You were probably aching throughout this play to shove a mirror in front of Willy Loman's face and make him take a good, honest look at himself. But even if you tried, it probably wouldn't have worked. He has a lot of potential, but he also has a whopping case of self-deception paired with misguided life goals. A salesman for all of his career, Willy thinks the goal of life is to be well-liked and gain material success.
So what happens when he doesn't reach these goals? Total disaster.
Willy is a rather insecure guy. He tries to make himself feel better by lying to himself and his family. In his world of delusion, Willy is a hugely successful salesman. He disguises his profound anxiety and self-doubt with extreme arrogance. Periodically unable to maintain this image of strength, Willy despairs and pleads with successful people around him for guidance and support. Despite his efforts, it becomes clear that Willy Loman is not popular, well-liked, or even good at his job. In fact, he never was. In all likelihood, he never will be. Now an older man, Willy can no longer drive competently, pay his bills, or sell anything.
Despite Willy's evident failure to meet his (poorly chosen) life goals, he clings to a fierce belief in the American Dream and the promise that anyone attractive and well-liked can make it big. He has deceived himself his entire life and tries to live vicariously through his unwilling son, Biff. But Biff uncovers Willy's lies when he finds out that Willy has been cheating on Linda. Choosing to alienate his son rather than face reality, and tormented by his failures, Willy spirals downward.
Willy's Desire to Escape
So let's talk about all these flashbacks. Part of this "downward spiral" we keep talking about has to do with Willy losing a grip on reality and on time. Because his life, by his standards, sucks, Willy escapes into the past and also conveniently gives us, the reader or audience, the background information we need. "Escape" becomes Willy's middle name—not unlike his own father, who abandoned him and his brother when they were young.
All this escape business brings us to Willy's mistress. "The woman" gives Willy everything he needs: an alternate world and an ego-boost. Miller makes sure we are able to understand these reasons for why Willy has the affair. If we, the reader/audience, hated Willy for being a cheating jerk, we wouldn't be so upset at his death. But we don't hate Willy. We don't even call him a cheater. Why? Because we understand the psychology behind his affair. He is simply trying to escape.
Which brings us, right on schedule, to the end of the play. As we all know, Willy kills himself. But why? Well, he was clearly still harboring misguided hopes about success for Biff. It seems Willy would rather kill himself than accept the fact that really, honestly, all his son wants is some shirtless sweaty time in Midwestern haystacks.
The point is, Willy is still deluded when he kills himself. We all know the money isn't going to be used to start a business. What's sad is that Willy doesn't. That final delusion is almost worse than his death itself.
Speaking of this death, let's talk about the title of the play. Willy was always in pursuit of being the perfect salesman, and before he kills himself he expresses a wish to die "the death of a salesman." So here's the big money question: does he?
To answer that, we have to ask ourselves just what does it mean to be a salesman in this play? We know what it means in Willy's mind (if we say "well-liked" one more time…), but Charley brings up an interesting point at the funeral: part of being a salesman is having a dream. Part of being a salesman is about selling yourself. We'll let you take it from there.
Willy as Tragic Hero
If you saw Willy Loman sitting across from you on a bus, you probably wouldn't peg him for a hero. If you got to know him, it would probably seem even less likely. Still, Willy Loman is often thought of as a hero. Of course, he's a particular kind of hero: a tragic hero. The ancient Greeks were the first to write about these doomed souls. Sophocles' Oedipus is the most perfect example—at least according to Aristotle.
But how is slouchy old Willy Loman in any way similar to the heroes of Greek tragedy? Well, dear Shmoopsters, they share a little thing the Greeks liked to call hamartia. This word is often translated as "tragic flaw," but it's more accurately translated as "a missing of the mark" or a "mistake made in ignorance."
Just like Oedipus, Willy Loman goes through his life blindly, never realizing the full truth of himself. Willy refuses to admit that he's a failure. You could say that the idea of hamartia is seen in Willy through his delusional personality. Also, like Oedipus and almost all tragic heroes, Willy's hamartia causes his own downfall. In the end, Willy's delusions lead him to take his own life.
According to Aristotle, tragic heroes also have a moment of recognition, or anagnorisis. This is supposed to be a moment where the hero realizes the terrible mistake he's made and usually moans about it a lot. This happens to Oedipus when he realizes that he's inadvertently killed his father and slept with his mother. (Whoops!)
