English / Death Of A Salesman-Is Willy A Modern Tragic Hero?

Death Of A Salesman-Is Willy A Modern Tragic Hero?

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Autor:  anton  03 November 2010
Tags:  Salesman,  Modern,  Tragic
Words: 2389   |   Pages: 10
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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 during 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 relevant, 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.”і If we pity kings we pity them as human beings undergoing hardship just like Willy. 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



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