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Tragedy in Death of a Salesman

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  • 0:04 The Downfall of a Great Man
  • 1:30 Willy's Tragic Flaw
  • 2:26 Biff Loman's Tragedy
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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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.

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