The “quintessential American tragic hero”1 or “a passive victim of corrupted propagandist society”2; this is just one example of the conflicting views surrounding Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. Consumed with a flawed vision of the American Dream, this character is certainly a contemporary figure and his life remains symbolic and relevant to this day with regards to the pitfalls of capitalist values, as it was fifty years ago. Indeed, Willy Loman is unique in the sense that it is difficult to categorise him as one particular character stereotype; it depends on the individual’s point of view.
Some critics argue that he is neither a tragic hero or victim, but rather a “victimizer of himself and others”3 and “a coward”4. Certainly, there are numerous interpretations that have been explored over the years and it is due to the wide scope for analysis Willy offers that “Death of a Salesman” remains a favourite to discuss amongst critics to the present day. The idea of Willy Loman as a “tragic hero” has been the subject of heated debate for decades. Some of the classic features of a tragic hero, as determined by Aristotle, can undoubtedly be applied to Willy Loman and therefore support the idea of a heroic character.
Firstly, a tragic hero should have a “magnitude or nobility”5 about them. At first glance this would seemingly exclude Willy from the status, however according to Hardison, “noble” does not necessarily imply a high social status, but rather a “larger than life”6 quality. The fact that Willy’s visions are of such a great grandeur, especially where his sons are concerned, (“You guys together could absolutely lick the civilised world. “) along with the constant gesticulations that accompany his exclamations, all support the idea that Willy Loman is indeed a “larger than life” character. Therefore, it is not possible to dismiss him as a tragic hero on this basis.
A further accepted feature of the tragic hero is the possession of hubris and hamartia; a tragic flaw and the mistakes caused by it. Hubris traditionally means a form of arrogance or pride and this trait is certainly present in Willy: “Call out the name Willy Loman and see what happens! ” This excessive pride means that Willy believes himself capable of accomplishing the American Dream to the point of delusion; he cannot accept failure and becomes unhealthily obsessed, leading to an inevitable downward spiral. Indeed, it is Willy’s pride that prevents him from taking on Charley’s job offer: ”
I got a job… what the hell are you offering me a job for?… I got a good job. ” Willy’s repetition indicates that he is trying to convince not only Charley, but himself of the idea. Deep down, he realises that he is in trouble, but his pride makes it impossible for him to accept any help. Unfortunately, it is probable that if Willy had agreed to Charley’s offer, he would not have ended up committing suicide. In this way, Willy contributes to his own downfall, which conforms to Aristotle’s dictum that the tragic hero’s fate must be partly their own fault.
Furthermore, it is generally accepted that a tragic hero’s actions should evoke catharsis in the audience at the end of the play. As Arthur Miller suggests, “the tragic feeling” is brought on “by a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure on thing, his sense of personal dignity. ” 6 Certainly, Willy’s suicide can be seen as an act of extreme bravery and selflessness, if it is viewed in light of Willy’s hope to set up his family for life with the insurance money: “I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough… ”
Willy’s comparison of his suicide to a diamond suggests that he believes it will produce something concrete for his family in the form of materialistic success, which the diamond is symbolic of. This self-sacrifice undoubtedly induces fear and pity amongst audiences and can be seen as a catharsis-evoking act due to this, thus supporting the notion of Willy as a tragic hero. Of course, there are many counterarguments to dispute the idea that Willy is a tragic hero. With respect to the classical tragedy form, the structure should end with an understanding and resolution on the tragic hero’s part.
An example of this is Othello’s realisation that he had been fooled into a jealous rage by Iago, leading to the murder of Desdemona, when he speaks of himself as “one that loved not wisely, but too well. ” He recognises his hamartia. Contrary to this, Willy dies just as disillusioned as ever, clutching on to his skewed values until the end: “Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty-thousand dollars in his pocket? ” He never questions his blind vision of material success; indeed his hopes for Biff are all centred around the same dream that proved so empty for him. On top of this, the values he holds on to are shallow because hi struggle is for material gain and recognition; he does not strive for truth or honour for example.
Although it could be said that Shakespeare’s Hamlet possesses similar faults at the beginning of the play, he manages to outgrow them. Willy on the other hand, never does. In this way, Willy Loman does not fit this particular aspect of a tragic hero. It could also be argued that Willy Loman is a victim of capitalist society; in particular the American Dream. One of the elements of “Death of a Salesman” that supports this notion is the setting itself. Miller describes the salesman’s house as “fragile” surrounded by “towering, angular shapes” (symbols of capitalism), yet “an air of the dream clings to the place.
