Tragedy in Death of a Salesman

Lesson Transcript
Courtney Bailey Parker
Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

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. Updated: 11/29/2019

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.

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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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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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Tragedy in Death of a Salesman

Writing Prompts

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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