anyone could suffer from them, the restriction of tragic heroes to only those of high standing was a flaw in the design of tragedies to begin with.
Willie’s position as a tragic hero is kept intact by his desire to achieve a higher position in life and the flaws that ultimately keep him from success. Miller states “I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity” (Miller, Common Man). Willie’s goal in life is to become someone who is widely recognized and well-liked by people all throughout New England due to his success in his job, traveling from city to city as a salesman. As his job amounts to nothing, but requires him going to places that no one else in his immediate life would see regularly, Willie goes around talking up his status in various places, artificially boosting his pride in an attempt to seem like more than he really is. His sense of pride ultimately ruins his successes, creating a sympathetic feeling from both the readers and other characters, such as when his wife Linda states “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper… But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (Miller, Death of a Salesman, I.) This sympathetic feeling towards the falling of a man is one of the most important traits of a tragic hero, and makes Willie Loman a perfect example of a tragic hero as a common man. Willie ultimately accepts his faults shortly before his death, where he realizes that at the point he is at, the only way to establish a true standing legacy to his family is through the life insurance they will receive when he dies. “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive” (Miller, Death, II.).
One aspect that stands Death of a Salesman apart from other tragedies is change in focus on pessimism to form the tragic story. Miller himself states “Even the dictionary says nothing more about the word than that it means a story with a sad or unhappy ending. This impression is so firmly fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal” (Miller, Common Man). Death of a Salesman manages to create a tragic story through the use of optimism. Instead of being focused around themes such as the inevitability of fate or the fall of the powerful, Death of a Salesman focuses around the American dream. It’s all about the potential to achieve prosperity, rather than losing prosperity that was already attained. The optimism of achieving the American dream fueled Willie Loman’s life and gave him hope for the future, even though his overall successes were few and far between. He gave hope to his family for a bright future, such as when he told his sons “And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ’cause one thing, boys: I have friends” (Miller, Death, I.). These statements, while made on a basis of false pride, give both Loman’s children and himself a sense of hope for the future, keeping an optimistic approach to the possibilities that ultimately do not come.
Willie Loman is not someone who could fit into the traditional role of a tragic hero. He had no prosperity to begin with, and had no outstanding features to set him apart and prepare him for a great loss. However, his role as the American everyman gave a new approach to what could be considered a tragic hero, as his story defined the tragic occurrences that can happen to ordinary people. Anyone can suffer from tragedy, and that fact was finally shown in literature through the story of Willie Loman.
Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman”. Eds. Natsuo Shumuta, and Teiji Kitagawa. Educational Dimensions, 1973.
Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man”. 1949.
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