” With the use of lighting, many directors allow the stage to gradually become more claustrophobic, until the house is so consumed with the apartment buildings it appears suffocating. Of course, this physical aspect of the play runs parallel to Willy’s decline; he becomes so consumed with his warped version of the American Dream to the point where it kills him. In this way, Miller immediately manages to link both the notion of imminent tragedy and the American Dream together. To put it into context, Miller was writing during a time of post-war economy, when American confidence, prosperity and security was high.
The playwright’s criticism of an obscure American Dream, that no longer encouraged people to “be recognised for who they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”7 , was therefore quite a radical challenge to make at the time, as unlike nowadays, people did not constantly self-analyse on a national and individual level. The dream is the villain of the play. Willy’s desperate nocturnal attempt to grow vegetables in the garden further compounds to this idea, as it signifies not only his shame at not being able to provide for his family, but also symbolises the concept that pursuing the dream is a fruitless affair altogether. Consequently, if the American Dream is the villain, Willy Loman cannot be deemed a typical tragic hero because it is the society he lives in that predetermines his downfall from the very beginning.
Some critics have even gone as far as saying that “Death of a Salesman” cannot be deemed a true tragedy because of this, but rather a “social drama” 8 according to Brenda Murphy. This is because it is questionable as to whether Willy Loman has any control over his destiny at all, as although he is in command of his body and actions, the American Dream has polluted his mind to such an extent that he can barely grasp reality. Indeed, his frequent hallucinations at inappropriate moments emphasise this: “Pull myself together!
What the hell did I say to him? My God, I was yelling at him! ” Also, Miller often uses language through out the play to foreshadow Willy’s death: “these arch supports are killing me… “, “tired to death” etc. It is almost as if Willy is predicting his own ends; he is precariously ready to drop or give up on life throughout many sections of the play. This self-pity is not an admirable quality and is therefore more befitting to a victim than a tragic hero.
Interestingly, another interpretation of Willy’s character is that he is a tragic villain. This is because he selfishly disregards the dreams of his family in order to fulfil his own. Biff, for example, is not a businessman at heart and is content with the simple necessities of life (“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? “). However, his father constantly makes him feel guilty about this and frequently refers to him as a “lazy bum”. Also, in declining Charley’s job offer Willy Loman casts his family’s needs aside because it does not live up to his ideal job.
Although the term “villain” may be a bit harsh, it is certainly true that the shortcomings of his personality make Willy a harder character to sympathise with than Sophocles’s Oedipus for example. In this way he could be considered neither a hero nor a victim, because a tragic victim generally needs to arouse high compassion amongst audiences. To conclude, it seems as if the character of Willy Loman is most accurately described as an “anti-hero”. This is because, although he is the protagonist of the play, he lacks many of the traditional qualities of a true tragic hero; Miller has subverted this stereotype in creating Willy
Loman. More importantly however, audiences would certainly not wish t to be like him in any way, although there are undoubtedly aspects of Willy’s personality that we can relate to. As Joyce Carol Oates suggests: “For all his delusions and intellectual limitations… Willy Loman is all of us. Or, rather, we are Willy Loman, particularly those of us who are writers, poets, dreamers; the yearning soul “way out there in the blue. “1 Nevertheless, Willy does still possess some of the attributes of Aristotle’s typical tragic hero as previously mentioned, which means he cannot be considered a total victim either.
The only certainty is that critics will continue to ponder over Willy Loman’s character for years to come.
1. ) Oates, Joyce Carol. ‘Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman’, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 1998. 2. ) Moss, Leonard. ‘Arthur Miller’, 1967. 3. ) Salitt, D. ‘The Character of Willy Loman’, 2000. 4. ) Swietek, F. ‘Death of a Salesman: Tragedy? ‘, 2003. 5. ) Carson, Neil. ‘Arthur Miller’, New York Grove Press,1982. 6. ) Miller, Arthur. ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, 1949. 7. ) Adams, James Truslow. ‘Epic of America’, 1931. 8. ) Murphy, Brenda. ‘The Tradition of Social Drama’,1997.