You could argue that Willy has a small realization near the end of the play. He never says it directly, but at some point—probably after Howard fires him—he must realize that he's just never going to succeed in business. If he didn't come to this realization, then he wouldn't decide to kill himself so Biff could use his life insurance money.
However, though Willy must make some small realization toward the end of the play, we hesitate to label it as full blown anagnorisis. Willy definitely goes to his death amid a cloud of delusion. Even after Biff totally lays it out for his dad that all he wants to do is be a cowboy or whatever, Willy refuses to understand.
The pitiful salesman kills himself, thinking that Biff will use the life insurance money to start a business. It becomes painfully obvious at the funeral that this is totally not going to happen, showing that Willy went to his death without coming to grips with reality. Yes, it seems that, unlike many classical Greek tragic heroes, Willy doesn't have a major anagnorisis.
The Common Man
Willy is also different from his tragic predecessors because he isn't royalty of any kind. Yep, Willy is just a salesman. He has no real power in the world, and not too many people really care when he dies. Unlike the legendary and powerful Oedipus, Willy is a nobody. But why would Arthur Miller try to write a tragedy about a total schmuck? Did he not read Aristotle's book or something? Hardly—we're guessing that Miller knew Aristotle's ideas better than we do. It turns out that the fact that Willy is an everyday guy is part of the whole point Miller is trying to make.
In Arthur Miller's famous essay, "Tragedy of the Common Man," he states, "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." Miller goes on to say that it's not the fact that past tragic heroes have been royal that makes them resonate with modern audiences. It's that fact that they share the same problems as we do today, the same flaws, fears, and hopes.
Some critics have said that true tragedy is impossible when your hero is a common man. They say that when an everyday guy goes down, not as many people suffer as they would if it were a king. OK, sure, but we have a question: is the size of a tragedy really limited to the world of the play? Can't we look into the life of a common man and recognize our own flaws? Can't we see those flaws in society around us? Why can't a common man's life have size and meaning?
Miller ends his essay by saying, "It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man." Preach it, Arthur, preach it.Willy's Timeline
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“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 the American system; Miller himself was no stranger to conflict with the America way of life ? he was accused of communism and a desire to undermine the American way of life by the McCarthy commission in 1956. However, this play is not about capitalism versus communism but about a man disenchanted by the passage of time and dismayed at the realism that has robbed him of his dreams, ambitions and success, he feels “kind of temporary about himself,” which is why we see him at the end of his career and not the beginning.
Conversely, the ability of Willy, the common man, to take on the role of the tragic hero can be seen as a demonstration that those worth nothing can achieve anything and is therefore a realisation of the American Dream. Eric Bentley argues that Death of a Salesman “arouses pity but no terror. Man here is too little and too passive to play the tragic hero. ” However, I feel that the fact that Willy is a “little” man evokes both pity and terror. Willy moves us to fear because we can recognise similar possibilities of error in ourselves. Willy is universal in the sense that he is typical of us all, he is a “low-man. Many of us know how it feels to struggle to succeed, and like Willy, material success is often an inescapable part of our lives whether or not we wish to admit it. Act I might be said to inspire horror, as Willy’s deteriorating mental state is made clear and Act II could engender pity as he suffers even more for it than he perhaps deserves. We can see that although he may not necessarily a great man now, Willy once was. Up until the discovery of his affair, both Biff and Happy idolise him, when he comes home from a trip they drop everything ? “Ah, when Pop comes home they can wait! As Linda tells Willy “Few men are idolized by their children the way you are. ” Willy reminisces about these “great times” at the end of Act II ? “never even let me carry the valises in the house, and simonising, simonising that little red car! ” ? he obviously wishes that they can return to the time when he and Biff were friends. To his family, Willy is obviously a great man, Linda proclaims him the “handsomest man in the world” while Biff calls him a “prince. ” The fact that we can see this past greatness inspires pathos. However, there are instances when Willy can be interpreted as weak.
