The tragic hero has long been a dramatic figure. Oedipus defines such a hero; his future determined by the fates and the gods, his actions work together to bring it about even as he believes that he is taking pains to avoid it. He has no choice in how his story will end; he is a hamster in a wheel running and running to go nowhere. Willy Loman is no such hero. While his story makes the reader feel for him and for his family, it is more pathetic than it is tragic.
Despite Miller’s well argued assertion that the common man can be a tragic figure, Loman does not fit the requirements for tragedy. A tragic hero suffers from lack of choice; he suffers more than is his lot despite what he feels are wise decisions. He has no choice but to continue on his path because he lacks the possibility to choose. The audience must be moved by the hero’s fate, but both the audience and the hero himself must also learn from the play’s events. Loman does not measure up to being a “tragic” figure, however.
He suffers, not because of fate, but because he has created his own destiny. His measure of greatness is too small. For Loman, a great man is “well liked. ” He repeats this theme throughout the play, using it to judge himself and to judge other people. However, as Charley points out, it is not necessary to be well liked in this life to be successful (Miller, 1977, p. 97). Despite the repeated failure of his model for success Loman continues with it, even teaching it to his children, perpetuating the cycle of failure.
Although he seems to learn from Charley’s words that his only success lies in what he can sell, thus leading to the thought that all he has left of value is his life (Miller, 1977), Loman proves to the audience that he has not learned at all. Instead, he fantasizes about how his family will love him for his sacrifice, not realizing that he will take from them what they truly cherish. Without doubt, it is possible for the audience to fear Loman’s fate. In today’s uncertain world that sees many people living from paycheck to paycheck, it is possible to feel that our lives are valueless.
What makes Loman’s fate more pathetic than tragic, however, is his continued insistence on using a single, worthless, measure of success and his continued fantasizing. Had he learned from his mistakes and still continued to fail, or had he been compelled to repeat his actions through fate, he might have reached the level of tragic hero. However, Loman is more allied with Tiresias, whose blindness reflects the unseeing actions of the other characters, rather than with the hero whose fated actions bring about his tragic end.
Reference Miller, A. (1977). Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin.