Since its publication in 1949, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has sparked an ongoing debate regarding the true nature and definition of tragedy in literature. While a general consensus about this definition may never truly be reached, Arthur Miller carefully lays out his own criteria in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” referring often to the Aristotelian soil out of which his personal definition of tragedy bloomed. In this article, he asserts that tragedy, while once reserved for lofty figures such as kings and noblemen, is just as attainable by the ordinary and the lowly. In his conclusion, he states, “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man.” This assertion leads one to beg the question, “Can true tragedy befall one who is not upright in character?” for this is the case for many such “average men.” Is it possible for a less than noble man to evoke pity and ultimately be deemed a tragic hero? While some vehemently declare that it is impossible for such shady literary characters as Willy Loman to be deemed heroes, Miller writes his Death of a Salesman protagonist in such a way that even the harshest of critics find themselves in an empathetic state as the curtains close. In his aforementioned essay, Miller explains the reason for such empathy in his words, “The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.” Thus, in order to fully understand Willy Loman’s both heroic and pathetic state, one must delve into the aspects of his character which most contribute to these three qualities, examining his lack of moral integrity and declining mental state in light of the pressures placed upon him by the “superior force” of the 1950’s American culture.
Finding the “tragedy” in Willy’s exceptionally loose moral convictions proves quite difficult to those who view the play at a surface level, which threatens his “hero” status more than any other trait. The most prominent holes in his moral fabric show through in situations such as his affair. Angrily commanding his wife Linda to throw away the stockings she is mending, he exhibits his temper (1037). Giving new pairs of stockings to his mistress rather than his wife, he shows a lack of marital commitment (1087). Using his relationship with the Woman for financial gain, he displays his manipulative charisma (1085). Finally, in lying to his son about the affair (and never confessing his infidelity to his wife), he exercises his instinctual deceptive tendencies (1087). What redemption can be found for a man so slick with lies and facades? What pity can be felt? While some may view his deplorable actions as the exact opposite of tragedy (and his ultimate downfall as the retribution for his sins), tragedy is in fact present within them nonetheless. Willy lies, swindles, and steals, yet he is doing so in pursuit of the American Dream, that shiny, glimmering trinket that will magically erase all past actions once it is achieved. The American Dream, or rather the definition of it with which he is familiar, is “good,” while the failure to achieve it is “evil.” This, rather than the Judeo-Christian set of moral principles held by Americans in past decades, has saturated his and his culture’s mindset, slowly seeping into crevices of the American psyche left open by the emptiness of materialism. As Happy Loman insists in the play’s requiem, “[Willy] had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one-man” (1099). When coming out on top is the goal, corners will be cut to reach it. With this in mind, readers cannot necessarily view Willy’s crimes as conscious evil but rather a blind following of a flawed cultural mindset. Americans can all empathize with the effect of these values, for an evolved version of the American Dream is still present in society today. As readers, too, sense themselves grappling with the “superior force” (Miller) that is their country’s flawed value system, they are able to sense the tragedy of Death of a Salesman in its strongest form.
Although finding tragedy in Willy Loman’s moral flaws may take some soul-searching, watching his steep mental decline could evoke pity in the most critical and objective of hearts. Integral to the unfolding of the play, his flashbacks and lapses in sanity strike frequently and powerfully, signs of the advanced stages of dementia or a similar disorder. As his friend Charlie explains after Willy’s death, “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat, and you’re finished” (1099). Willy’s mental disorder is a “spot,” his mind wearing thin from the strain put upon it by the company. What is more tragic about this is how truly “out in the blue” (1099) he is, for in sweeping his psychological problems under the rug, those around him truly have left him to fend for himself. On the surface, Willy is being treated with all the dignity and expectations of a regular man. While characters such as Linda do so to “help” him in part, this leaves him isolated and helpless more than anything else. He teeters on the edge of losing his drivers license (1025), his job (1064), and his life (1097), but no soul will acknowledge his failing mental health long enough to prevent those things from happening. As America’s flawed values are in part to blame for his faulty morality, they can also be blamed for the mentality taken on by those around him. In a culture where subjects such as suicide and mental illness are “taboo,” Linda is only catering to those values as she chooses not to address Willy’s suicide attempts. “How can I mention it to him” (1050), she asks her sons. “How can I insult him that way? I don’t know what to do. I live from day to day, boys” (1050). In preferring to “live day to day” (1050) rather than insult her husband by acknowledging his problem, Linda only allows the problem to grow until it claims Willy’s life. Perhaps Willy could have dealt with his struggles if only someone had stepped down low enough to help him through them. Although the dialogue surrounding mental health is far more socially acceptable today, readers, too, are brought to a sense of pity for Willy, guilt for the times they failed to help struggling loved ones, and perhaps empathy from the times they did not receive such help themselves.
As Arthur Miller states in “Tragedy and the Common Man,” “I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity.” Such is the plot line of Death of a Salesman. Morality and integrity are sacrificed to exultation and wealth. Mental well-being is laid down at the feet of success and image. True tragedy emerges as audiences helplessly watch the protagonist pursue this false sense of dignity found at the core of the American Dream at the cost of all that matters most. As he makes sacrifice after sacrifice, they are left with not only pity for Willy Loman but with conviction as well, wondering what they themselves have relinquished to the ultimate meaninglessness of image and material wealth.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. The Norton Introduction to Literature, Mays, Kelly J., 2017, pp. 1018-1099.
Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man.” New York Times. 27 Feb. 1949, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/12/specials/miller-common.html. Accessed 19 Nov. 2018.