Willy Loman as a Tragic Hero in Death of a Salesman
It makes little sense that tragedy should only pertain to those in high ranks. As explained in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Arthur Miller sets out the pattern for his own idea of a tragedy and the tragic hero. This pattern supports the idea that a tragedy can occur in characters of common men as well as those in high places. In his paper, he demonstrates that it should be possible for everyone to be able to identify with the tragic hero. Miller redefines tragedy as more common occurrence than what might happen in such tragedies as portrayed by Shakespeare and Euripides, thus defining Death of a Salesman as a tragedy.
Willy Loman is a tragic hero. 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 this normal and severely regrets failures such as raising his children poorly, not doing well in business, and cheating on his wife Linda. “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…”). Willy’s “underlying fear of being displaced” is the real tragedy. Consistently throughout the play, Willy drifts in and out of a dream. He is constantly haunted by memories of his brother Ben who struck it rich the jungle. He also has flashbacks of incidents that haunt him in other areas. For example, the sequence in which Biff catches Willy with a woman other than Linda. This haunts Willy because he sees it as part of why Biff does not love him. “Tragedy then is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly” (Miller, “Tragedy…”). This is Willy’s flaw. The circumstances in his life and the identity he has created for himself are being affronting by his inner reality 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…”). Indeed this is the case with Willy. He decides to take action rather than complacently become outdated. Willy continually argues with those around him in order to try to keep his personal dignity. These include his argument with Howard that he can still sell, his arguments with Charley over the card game and the job, and his argument 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… 132)!
Willy, in addition to meeting Miller’s definition of a tragic hero, in a way connects with the traditional requirements. Willy, after he receives an assurance that Biff loves him, offers the only thing he knows to somehow make recompense; he takes his own life. He does this so Biff will attain the insurance money. Here we can see that Willy’s sincere desire is directed at 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, has a tragic flaw.
“The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy” (Miller, “Tragedy…”). Setting aside Willy’s “tragic flaw,” there is a certain amount of hope that Willy will change. If there is something to bring the element of hope into the play, there also comes the conceivable possibility of change. And with change, comes the conceivable possibility of victory. The 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… 30)! He 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… 82)! He, however, refuses to change his view of the world and continues his struggle upstream. What makes this tragic, though, is that he does not change. It is his “tragic flaw” that brings this failure about him. His unwillingness to submit passively to the established order and values takes him down. He has a set idea in his mind about how he wants to be and the way he wants his children to be. He is a salesman and 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… 81).
Willy, even at an early age, had a chance to change and become like his brother Ben, but chose not to. He saw the life of a salesman and refused to do anything else. He had 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 of character change along with his fear of being denied his identity by the world and his attempts to believe that existence can be justly evaluated brings upon him the death of a tragic hero. This death locks him into place both as a hero by Miller’s standards and by traditional standards.