Critics have hotly debated the question of whether Willy Loman is a tragic hero or whether Death of a Salesman is a tragedy. Dramatic tragedy was invented and defined by the Greeks. Aristotle said a play has to have four elements to qualify as a tragedy: 1) noble or impressive characters; 2) the main character’s discovery or recognition of a truth or fault in himself ; 3) poetic language; and 4) the ability to arouse and then soothe the audience’s pity and fear. Some critics consider that whether Death of a Salesman is a tragedy or not is debatable on all four sections, while others think the play meets all these criteria.
When Arthur Miller began reading plays in college, Greek tragedies made a profound impression on him. He says that he was drawn to the Greeks “for their magnificent form, the symmetry. ” “That form has never left me; I suppose it just got burned in. ” However Arthur Miller argued that times have changed- “we no longer live in an era dominated by kings and queens- and so maybe our definition of tragedy should change, too. ” Changing ideas on the qualities of a “modern tragedy” means also changing the qualities of a “modern tragic hero”.
A tragic hero is someone with the dedication to die for a belief, but also someone who has a tragic flaw or limitation that defines him as a character and makes the tragedy happen. Willy is intense and passionate and cares about his dream enough to sacrifice his life to it. He has alternatives, but he chooses to live in a certain way that brings about his downfall that is the difference between Willy and his salesman neighbour Charley who chooses other ways of achieving success. As soon as Death of a Salesman opened, critics began writing about its relation to Greek tragedy, usually pointing out that Willy doesn’t qualify as a tragic hero.
Miller replied to these critics with an essay titled “Tragedy and the Common Man. ” He said that Death of a Salesman does have a shattering emotional impact on the audience that corresponds to that of a Greek tragedy. It also shows the inevitable movement toward death of the protagonist with growing self-awareness, the single story without subplots and a clear beginning, middle and end, and the unity of time, as Death of a Salesman takes place within the course of about twenty-four hours.
Miller is adamant that Death of a salesman has many elements that allow it to qualify as a Greek tragedy but, he is more concerned with the idea of modern tragedy and how Willy Loman is a tragic hero in modern society Though he is a common man or a Low-man as his name suggests, Willy was described by Miller as “a very brave spirit who cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end. ” Though Willy did not have great intellectual powers, the first of Aristotles qualities, he did experience self-awareness- otherwise he would not have killed himself when he realised his life was meaningless.
The question of why Willy commits suicide is of course central. The title Death of a Salesman raises it even before the play begins. The forces that drove Willy to kill himself were perhaps; escape, from the empty and bitter reality of his life; revenge, for his sons’ disrespect and resentment; power, in taking action when everything seems hopeless; courage, to lay down his life; victory, finally being able to make a profitable deal, and, by redeeming his life insurance policy, giving his son a fortune, understanding, that he went wrong, this is the true realisation and is similar to King Lear at his death with Cordelia.
So Willy Loman wreaks havoc on his own life and on that of his sons. The blight of his own confusion is visited upon them. His final attempt to make a legacy for Biff and Happy is his suicide, which he feels will earn the $20,000 of his insurance policy Willy wants to make an impression, to be remembered after his death, to “give something” to Biff and Happy, and his inability to do any of these haunts him. Once he realises his life has been futile: he is old, has achieved little, is scorned by his peers and his sons. Willy comes to face, the absurdity of life, and it is for this reason that “attention must be paid.
As Linda says “A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man,” this reinforces the idea that a tragic hero must no longer be a man of high moral stature, he need not have the power or largeness of a King but he can be an ordinary “Lowman” to be influential on an audience and because Death of a Salesman is also a criticism of the moral and social standards of contemporary America, not merely a record of the particular plight of one man. And, also, it presents Willy as a victim of the deterioration of the “American dream”.