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The Tragic Heroes of Oedipus and Willy Loman

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Sarah Banks

AP English

10 October 2015

The Tragic Heroes of Oedipus and Willy Loman

A hero is characterized as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. Considering that Willy Loman is portrayed in the Death of a Salesman as a common man who falls short of his aspirations of achieving the American Dream, the first impression of him would not be a hero. As the plot of the Death of a Salesman unfolds, the idea that Willy Loman is a hero is even more absurd as Willy Loman blindfoldedly stumbles through life, forever refusing to accept his imminent failure. Likewise, Oedipus, a Greek mythological character, unsuccessfully endeavors to escape his inevitable fate in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Willy Loman and Oedipus’ characters, however, represent heroes, or, more specifically, tragic heroes. A tragic hero is defined as a “literary character, typically a noble, who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her own destruction.” The tragic heroes of Willy Loman and Oedipus mirror each other’s refusal to accept his inevitable fate. In both the Death of a Salesman and Oedipus the King, both Willy Loman and Oedipus tragically suffer from their hamartia and fail to remain dignified in critical situations.

Willy Loman is a common salesman whose only desire is to achieve the American Dream. In “Death of a Salesman,” Willy Loman is the chimerical protagonist of the play, delusioned by the prospect of the American Dream. He works as a salesman, although he has never been very successful. In fact, everything about Willy Loman screams “unsuccessful.” He owns a run down house, a poorly running refrigerator and earns a very poor income. Like his inanimate possessions, Willy himself is beat up, tired and overworked. As previously mentioned, tragic heroes are typically noble, and Willy Loman is a modern-day commoner who, unlike heroic Oedipus, holds no royal power in the world. Arthur Miller states in "Tragedy of the Common Man," that, "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." The reasoning behind Miller’s belief is that these “common man tragic heroes” allow the audience to connect with similar troubles, flaws and fears that our society holds today. The character of Willy Loman represents the modern day tragic hero.

Willy leads a very naive life; he is unable to accept the fact that the American Dream is as much a fantasy as is Willy a successful salesman. Willy not only lies to himself and others around him about his success as a businessman, but also lives in a world of illusions. He says of himself that he is well liked in all the towns he visits and by all the customers that he calls on. Willy also lives out his illusions through his sons. Willy naively sees Happy as a successful businessman when in reality, Happy lives in a similar world full of illusions and fantasies of one day winning his father’s approval. Willy has the highest hopes for his eldest son, Biff. As Willy has superficial illusions that in order to be successful, one must be well liked and attractive, and Biff is the more attractive son who was a well-liked superstar athlete in high school, he fits seamlessly into this illusion. In reality, Biff has flunked math and decided to not pursue his education any further after catching his father having an affair. Willy is not only naive about himself, but he refuses to see the truth about Biff, even when Biff admits that he is a complete failure.

In Oedipus the King, the protagonist, Oedipus, contrasts the social status of Willy Loman. Oedipus is a king who seeks to apprehend the murderer of the previous king, Laius, to once again provide order to his plague consumed kingdom, Thebes. The blind prophet, Tiresias, however, reveals that Oedipus himself is the murderer as the murderer of Laius will turn out to be both father and brother to his own children, and the son of his own wife. Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta, who is also the widow of Laius, tells Oedipus not to fret as she has deemed prophecies untrue. Apparently, the oracle at Delphi told former king, Laius, that his son would kill him, although his son had been exiled from Thebes as an infant and Laius was rumored to have been murdered by a group of thieves. When Jocasta describes Laius’s murder, however, Oedipus shares in disbelief that he may have murdered the former king. He shares that after he was foretold by the oracle at Delphi that he would murder his father and sleep with his mother, he fled his home to Thebes where he killed by a group of travelers in self defense at the very same crossroads as Jocasta described. As the story continues to unfold and it is revealed that Jocasta is actually Oedipus’s mother, and that Oedipus fulfilled the very same prophecy he was destined to escape, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus, who finds her dead, steals her hair pins, stabs out his own eyes and begs to be exiled. Oedipus’s determination to rebel from his inevitable fate leads to his downfall. In other words, he commits an action which ultimately destroys him. Instead of facing the fact that he was the root of Thebes’ plague, he stabs out his eyes in, what he believes to be, compensation for his unintentional wrongdoings.

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