Tragedy was a very controversial issue in literature until recent years. Recent figures in literature have set a clear definition for tragedy. Author Miller is one of these figures. Plays and novels have distinguished the definition of tragedy. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary tragedy is a serious piece of literature typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror. Miller’s explains that a tragic hero does not always have to be a monarch or a man of a higher status. A tragic hero can be a common person. A tragedy does not always have to end pessimistically; it could have an optimistic ending. The play Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, is a tragedy because it’s hero, Willy Loman, is a tragic figure that faces a superior source, being the American dream and the struggle for success. Loman also excites pity in the reader because of his defeat and his inability to become a success or teach his children how to make their lives successful.
Miller defines a flaw as “an inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what one conceives to be a challenge to one’s dignity…” Loman fulfills many of the requirements of being a tragic hero. Willy is not “flawless” in his actions, which by Miller’s standards make him a tragic hero. It is not wrong for Willy to have flaws and it does not make him a weaker man but a tragic figure. Miller designed the play so that Willy could be a tragic hero and for this he needs to have a flaw. Willy’s flaw is that he is unable to see things in a more realistic perspective. Charley says something in the play that sums up Willy’s whole life. He asks him, “When the hell are you going to grow up?” Willy’s spends his entire life in an illusion. He sees himself as a great man that is popular and successful. Willy exhibits many childlike qualities. Many of these qualities have an impact on his family. His two sons Biff and Happy pick up this behavior from their father. He is idealistic, stubborn, and he has a false sense of his importance in the world.
The extreme to which he followed the dream brought him to disillusionment and a loose sense of reality. Willy created a reality for himself where he “knocked ’em cold in Providence,” and “slaughtered ’em in Boston.”(p.33) “Five hundred gross in Providence” becomes “roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip.” The ultimate result of his disillusionment is his suicide. It is ironic that he dies for his ideals although they are misconstrued. Another of Willy’s flaws is his disloyalty to Linda. Willy is unable to hold strong against temptations such as the women he slept with in Boston. Biff’s faith in his father is lost after he encounters the situation. This may have been the cause for Biff’s failure in life.
Another of Miller’s guidelines for a tragic hero is that a common man can be a tragic hero. Willy sums up to many of the characteristics shown in Arthur Miller’s article, “Tragedy and the Common Man.” Willy is the common man Miller speaks of in the article. Willy awakes each day to face the hard struggle of work. Although Willy is not very successful as a businessman he still goes to work everyday because he must support his family. Willy placed a great deal of importance on the success of Biff. Willy believed that the best way to achieve success was the fast way. Willy’s dreams for his children to become successful shows his role as a common man. Willy went to extremes to try and reach his goal of Biff becoming successful.
Biff is the most important thing in Willy’s life because he is Willy’s last shot at success. If Biff doesn’t want to be successful and doesn’t love him, then Willy would be more satisfied in killing himself in order to try and show Biff that he really is a success. If Biff does love him and wants to become a success then Willy is satisfied in killing himself in order to give Biff a better shot at success with his life insurance money. Willy’s actions and his desire for Biff to become a success and live happily make him a common man.
Miller says a tragedy usually deals with a greater power that is taking the freedoms of a lesser power. The lesser power deals with this and fights back against the greater power, while putting something of importance on the line, making him/her a tragic hero. Willy is unable to become a success because he is not able to reach the American dream and work for this successfulness. Although he fights for this successfulness, he fails. Willy has wasted his life on trying to become a success. Willy puts his final stride toward success is in Biff. Willy has spent his life raising Biff and trying to teach him how to become successful. The problem is that Willy doesn’t know how to reach success and he teaches Biff that success is fast and easy when it’s not. Willy always believes he can achieve that kind of success.
He never lets go of his wasted life. He dreams of being the man who does all of his business out of his house and dying a rich and successful man. Furthermore, Willy also dreams of moving to Alaska where he could work with his hands and be a real man. Biff and Happy follow in their father’s footsteps in their lofty dreams and unrealistic goals. Biff wastes his life being a thief and a loner; furthermore, Biff, along with happy try to conjure up a crazy idea of putting on a sporting goods exhibition. Biff really knows that Willy has never been successful and he looks down upon Willy for teaching him the wrong ideal. Biff does realize that Willy has wasted his life in order to make Biff’s better. “Miss Forsythe, you’ve just seen a price walk by. A fine, troubled prince. A hardworking, unappreciated prince. A pal, you understand? A good companion. Always for his boys.” (p. 114)
Another idea that supports the fact that Death of a Salesman is a tragedy is that there is a possibility of victory. Miller speaks about the things that make a piece of literature a tragedy is his article “Tragedy and the Common Man.” Miller says that for a piece to be truly tragic an author can not hesitate to leave anything out and must put in all the information they have “to secure their rightful place in their world.” Although it does not happen in this play and Willy is unable to overcome the greater force, he is able to make an impact on it.
Willy’s failure sets an example that Biff understands. Willy could have still been successful if he was able to see the flaws in his ways and teach Biff the right way to be a success, which is in hard work. If Willy had not killed himself and taught Biff that working hard at anything would make his successful then Biff may have reached success for himself and make Willy a successful father as well. The reader must look at Willy’s suicide through Willy’s eyes. He killed himself in order to give Biff a better shot at being a success. Willy doesn’t understand that killing himself is wrong and he is not looking for any pity. Willy has sacrificed his own life so that Biff could have a better life. This truly does make him a tragic hero.
Willy Loman is a tragic figure in the play Death of a Salesman. Willy faces a superior source in the play and puts his life on the line for his beliefs and the beliefs of others. He meets the requirements of Miller’s article for a tragic hero. Death of a Salesman also meets Miller’s requirements for a tragic play because of Willy’s role in the novel along with the other standards that Miller sets for a tragedy. The exploration of tragedy by people such as Miller helps to define it more clearly.