This is a critical analysis I wrote on Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman". The essay focuses on Willy Loman’s portrayal as an American tragic hero.
Critical Analysis of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller’s drama Death of a Salesman is highly regarded as one of the best examples of a modern American play. Following the “certain private conversations” of the Loman family in New York, Death of a Salesman analyzes the detrimental aspects of pursuing the American dream while still retaining enough sentimental emotion to deliver a strong, heartfelt message on redemption. These and many other aspects of Miller’s play all culminate inside the main character, Willy Loman, in a way that makes him seem to some like a rendition of the modern tragic hero. Now viewed by many as a modern American tragedy, Death of a Salesman continues to connect with audiences but on a more emotionally established, dramatic level.
Embodying Aristotle’s qualities of a tragic hero, Willy Loman embodies the figure of such a hero so well that one critic has even described him as “our quintessential American tragic hero” and “our domestic Lear” (Oates). Much like the Aristotelian tragic hero, Willy is a character who holds power, as he is the sole worker for the Loman household despite the effort made by his two adult sons, Biff and Happy. Willy also remains noble through his experiences during the play, much like the tragic heroes of Greek drama who often struggled with imperfection. Even as Willy pleads to Howard about a potential pay raise, he admits that he “needs only fifty dollars a week to set my table,” showing both his humility and financial ambition (80). Willy’s actions are even amplified on a philosophical and spiritual basis much like those of the classic tragic heroes. Essentially a spiritual guide, Willy’s brother Ben acts as a mentor with whom Willy has delusional conversations with. In fact, the last conversation Willy has with his absent relative ends as Ben proclaims that his suicide plan is “a perfect proposition all around” (135). On the other hand, Willy is seen by some to “passively and even gladly accept the very conditions of life that will lead to his own annihilation,” although his actions still carry emotional weight in the fact that he alone is responsible for the family’s financial situation (Cardullo). Topped off with Willy’s delusional and faulty personality, the immense pressure of achieving the American dream is what causes the tragic hero of Miller’s play to succumb to his own vices, just like the many tragic heroes of early dramas. As he slowly falls victim to his own over the top attitude and reckless ambition, Willy’s desolation brought about by his sons’ desperate attempts to become successful cause him to become suicidal and thus contemplative as to why he cannot seem to find hope when everyone around him strikes it rich. Joyce Oates even says that Willy’s life is merely “talk, and optimistic and inflated sales rhetoric” (Oates). However, just as Willy embodies the excessive self-punishment and despair shared by tragic heroes, he also demonstrates the selfless act of personal redemption that early dramas used to bring about catharsis. After seeing Biff cry, Willy proclaims “Did you see how he cried to me? Oh, I could kiss him, Ben!”, showing that he has undergone a profound change in his once tense relationship with his son (135). Following Aristotle’s rubric, Willy Loman’s despair results in his own self-discovery that allows him to make the selfish sacrifice of committing suicide so that his family could collect $20,000 in insurance money. Much like the Aristotelian and classic tragic hero, Willy Loman experiences personal vices that lead to both a personal downfall and his interpersonal redemption.
Aside from implementing the classic aspects of a tragic hero into Willy Loman’s persona, Miller also uses distinct modifications of the tragic traits in order to model the hero around the modern day and age. Miller’s previous works such as his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” clearly show how such an archaic motif can be modeled around the lifestyle of a twentieth-century American. These modifications, fueled in part by Willy’s desire to achieve the American dream, all culminate in such a way that Death of a Salesman acts as both a modern tragedy and a classic and contemporary drama. One aspect of Willy that sets him apart from the traditional tragic hero is his inability to make actions without consequences. Some critics claim that “for an audience to feel the full impact of the fate that the tragic hero brings on himself, the hero must have nearly complete freedom of action,” thus giving the performance a sense of emotional hubris (Cardullo). However, in Death of a Salesman, the tragic hero instead is trapped as the sole breadwinner of his household. Willy even openly discusses his stressful situation in Howard’s office when he says that “the kids are all grown up” and “I’m just tired” (79). Also unique to Willy’s tragedy is his downfall. While most tragic heroes are identified with a single, devastating personal issue, Willy is instead burdened with both an ambitious personality as well as his relationship with a mistress. While away from home, Willy openly cheats on his wife Linda and is even caught in the act by his son Biff, who is last seen at the hotel “Overcome, turning quickly and weeping fully as he goes out” (121). Although Willy’s desolation is ultimately brought about by his delusional need to be successful, the added guilt created by Biff’s unanticipated knowledge of the affair makes Death of a Salesman almost too tragic for it to have a truly profound message. However, some critics believe that “Even the claustrophobia of his private familial and sexual obsessions has a universal quality, in the plaintive-poetic language Miller has chosen for him,” thereby making the play easy to identify with (Oates). This quality of the play, although unorthodox in comparison to other tragedies, gives the play a more emotionally profound message as Willy Loman undergoes personal redemption. Willy Loman also struggles with a mental conflict between illusion and reality. Throughout the play, Willy is often seen rambling on about his successful brother Ben or drifting in and out of flashbacks in the middle of conversations. Unlike most tragic heroes, Willy’s desolation is apparent at the beginning of the play. Even in the opening scene, Willy tells Linda that he “was suddenly running off the road” during his business trip to New England, hinting as his decline in mental alertness (15). Through flashbacks, however, we learn that Willy’s life has only recently taken a turn for the worse, and that his condition is only a recent development. By starting the play in the middle of the hero’s collapse, Miller is able to utilize flashbacks in order to slowly build the emotional depth of the performance piece by piece. However, by arranging the play in such a construed chronological order, Miller distinctly separates Willy from the classic Aristotelian hero in that he is already distraught when the performance begins. By using these subtle variations in Willy’s tragic qualities, Miller is able to produce a new version of the contemporary tragic hero that makes Death of a Salesman both easily identifiable and concrete in its depiction of the modern American’s struggles.
While many literary critics revere Death of a Salesman as a true modern tragedy, many see it as a poor representation of the virtues a tragic hero should demonstrate. For example, unlike the humility normally experienced by the tragic hero after a downfall, Willy Loman instead retains his pride, even going so far as to say “don’t insult me” when his neighbor Charley offers him a job even after he loses his own (43). Others believe that instead of Willy, it is Biff Loman that serves as the tragic hero. Claiming that he is “mixed up” and unsuccessful despite all his father taught him, Biff at first appears to demonstrate the tragic trait of falling victim to his own personal vices (23). Biff even experiences his own personal redemption in the conclusion of the performance when he decides to leave New York, even asking his family to “tell them you don’t know” whenever they are questioned about his whereabouts (129). However, what little tragic characteristics Biff embodies are rebutted by his apparent lack of personal change. Even after his father’s death Biff claims that Willy “had the wrong dreams” while his brother Happy reluctantly vows to support his family in the future (138). While many view Biff as the true tragic hero of Death of a Salesman, it is ultimately Willy Loman and the various qualities he displays that set him apart. Although not all Aristotolian traits are embraced by Willy, it is the variation in such qualities that makes Death of a Salesman a modern drama with “a disturbing, poetic quality” (Oates).
In essence, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the epitome of both a genuine American drama and a modern tragedy. Renowned worldwide as an emotionally moving performance, Death of a Salesman continues to captivate audiences with its Aristotelian parallelisms and psychological hubris. Acting as our very own American tragic hero, Willy Loman will forever be revered as a modern representation of the tragedy behind the contemporary American working man.