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Tragic Hero

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Willy Loman, the main character in Death of a Salesman is a complex and fascinating tragic character. He is a man struggling to hold onto what dignity he has left in a changing society that no longer values the ideals he grew up to believe in. While society can be blamed for much of his misfortune, he must also be blamed himself to an equal extent for his bad judgement, disloyalty and his foolish pride.

Willy Loman is a firm believer in the "American Dream:" the notion that any man can rise from humble beginnings to greatness. His particular slant on this ideal is that a man succeeds by selling his charisma, that to be well liked is the most important asset a man can have. He made a living at this for 30 years, but as he enters the reclining years of his life, people have stopped smiling back and he can no longer sell the firm's goods to support himself. His ambition was one of greatness, to work hard and to be a member of the firm; and if he could not succeed in this respect, that he should at least be well-liked and be able to sell until the day of his death: When his friends would flock from all over the country to pay their respects.

Willy's main flaw is his foolish pride, this it what makes him a tragic hero. Yet there are many facets to his personality that contribute to the state he and the family are in during the play. His upbringing of the boys is one major issue, he raised them with the notion that if one is well-liked, he need not worry about qualifications, he believed that if his boys were popular they would come out on top. Sadly, he doesn't realise that the only way an ordinary person can get rich is through work (represented by Bernard) or through luck and good timing (Ben), and Willy missed the boat when it came to luck. The boys grew up to believe in all that their father had told them, and Happy went on to follow in his footsteps as a salesman. Biff, after catching his father with the woman begins to question these values. He realises that for him, at least, these values are not applicable, and he is not too concerned if he doesn't come out on top. He just wants to be able to say he knows who he is. The aptly named Happy continues to believe in these ideals even after his father's death and decides that the Loman name will succeed.

In 1949, shortly after the play's premiere, Miller wrote a controversial essay about how Death of a Salesman was a true tragedy, only with common people rather than kings. Loman's lack of self-awareness is not unlike King Lear's, it could be argued - both men evoke the tragic by dying in the effort to secure, in Miller's words, "a sense of personal dignity."

As the play progresses, one begins to feel sorry for Willy and his predicament, but also angry and frustrated with the character for his foolish pride. It is this trait that prevents him from accepting a steady job with Charlie, something that could have saved his life. However, it is this false pride has been sparking the family flame for years, the notion that the Loman name was well known and well-liked. The family lie even amongst themselves about their position as is revealed during the climax of the play:

BIFF "...We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!"

HAPPY "We always told the truth!"

BIFF (turning on him) "You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You're one of two assistants to the assistant aren't you?"

Another example is the way in which Willy led Biff to believe that he has a salesman for Oliver, which in the end left Biff bitterly disappointed. The cause for this extrapolation of the truth may be

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