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.
Biff Loman's Tragedy
Willy's not the only character to suffer from the effects of tragedy. In fact, one reading of Willy is that he is indeed oblivious to the fact that he is the leading player in his own tragedy. Biff Loman, Willy's son, evidently experiences the most character growth over the course of the play, even though that growth is hard earned. Interestingly, Biff seems to be the only character in the play who experiences anagnorisis, or the moment in Greek tragedy when a hero suddenly has insight into his own identity. When Biff learns that he has flunked math and will no longer be able to go to college on a football scholarship, he surprises his father in Boston while Willy is on a business trip. Biff is horrified to catch Willy in the act of adultery, and this moment shatters Biff's heroic vision of his father.
This key moment serves as a catalyst for Biff to interrogate all of the myths told to him by his father, such as the mistaken belief that being attractive and well-liked will lead a man to success. By seeing his own father's lies exposed, Biff is able to wonder how many lies have composed his own self-perception. This is tragic anagnorisis in its truest sense; Biff is forced to reevaluate who he is and what he must do to recover a truer vision of himself. Although Willy is frequently put on the spot in Death of a Salesman, he consistently deflects the self-revelatory qualities of the anagnorisis, choosing instead to further mythologize his circumstances.
Tragedy is a major theme in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, in large part because the play itself is a modern American tragedy. Willy Loman's tragic flaw is that he struggles to see beyond the myths he has crafted about himself, to the point where his illusions prove fatal. In the end, though, there is a sense that Willy never really knew he was in a tragedy to begin with, and this is perhaps the most tragic element of the play.
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Tragedy in Death of a Salesman
1. In this lesson, one idea brought forward is that Death of a Salesman represents a modern interpretation of the standard classical tragedy. In an essay, compare Miller's play to a classical tragedy like Oedipus Rex or Hamlet. Address the question of what makes a story a tragic tale, and how the criteria have changed in the modern era.
2. Consider the character of Linda Loman, Willy's long-suffering wife. How does Linda fit the description of a tragic character? How has her life changed over time so that she, too, has lost sight of the American Dream? Include something about Linda's interaction with Willy and her reaction to the ending of the play in your essay.
3. Find a quote that you think best illustrates the idea that Willy does not realize that he is a character in his own tragic narrative. Explain why you chose this quote. Then discuss Willy's dialogue with other characters from this same point of view. His conversation with his boss and with Biff might be good sources for inspiration.
4. In the text of the lesson, it was suggested that Biff experiences an anagnorisis while Willy does not. Suppose the play had ended differently with Willy finally understanding his position in life and what is required to improve it. How would the events leading up to the final scene need to be changed to make a positive ending plausible?
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