Arthur Miller and the tragedy of a Common Man 

Throughout literature tragic heroes are frequently portrayed by characters within the higher social class and maintain a high reputation, but the average human is overlooked and rarely the focus of a tragedy. If a character with high intelligence and wealth can have a flaw that leads them to their death, then is it possible for the common man to encounter this problem in his or her life? Arthur miller addresses this question in his work, where the focus of a tragic hero is placed on the life of a common man.

Death of a Salesman is a play that reflects Arthur Miller’s tough life experiences, his belief that a common man has potential to be a tragic hero, and the problems of pride and the need for material success.

Arthur Miller was an “American playwright, who combined social awareness with a searching concern for his character’s inner lives” (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia). He was born in New York on October 17th, 1915 (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia), and his family were very successful immigrants, but lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 (“Arthur, Biography”).

After high school, Miller worked in a warehouse in order to attend the University of Michigan, and this is where he started to write plays (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia). Miller’s success started with his first novel Focus, and continued after his drama All My Sons, which had won him a Tony Award (“Arthur”, Miller). Throughout his career Miller has written more plays, like The Crucible, which was based on the Salem witch trials, and it reflected the events of McCarthyism that took place from 1950 to 1954 (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia).

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Also, he wrote the play The Misfits for his second wife Marilyn Monroe (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia). Miller was called before the House Un-american Activities Committee and was found guilty because he did not reveal the names of other suspected communists, but his conviction was later overturned (“Arthur”, United). Miller was a victim of McCarthyism, so in The Crucible he was able to compare how both the events of McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials were similar. Julia Bolus, Arthur Miller’s assistant said, “Arthur wrote about everything in his journals… They were the place for all the elements of his life came together” (Schuessler). A few weeks before Miller’s death, he had sent 89 boxes of his writings to the Ransom Center (Schuessler). The archive of Miller’s work contains developments of plays, family letters, and his experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee (Schuessler).

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was one of his greatest works; it went on to receive many awards, and the play shifted the focus of a tragedy to the common man. The play was written early in his career, and he wrote the first act in a day (“Arthur, Biography”). The play had won a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia). Those are high honors awarded to outstanding pieces of work. It is impressive that Arthur Miller was able to achieve this early on in his career. According to Harold Bloom, “[i]n Death of a Salesman he memorably achieves a pathos that none of us would be wise to dismiss” (6). The play contains elements that the reader is unable to forget about it and leave the work unchanged. In the play, Arthur miller introduces “a new protagonist: the common man. Perhaps of greater importance is the fact that it removes the ground of the tragic conflict from outer event to inner consciousness” (Jackson 31). Most tragedies focus on a character of high social class and reputation, but never on the common man. Miller does this to illustrate that the common man falls victim to flaws that lead to his or her demise. Death of a Salesman is described as “one of the most famous American plays of its period. It is the tragedy of Willy Loman, a man destroyed by false values that are in large part the values of his society” (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia). Death of a Salesman has achieved prestigious awards and offers a new scenery of characters.

The event’s of Arthur Miller’s life have an effect on his characters and works. Miller experienced the stock market crash of 1929, and “was shaped by the Great Depression, which brought financial ruin onto his father, a small manufacturer, and demonstrated to the young Miller the insecurity of modern existence” (“Arthur”, Encyclopaedia). This theme of “insecurity of modern existence” is found in Death of a Salesman. The events of his family and the Great Depression had an effect on Miller, so he includes it in his work. According to Tom Driver, Miller’s views are limited in his plays (21). Miller has a specific focus on certain types of characters. The character he writes about have similar purposes throughout his works. “These, then, are the strengths of Arthur Miller: an acute awareness of the ‘public’ nature of theatre, the desire to see and report life realistically, an unwillingness to settle for a merely positivist version of reality” (19). Miller reflects life itself through his eyes in his plays. Miller’s plays are far from optimistic and shows life realistically in the plot of a story. Miller believes that “Writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do because it has the potential of challenging people to change their lives” (Calarco). Miller’s purpose is to challenge his readers or viewers. He believes that a play can change people’s lives for the better. The Great Depression had affected Miller’s life and it shows in his plays, and he writes his plays with the intent of helping his readers see his or her flaws in the characters of the story.