Although he tells Linda “on the road I want to grab you sometimes and just kiss the life out you” he still has an affair; this hypocrisy is highlighted by the way this line leads on to a scene with The Woman. Despite telling her that she is “the best” he constantly interrupts her and it’s obvious that the household revolves around Willy and his two boys ? this is symbolised by the three chairs at the kitchen table. We can also see how Willy is mentally “weak” ? he confuses the present with his romanticised past. Linda’s “strangely rhythmic” sentence Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” suggests that Willy is a potentially tragic figure. He too can be reduced to bad behaviour by circumstances beyond his control. Willy may not have achieved a great deal, as she points out, but he did have high ideals that he has been unable to realise. “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him ? a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man”, – this reference to “great” men recalls Aristotle’s view of tragedy. This almost seems to be Miller addressing the audience himself, stressing that the “little” people can suffer and strive just a much a the “great. Biff twice calls Willy a “prince” and asks if Willy’s rubber hose is “designed to make a hero out of you ? there’ll be no pity for you, you hear it? ” One could argue that Willy Loman’s hamartia is that typical of many Greek tragedies, his pride and also his refusal to accept reality. Shakespeare’s heroes were motivated by high passions such as lust in Romeo and Juliet or ambition as seen in Macbeth, but Miller suggests that these are no more important or admirable than Willy’s determination to be well-liked.
Willy’s mantra is that personality is the key to business, and we can see this admiration for Willy during Charley’s eulogy in the requiem scene- “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. ” It is also Willy’s complete faith in the Capitalist system and his determination to see material wealth as the only path to success that causes him to suffer. These loyalties demand that he continues to serve the system and he is bewildered at his lack of success. Some critics argue that Willy lacks the mental ability to be a true tragic hero.
But Miller argues that if Willy were unaware of his separation from enduring values he “would have died contentedly while polishing his car ? that he had not the intellectual fluency to verbalise his situation is not the same thing as saying that he lacked awareness. ” We do see Willy undergo a sort of period of recognition ? we see at the end of Act II he comes to realise that his son loves him and as Miller states “he is given his existence, so to speak ? his fatherhood, for which he has always striven. ” We also see Willy’s realisation of what went wrong with Biff uring the “flashback” hotel scene. His self-realisation is present, countering those who claim to the contrary. It is clearly contained in the lines “I’m fat. I’m very-foolish” (of himself) and “I’m always in a race with the junkyard” (of American society. ) However, Willy need not realise his own faults and what they stem from, as they are clear enough to the audience. In fact, Dennis Welland states that “to Miller tragedy brings us both knowledge and enlightenment which it need not do for the tragic hero. “
Willy dies, as tragic heroes must do, but his death affirms that the beliefs to which he has clung have ultimately destroyed him. I think Willy’s suicide should be interpreted as a noble sacrifice, the only way to help Biff make something of himself. He still believes that the only true value of a man’s worth is how much he is liked and how much he has. It is tragic that a man’s death should make him a sacrifice on the altar of the belief that has failed him. When Willy finally realises that Biff loves him, in spite of his affair with The Woman and his “phoney dream”, he is both “astonished” and “elevated. Despite his suicide he is as triumphant as the traditional tragic heroes, for he gains what he truly wants and values, his sons’ love. Some critics argue that plays such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible are not really tragic because they rub our noses in the social mire and depress rather than exalt, because they end with a note of question rather than a feeling of catharsis. Both plays deal with the disappointment of the American Dream, both Willy Loman and John Proctor are victims of the society in which they live (although this applies more literally to Proctor as essentially it is his society which kills him. I feel that at the end of Death of a Salesman the audience does feel a sense of catharsis in that Biff Loman has finally found himself, Willy is finally “free” of earthly unhappiness, and the Loman family are finally “free” from Willy’s “little cruelties. ” The main argument against the tragedy of Death of a Salesman is that Willy is not of high social status, although I feel that, just as Shakespeare adapted Greek tragedy to suit his society, Miller has adapted tragedy to fit into his society, and the play is just as elevant, if not more so, today than when it was written. In my opinion, Willy Loman is a truly modern tragic figure ? Miller has bridged the gap between tragedy and the “low-man. ” We are no longer “held to be below tragedy ? or tragedy above us. ” Willy embodies the typical American and as we can relate to him, it is almost as if the tragic events could happen to anyone of us. As Miller himself says the conduct of kings “no longer raises our passions. “? If we pity kings we pity them as human beings undergoing hardship just like Willy.
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Miller himself argues that the common man may also gain “size” by his willingness to “throw everything he has into the contest ? the battle to secure his rightful place in the world. ” 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
Author: Brandon Johnson
Death of a Salesman-Is Willy a Modern Tragic Hero?
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