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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a play that explores the futility of the American Dream from the perceptive of a salesman. Published in 1949, the story depicts the Post-war era prosperity full of promises for upward mobility. However, the disparity between different social classes is evident in the play. Willy Loman has not succeeded despite years of toiling as a salesman. Although the Loman family struggles to get by, he presents himself as being on the verge of enormous success. Willy’s view of success varies from the realities around his world because he lives in the past. His delusional view of success equally affects people around him, including his children, Biff and Happy. His failure to come to terms with reality and provide a better life for his family ultimately weighs him down as he commits suicide. According to Erkan (2012), Willy exhibits the features of a modern tragic hero because he fails to adapt to the changes of a new world due to his illusion and consequential mistakes that become his downfall. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a tragic hero because he experiences a downfall due to his arrogance, arouses the audience’s sympathy, and makes substantial mistakes.
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Willy’s Arrogance and Prosperity Setback
Willy Loman exemplifies the features of a modern tragic hero because of his excessive pride. Willy is convinced that his view of success is the ideal outlook of prosperity. He is stuck in the past and fails to realize that the world has transformed in numerous critical aspects. Willy’s version of the American Dream is becoming popular and charismatic instead of focusing on knowledge. As a result, he hopes his children can accede to his shallow view of prosperity, causing a disagreement between him and his sons. He criticizes his son, Biff, for not finding a job despite his failures to provide sufficiently. When Linda suggests that Biff needs time, Willy replies, “Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!” (Miller, 1996, p.7). Despite being sixty years old and having not fully reached his level of success, Willy’s arrogance pushes his frustrations to pressure his kids, who, unfortunately, have varied outlooks. Willy is clinging to the past but fails to learn from it to make better decisions. He even refers to his brother, Ben, who succeeds by heading to the wilderness of Alaska and Africa. However, Willy remains stuck in his romanticized past, wishing things could have been better instead of changing for the better.
Similarly, Willy is a tragic hero because his predicaments invoke sympathy from the audience, who relate to his fortune’s reversal. Aswathi (2013) points out that although Willy is not presented as a noble character with access to massive wealth, his experiences and lack of success arouse sympathy from the readers, which characterizes a tragic hero. Willy is sixty years old but still has to drive miles to be paid in commission. He has dedicated his life to the job but does not seem to get the rewards he deserves. When he arrives home, Linda worries that his health is not good and that he should not continue with work. Linda states, “Well, you’ll just have to take a rest, Willy. You can’t continue this way” (Miller, 1996, p.6). Linda’s concerns exemplify the audience’s sympathy for Willy because of his age and well-being, given the long distances he drives for meager payment. Willy recalls how he helped the Wagner Company reach its levels but has never been compensated. He states, “Howard, he doesn’t appreciate. When I went north the first time, the Wagner Company didn’t know where New England was” (Miller, 1996, p.7). The new manager Howard, old Wagner’s son, does not recognize Willy’s efforts. Willy experiences immense suffering that he probably does not warrant, which is characteristic of a modern tragic hero.
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Willy’s Tragic Flaw
Correspondingly, Willy’s tragic flaw is making continuous consequential mistakes that lead to his ultimate death. Even if Willy does not suffer a dreadful setback that costs him his prosperity, his endless mistakes lead to his downfall. His predicaments are relatable to the ordinary reader because his experiences are common. He is a father lost in his illusion and idealistic view of success, although he only wants the best for his kids. Nevertheless, his decision-making and choice of action demonstrate a tragic flaw that cost him his family and, subsequently, his life (Turku, 2013). His choice to have an affair with another woman despite their financial struggles illustrates his poor choices. He tries to justify his action by telling Biff, “She’s nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely, I was terribly lonely” (Miller, 1996, p.89). However, he continuously exhibits poor judgment and choice of actions as if he is preordained to be damaged by his own nature. He gets preoccupied with his unrealistic view of success and forgets the love of his family. His ultimate decision to commit suicide exemplifies his poor decision-making as he fails to realize that his family needs him, not the money they will get from his life insurance.
Clearly, in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a modern tragic hero whose arrogance and poor decision-making led to his downfall. However, Willy arouses sympathy because of his experiences and troubles related to the ordinary person. Willy’s situation and struggles to become successful are significant in illustrating the varied perceptions of the American Dream. Willy’s idealized view of success significantly varies from his children’s outlook, causing a rift in his relations, especially with Biff. His catastrophic flaw of constant poor judgment and conclusion ultimately leads to his tragic death, depicting his character as a tragic hero.
- Aswathi, M. P. (2013). Capitalistic discourse and individual: A social study of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The Criterion: An International Journal in English, 4(2), 1-7.
- Erkan, B. (2012). A modern tragic hero in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Journal of the Cukurova University Institute of Social Sciences, 21(3).
- Miller, A. (1996). Death of a Salesman: Revised Edition. Penguin.
- Turku, M. (2013). Death of a Salesman, when tragedy meets the modern man. Journal of Literature and Art Studies, 3(4), 224-229.