Tragedy in Death of a Salesman

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Death of a Salesman: Conflict & Climax

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:04 The Downfall of a Great Man
  • 1:30 Willy's Tragic Flaw
  • 2:26 Biff Loman's Tragedy
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up


Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Courtney Bailey Parker
In this lesson, you'll learn about the theme of tragedy in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman.' Although Miller casts the main character Willy Loman as a kind of tragic hero, there is a sense that Willy himself is unaware of the fact that he is in a tragedy.

The Downfall of a Great Man

Traditionally, tragedy is often understood as an account of the fall of a great man. Arthur Miller alerts his audience to the fact that his play is a tragedy by titling it Death of a Salesman, but ironically our main character does not appear to be a great man. Instead, the main character, Willy Loman, is delusional, superficial, and past his prime as a salesman. During the play's occasional flashbacks, we get a sense of a time when Willy believed himself to be great, but mostly we are made to feel sorry for Willy. This is because Willy's sense of his own greatness is built upon superficial success: he is proud that both of his sons are attractive and athletic, and he believes himself to be well-known and well-liked among his business associates, and he has confidence that his connections, and not his hard work, will help him achieve professional notoriety. Unfortunately, Willy's vision of greatness has little substance, and part of what we witness in Death of a Salesman is the tragic outcome of that superficiality.

Part of what makes Death of a Salesman such a classic piece of American dramatic literature is its ability to reconfigure the traditional form of tragedy so that it speaks to a mid-twentieth-century American audience. First produced in 1949, the play implicitly makes the argument that it is a tragedy that the American dream has become so convoluted in the wake of two World Wars; the sad effect is that men like Willy Loman can't seem to get a clear picture of what it takes to achieve this elusive dream.

Willy's Tragic Flaw

In classical tragedy, the main character frequently suffers from the tragic flaw of hubris, or excessive pride. But the tragic hero of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, doesn't necessarily suffer from pride. Instead, he suffers from a false vision of what helps a man achieve the American dream. Willy firmly believes that being well-liked and well-connected are what really matter when it comes to success, even if one is liked on the basis of half-truths. In a way, this is a kind of pridefulness insofar that Willy refuses to accept reality as is. The unfortunate truth is that this is a superficial understanding of American opportunism. Success, in actuality, requires hard work, often at the expense of being liked. Because of his misunderstanding of what it takes to achieve the American dream, Willy's biggest flaw is that he is unable to understand anything other than the grand visions he has crafted of himself and his family, however untrue they may be.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account