Miller redefines tragedy as more common occurrence than what might happen in tragedies such as portrayed by Shakespeare and other classical writers, thus defining Death of a Salesman as a tragedy. Willy Loman is a tragic hero. He fears that while he hopes to be viewed as a good, decent human being, others might not agree. He wants to believe that he’s a well-liked, decent person who doesn’t make mistakes. The truth is that he makes mistakes (many that haunt him), and that he is human. Willy does not consider his flaws normal and severely regrets his shortcomings.
As he sees it, Willy raises his children poorly and doesn’t do well in business, though he wishes he did. Willy also cheats on Linda, deeming her to be a commodity of which he takes advantage. “The quality in such plays that does shake us… derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in the world” (Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”). Willy’s “underlying fear of being displaced” is the real, personal tragedy. He yearns to do things right; but the fact is, he has many past incidences that haunt him.
Throughout the play, Willy drifts in and out of a dream. He is continually haunted by memories of his dead brother Ben who, prior to his death, struck it rich in the jungle. He also has flashbacks of occasions that haunt him relating to other aspects of his life. For example, the sequence when Biff catches Willy with a woman other than Linda. This haunts Willy because he feels that this is one reason why Biff does not love him. “Tragedy then is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly” (Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”). This is Willy’s flaw.
The circumstances in his life and the outward identity that he has created for himself are being affronting by his inner reality/thoughts to “evaluate himself justly. ” This flaw is “… his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image or his rightful status” (Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”). Indeed this is the case with Willy. He decides to take action rather than be complacent and outdated. Willy habitually argues with those around him in order to try to maintain his personal dignity.
These arguments include his disagreement with Howard over whether he can still sell, or his arguments with Charley about the card game and the job, or his words with Biff about not being “a dime a dozen. ” “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman” (Miller, Death of a Salesman 132) In addition to meeting Miller’s definition of a tragic hero, Willy also demonstrates the traditional requirements. After he receives an assurance that Biff loves him, Willy offers the only thing he knows to somehow make recompense– he tragically takes his own life.
He does this so that Biff will be awarded the insurance money. Here we can observe that Willy’s sincere desire is directed toward something greater than himself, his image, or his success. He is motivated by his love for his son. Therefore, since his primary focus is beyond himself, it consequently elevates him. Willy, like traditional tragic heroes, possesses a tragic flaw. “The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy” (Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”). Setting aside Willy’s “tragic flaw,” there is also a certain amount of hope and optimism that Willy might change.
If there is a possibility of bringing an element of hope into this play, there is also a conceivable possibility of change. Change is the compelling force without which there would be no hope. And with change comes a reasonable possibility of victory. Throughout this entire play, Willy lives by the credo “be well liked. ” “Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home any more… bigger that Uncle Charley! Because Charley is not liked. He’s liked, but he’s not well liked” (Miller, Death of a Salesman 30) Willy finds this untrue as he increasingly makes less and less money on business trips. Howard, and now I can’t even pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw away the peel! A man is not a piece of fruit” (Miller, Death of a Salesman 82) Willy, however, refuses to change his view of the world and therefore is destined to continue his struggle upstream. What makes this play tragic for me, though, is that Willy does not change. It is sadly his “tragic flaw” that brings about this failure. His unwillingness to submit passively to the established order and values is his demise. He has a set idea in his mind about how he wants to be and the way he wants his children to live.
He is a salesman who refuses to be anything else. “I thought I’d go out with my older brother and try to locate him, and maybe settle in the North with the old man. And I almost decided to go, when I met a salesman in the Parker House… and he was eighty-four years old, and he drummed out merchandise in thirty-one states… he’d pick up the phone and call the buyers, and without even leaving his room, at the age of eight-four, he made his living” (Miller, Death of a Salesman 81). Willy, even at an early age, had a chance to change to become like his brother Ben, but chose not to.
He saw the life of a salesman and refused to try or to accept anything else. He decided what he wanted to be. In the end, because of his unwillingness to change and submit passively to the established world, Willy dies at the hands of his tragic flaws. The common man, indeed, can relate to Willy Loman. His stubborn refusal to change, his fear of failure centered around his need for a positive identity in the world, and his belief that his existence can be justly perceived all culminate in the death of a tragic hero.
This death locks him into place as a hero by both Miller’s standards and by traditional standards. Did Arthur Miller provide us with this essay as a response to or a defense of Death of a Salesman? Is he trying to justify his work by remolding the definition of tragedy to justify and elevate this play? Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Death of a Salesman fits the model set forth by Miller in “Tragedy and the Common Man” and clearly captures the central ideas of the essay.