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Death Of A Salesman-Is Willy A Modern Tragic Hero?

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"Attention, attention must be paid to such a man". In which parts of the play can Willy Loman be considered "great", and where does he seem a "low man". Do you agree that he is truly a modern tragic figure?

Death of a Salesman is a play that has come to redefine the concept of modern tragedy. A challenge to Philip Sydney's judgement that "tragedy concerneth the high fellow" Death of a Salesman is the tragedy of the common man of the low-man. Many critics charge that Death of a Salesman falls short of tragedy and is therefore disqualified as a "great" play. Tragedy is developed as a form of drama that incorporates incidents arousing pity and fear, to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions. The ancient philosopher, Aristotle, wrote the first, and in many ways the most significant, thesis on tragedy in his Poetics. He argued that the protagonist of a tragedy must be a man of noble birth, who due to some predestined flaw, or hamartia, in his character, suffers greatly. Aristotle argues that many tragic representations of suffering and defeat can leave an audience feeling not depressed, but relieved and perhaps even exalted. He also argues that a tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if he is of higher than ordinary moral worth. For Willy to be a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, he would have to be a man of obvious virtue who has a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall. This would place the blame for the events of the play firmly on Willy's shoulders, even though the punishment is extreme.

Willy Loman does not fit the criteria of a traditional tragic hero in one telling way - he is not of noble birth. Miller believed that "the common man is as apt for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were" and that it mattered not whether he "falls from a great height or a small one." People who are atop the social hierarchy can still hold a high place in other peoples' hearts - we can see that Linda adores Willy, and until Biff's discovery of his affair with the Woman, he and Happy idolise him. Willy aspires to be a tragic hero; he is man of "massive dreams" not high stature, although Biff's proclamation of him in Act II as a "fine, troubled prince" draws comparisons with Hamlet. Miller argued that our notion of the tragic hero should change with the times and that people can no longer relate to kings. Modern tragedy needed an "every-man" that the masses could relate to - Miller provided them with Willy Loman, the average American. Willy is the "every man" of America, there is nothing that makes him stand out from the crowd, we can see that he has journeyed into the world of business, acquired a range of modern appliances, raised a family and has problems with his mortgage.

Miller was determined that the protagonist of Death of a Salesman should be an ordinary man in order to demonstrate the fate of those anonymous people who supported a system which casts them aside when they need it most. In fact the idea of the common man being belittled in this way connects with audiences to perhaps a greater extent now, as capitalism and consumerism advance across the globe. As a "challenge to the American dream" Willy's failure in the so-called land of opportunity leads the play to connect well with American audiences who may have encountered the same experience. America, the home of "the American dream of unrestrained individualism and assured material success" has ultimately proved barren for Willy who strives to succeed in the business world and fails. The capitalist system of free enterprise and big business undeniably had its rewards but it was not without its problems. In Willy Loman we see a man who has fallen foul of this system. We see how an obviously proud man is reduced to begging for scraps from his boss and his neighbour, just to survive, and then pretends to his wife that it is his pay. It is obvious that Death of a Salesman is a powerful attack on the American system; Miller himself was no stranger to conflict with the America way of life - he was accused of communism and a desire to undermine the American way of life by the McCarthy commission in 1956. However, this play is not about capitalism versus communism but about a man disenchanted by the passage of time and dismayed at the realism that has robbed him of his dreams, ambitions and success, he feels "kind of temporary about himself," which is why we see him at the end of his career and not the beginning. Conversely, the ability of Willy, the common man, to take on the role of the tragic hero can be seen as a demonstration that those worth nothing can achieve anything and is therefore a realisation of the American Dream.

Eric Bentley argues that Death of a Salesman "arouses pity but no terror. Man here is too little and too passive to play the tragic hero." However, I feel that the fact that Willy is a "little" man evokes both pity and terror. Willy moves us to fear because we can recognise similar possibilities of error in ourselves. Willy is universal in the sense that he is typical of us all, he is a "low-man." Many of us know how it feels to struggle to succeed, and like Willy, material success is often an inescapable part of our lives whether or not we wish to admit it. Act I might be said to inspire horror, as Willy's deteriorating mental state is made clear and Act II could engender pity as he suffers even more for it than he perhaps deserves. We can see that although he may not necessarily a great man now, Willy once was. Up until the discovery of his affair, both Biff and Happy idolise him, when he comes home from a trip they drop everything - "Ah, when Pop comes home they can wait!" As Linda tells Willy "Few men are idolized by their children the way you are." Willy reminisces about these "great times" at the end of Act II -"never even let me carry the valises in the house, and simonising, simonising that little red car!" - he obviously wishes that they can return to the time when he and Biff were friends. To his family, Willy is obviously a great man, Linda proclaims him the "handsomest man in the world" while Biff calls him a "prince." The fact that we can see this past greatness inspires pathos. However, there are instances when Willy can be interpreted as weak. Although he tells Linda "on the road I want to grab you sometimes and just kiss the life out you" he still has an affair; this hypocrisy is highlighted by the way this line leads on to a scene with The Woman. Despite telling her that she is "the best" he constantly interrupts her



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