Hamlet, Oedipus, King Lear, Macbeth, and Willy Loman are the characters observed by the critics in the numerous writings devoted to the genre of tragedy. Many critics argue if the classic tragedy must include “fall of princes,” as it was defined by Aristotle, or modern plays may be also defined as tragedies. Can the problem of a common man be regarded as the tragedy in its classical form? The author of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, believes that it is possible, and he is sure that a common man may be represented as a tragic hero, and he succeeds to prove his belief with the help of his play. This is a tragedy of a common man in the modern world, a story about a man from Brooklyn.
This play was awarded by prizes in literature; it combines several literature styles, as surrealism and realism. This is a story of a man that is swallowed up by the word of hypocrisy and fraud. The hero is shy and unlucky: “Suddenly I realize I’m going sixty miles an hour, and I don’t remember the last five minutes” (Miller 56).
He is alone in the surrounding world, and even his family doesn’t understand his odd behavior. He speaks to the characters from the past that was luckier and friendlier to him, and his sons are disappointed with his behavior. His wife is also unhappy with this, as she understands that he cannot overcome the distinction between the dreams and the real world.
As it has been said above, the critics discuss the question if Death of a Salesman can be treated as the tragedy and if Willy Loman can be regarded as a tragic hero. Investigation of this subject demands mentioning the notion of a classic tragedy and its definition, developed by Aristotle. There were four key elements that the writing needed to be defined as the tragedy: “1) noble or impressive characters; 2) the main character’s discovery or recognition of a truth or fault in himself ; 3) poetic language; and 4) the ability to arouse and then soothe the audience’s pity and fear ” (Kelly 59).
Some critics suppose that Death of a Salesman doesn’t meet any of these requirements, or at least, hesitate that all these demands can be applied to the play; the others insist that the play corresponds to these key elements. It is known that Miller was greatly impressed with the Greek tragedies and he wrote much about the impressions after reading of classic Greek tragedies, he wrote that he was attracted to the Greeks due to their “magnificent form, the symmetry. That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in.” (qtd in Death of a Salesman: A Tragedy of a Common Man).
But, at the same time the author insisted that the time changed, and the world changed as well, and “we no longer live in an era dominated by kings and queens- and so maybe our definition of tragedy should change, too.” (qtd in Death of a Salesman: A Tragedy of a Common Man). Accordingly, the image of a tragic hero in modern tragedy is to be changed, as the tragedy changed during the ages that had passed since the times of Ancient Greece. A tragic hero, as seen by the eyes of Miller, is a person that intends to die for his or her values or ideas, or beliefs, but there are some limitations that shape him as a literature hero and do not allow this happen. This is the essence of the tragedy.
Willy Loman is persistent and passionate, and he has a dream, which is the sense of his living, and he doesn’t hesitate to die for it, if it’s necessary. There are alternative ways of behavior, another ways in life, but Willie chooses the path that coincides with his inner world, and his intentions, and he isn’t concerned if this is the way to success. Here we may see the difference between Willy and another character from the play, Charley, who chose another alternative (Murphy 12).
The debates about the Death of a Salesman as a tragedy appeared just after the play was published, and Miller was a witness of these debates. As the majority of the critics stated that Willy Loman cannot be regarded as a tragic hero, Miller answered them via his writing “Tragedy and the Common Man”. He stated that his play affected the minds and emotions of the audience that is close to the audience of Greek tragedies.
The play depicts persistent movement that ends with the death of the main character; it shows the development of self-awareness. This is a story without strict beginning, end, and subplots. The unit of time, one more essential element of the classic tragedy is also represented in the play, as the events described take place within a day and a night. The author is sure that there are many features in the play that make it a tragedy, but he focuses mainly on the notion of a modern tragedy, and a modern tragic hero. (Murphy 12)
The name of the main character is symbolic – Loman is a low-man, and the author describes him as “a very brave spirit who cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end”. (qtd in Murphy) This hero doesn’t reveal much intellect or any other outstanding features of character, while Aristotle mentioned the intellect as the feature of tragic hero in classic tragedy, but the sense of self-awareness developed in him – this is the reason why he committed a suicide after he had seen that his life had been senseless.
Understanding the motives that forced Willy commit a suicide is significant. The title of the writing informs us about the end of it just before we start reading. Probably, the reasons that forced the hero kill himself are the most common reasons in this case: attempt to escape from cruel reality, desire to revenge and punish his sons for their misunderstanding and disrespect, illusion of getting power in acting while the problems seem irresolvable, bravery to rule his living, even the aspiration for the success and victory, making something that is done perfect, and at last, providing his sons with the insurance, and thus proving that he had gone the wrong path. This last moment can be compared to the tragedy of King Lear and the death of Cordelia. Thus, the hero feels that he destroyed his life and the lives of his sons, and his final attempt to repair it is giving them the money that will be available for them after his death on his insurance (Sandage 30).
The other element defined by Aristotle as the second key element in classic tragedy is hubris. To understand the issue it is necessary to observe the character of Willy Loman. He is skillful in hand work, but he doesn’t consider it to be his advantage, and he doesn’t appreciate this talent, he states that “a man who can’t handle tools is disgusting”(Miller 47), so he chooses a career of a salesman, as it is coincides with his perception of what is needed to get prosperity. This notion derives from his image of his father who abandoned him in his childhood, and from his image of an old salesman who died all alone on his way to Boston in a train car.
Another essential element of a tragedy, in addition to the connection between the downfall of character’s personality and the features of his character, is recognition of the self. This point is represented with the help of Willy and Biff, who gets aware of his personal self at the end of the play, while Biff understands that his father had unreal dreams, and he becomes able to decide what will be better for him in future, and this decision derives from a realistic notion of his abilities (Sandage 14).
Willy desires to impress the people around him, and to be remembered by the people after his death, he also want to provide his sons with the money, and he suffers because he realizes that he is unable to do this. He realizes that he wasted his living and all the opportunities he met in his life. He is now old, and he has nothing to hope for, and he achieved nothing as well, he is not respected by his sons and he hasn’t got friends to support him. He thinks that he realizes the reason why human life is absurd.
Linda states that “A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man,” (Miller, p.39) and the character of Willy Loman demonstrates that modern tragedy doesn’t describe the downfall of a great man, a person of high moral standards, the person who has a power or rules the country. Tragedy now describes the downfall of a common man, and this particular play is a wide perspective of contemporary USA, with its lacks and hidden flows, critically reflected in a story of an ordinary man, one of the millions of people (Linderholm 25).
In modern literature, in contrast with the classical tragedy, the definition of a tragedy, as it should be is different. Although some features defined by Aristotle as the features of tragedy, can be found in modern plays, there are definite points of distinction. As far as Death of a Salesman is concerned, it is possible to point out hamartia and hubris as the elements that are inherent to the play. The basic distinction lies in the author’s reject from portraying a great and powerful person that plays significant social role. The author portrays an ordinary man in his habitual surroundings.
The other distinction is that the symbol of fate is different in classic and modern tragedies. In classic Greek theatre these were the gods that shaped the destiny of the individual, in modern tragedies this role is given to social institutions and organizations that make the person feel like a speck of dust in the myriads of the same specks. Thus, it will be wrong to judge Death of a Salesman as a classic tragedy, as there are some essential issues that make it differ from the tragedy defined by Aristotle. This play should rather be defined as the modern tragedy, adapted to the society, culture and viewpoints of the contemporary society.
Death of a Salesman: A Tragedy of a Common Man. From Midsummer Magazine, 1991.
Available at http://www.bard.org/Education/Other/deathofasalesmad.html
Halliwell, Stephen. Aristotle’s “Poetics“. University of Chicago Press. 1999
Linderholm, Karl. The American Dream. 1995 Available at
Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages.
Cambridge University Press. 2005
Murphy, Brenda. Abbotson, Susan. Understanding “Death of a Salesman”: A Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources and Historical Documents. Greenwood Press March.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Heinemann Educational Secondary Division. 1994
Sandage, Scott A. Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Harvard University Press,