Miller created a play that was very influential and contained relatable characters that reflect the society of the time in which he wrote it. According to Calarco, “after-effects of World War II influenced Miller to write plays about vulnerable, everyday people”. People were still recovering from the events of the war when he had finished the play. The mood of society from the war can be visualized in the play. According to Jackson, “[t]he influence of this drama, first performed in 1949, continues to grow in world theatre. For it articulates, in language which can be appreciated by popular audiences” (37). The play is sixty years old, but still holds to be influential. Miller intends for his plays to have an eternal theme that can apply to audiences throughout all times. Jackson analyzes the play and says, “Death of a Salesman is, perhaps, to this time, the most mature example of a myth of contemporary life. The chief value of this drama is its attempt to reveal those ultimate meanings which are resident in modern experience” (37). She believes that the play is a perfect example for a piece of literature that applies to modern times. Again, Miller’s purpose is to create a lesson that different societies of different time periods can apply to their lives. Miller believes that the theater is unable to create new ideas, but instead articulate on public matter (Driver 17). Miller intends for his content to focus on modern issues. He believes there is a bigger importance on analyzing current matters than creating new ones. Arthur Miller believes that “the common man is as apt a subject for a tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (“Death”). Miller’s focus in his plays were on the common man of the time. At the time, that subject was uncommon, and tragedies traditionally focused on characters of a higher social status, not of one of an average human. According to Jackson, “Miller brings into the theatre a figure who is, in our age, a kind of hero – a ritual representative of an industrial society” (28). Miller chooses a character that many readers and viewers can relate to. He does this because then the reader or viewer can apply the challenge Miller creates to his or her life. Miller writes his plays in order for them to have an effect on readers of all time periods, and events of the time influence his writings.

Arthur Miller introduces the problems of pride and the need for material success through his character Willy Loman, and his family. The play focuses on subjects where they are responsible for their implications, not outside force is responsible for the outcomes (Jackson 28). The reader of the play realizes throughout the play that Willy’s downfall occurs because of himself, and not other people or forces. Miller does this in order to allow the reader to focus on Willy as a character, and not be distracted by other elements. Willy experiences an anagnorisis when he realizes that he will no longer succeed in the business world, and this leads to him committing suicide (“Death”). This is one of the flaws that Willy deals with in the play. Miller showcases this fall because it inevitably leads to Willy’s demise. The idea of pride is also introduced into the play, and “particularly Willy, are extremely proud, even though the basis for their pride is not at all found in reality” (“Death”). The family’s problem with pride is not justifiable because their worries that lead them to be too proud are not real and just figments of their imagination. Miller does this in order to show how again, WIlly is fully responsible for his death. In Death of a Salesman, Miller utilizes the problems of pride and material success to drive the plot of the play with the Loman family.

In Death of a Salesman, Miller’s life experiences are shown in the writings of the play through the characters. He created a piece of work that reflects the era, yet still reigns true in future generations and is still applicable to readers today. Miller incorporates philosophies in the play mainly through the character of Willy Loman to show a relatable character and shifting the focus of a tragedy towards the life of a common man. Arthur Miller passed away in the early 2000s. His work reflects the events and people of the time era, and allows readers to connect with the characters and their situations. His goal was to challenge viewers of his plays to reflect back on their own lives and learn from the characters.

Working Bibliography

  • “Arthur Miller Biography.”, A&E Television Networks, 15 Jan. 2019,
  • “Arthur Miller.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Dec. 2018,
  • “Arthur Miller.” United States History,
  • Calarco, Renee. “Arthur Miller and Death of a Salesman.” ArtsEdge, 2019,
  • “Death of a Salesman Analysis.” Shmoop, 2019,
  • death-of-a-salesman/literary-devices.html.
  • Harvey, Giles. “Death of a Salesman: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Mediocrity.” New Yorker, 14 May 2012,
  • death-of-a-salesman-a-heartbreaking-work-of-staggering-mediocrity.
  • Miller, Arthur. Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays. Viking, 1959.
  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin, 1985.
  • Schuessler, Jennifer. “Inside the Battle for Arthur Miller’s Archive.” The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2018,
  • arthur-miller-archive-ransom-center.html.
  • Schultz, Angela. “Nothing More Than a Dream: Death of a Salesman Analysis.” Owlcation, 23 Nov. 2018,
  • Nothing-More-Than-a-Dream-Death-of-a-Salesman-Analysis.

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