Can ‘Death of a Salesman’ be Described as a Tragedy Essay
Can ‘Death of a Salesman’ be Described as a Tragedy
Aristotle first defined a tragedy in literature as a story where the main character is a hero – a very brilliant person – except that he has one major flaw which leads to his downfall, namely, death. Shakespeare then expanded on this and produced his world famous tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet. In all of these plays, the main character is a person of high social standing and exceptionally talented, however each has a very serious flaw as well.
For example, Romeo is of Italian nobility and is very efficient with a sword and dagger – but he is a fool for love and falls in love with Juliet as soon as he sees her, despite already being in love with Rosaline beforehand. That is the flaw which eventually leads to his demise. This definition has over time become the benchmark for a tragedy. Arthur Miller was an immigrant to the USA and can be seen as the opposite of Willy. Willy, however, is a proud born and bred American and holds to heart the very fundamentals of the American Dream – a very capitalistic ethos.
Miller, on the other hand, had communist beliefs which eventually landed him in trouble with the government. Both Death of a Salesman and another of Miller’s plays, All My Sons both have the foundations of the American Dream and also both secretly criticize the capitalistic belief. In Death of a Salesman, Willy dies just trying to live the American Dream and he never gives up on it – an indication of his extreme optimism in all things – despite how blatantly unrealistic achieving the American Dream was for him.
The characterisation of Willy Loman is also quite interesting. He strives to be like a very old, successful salesman he met that worked from home, who when he died, numerous people he knew went to his funeral. He is someone everyone can relate to and make us love him, but he also has qualities that we all loathe and make us hate him at times. This is purposefully done by Miller to only make it more shocking when Willy dies in the end – despite it is made quite obvious to readers it is inevitable.
His name is also carefully planned out by Miller – Willy is an average name and nothing special, but his surname is a clear reference to what he is. ‘Loman’ – ‘low man’ is clearly meant to show how ordinary he is, despite just how much Willy strives to be the opposite. Willy’s main character flaw is that he is just too proud. For example, when he is offered a job by Charley – his neighbour – after being fired, Willy straight out refuses and is quite offended as he sees it as giving up and asking for help. This is shown by when Willy says, “I don’t want your goddam job!
After Charley politely offers him a good one. Willy’s strong beliefs in the American Dream are also shown when he says, “A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has to add up to something”, by ‘coming in’, Willy means when a man is born and by “going out”, Willy means when a man dies. Also, “adding up to something” must mean being rich in Willy’s context. This follows the American Dream in that a man makes something of himself from nothing. Willy’s greatest fear has always been dying with nothing – exactly what happens in the end.
A use of dramatic irony by Miller, Willy willingly fulfils his own utmost fear. That quotation is also foreshadowing Willy’s death – another intentional device by Miller. Besides his pride, another flaw of Willy is very poor and deteriorating mental health and he is subject to random flashbacks and hallucinations – often of his dead and once very successful older brother, Ben, someone Willy idolizes. An example of one of his hallucinations is when Willy says, “Ben, I’ve been waiting for so long”, despite Ben being dead at this point. The play is also cleverly structured by Miller.
Music – for example a flute – plays in the background during some scenes for an added dramatic effect. This flute is heard in both the opening and ending scene. The play also makes heavy use of flashbacks, but sometimes a flashback scene plays on stage at the same time as the scene set in the present. This technique is seen in Act Two, while Willy is in the restaurant with Biff and Happy. On the whole, the structure is skilfully used to make the storyline more immersive to the audience. Although, it does not have the same level of effect when being read from a book.
The historical context of the play greatly influences both the themes and language of the play greatly. Death of a Salesman is set during the late 1940s. This time setting influences both the characters and the audience, as the play first premiered on the tenth of February, 1949 – the life of Willy Loman was something Americans going to watch the play at that time could relate to. Sixty years on, more modern audiences will react differently as times have changed and the idea of the American Dream isn’t as dominant anymore. Besides the American Dream, other common themes can be found in the play.
Betrayal is quite clear as Willy betrays Linda by cheating on her with the Woman, and Willy also sees the way Biff rebels against him as betrayal and as Willy himself says, “Spite! “. Another major theme would be one man – Willy in this case – being kept back from his dreams by society. In addition, the language used by characters matches the historical setting and context. In performances of the play, characters do not usually have the New Yorker accent you would expect, but they talk like a New Yorker. For example, words like ‘gee’, and rhetorically asking the person they are talking to if they ‘hear this?
‘On the subject of whether we can define Death of a Salesman as a tragedy or not is not a simple question as there is substantial evidence for both sides of the argument. To begin with, those who say that it is a tragedy may argue that it ends with the death of Willy, the main character, just like other tragedies. Moreover, Willy has explicit flaws which slowly lead to his downfall throughout the play. Finally, Willy may not ever do anything that can be deemed ‘heroic’, but within his own household he is very much a figure that is looked up to – so it may still be a tragedy, albeit on a less grand scale.
In contrast, you could argue that it is not a tragedy as all other characters from Shakespeare’s tragedies were people of high standing – whereas Willy is not. Additionally, Willy is not at all a hero by any definition – in fact he is in some ways a bad person as will be shown. Finally, Shakespeare’s heroes have quite dramatic flaws, whereas Willy has the same flaws as every ordinary human being. These are quite convincing arguments to why it isn’t a tragedy. We will be looking at each argument more in-depth.
The play follows the tragedies of Shakespeare in that the main character dies in the end. Willy commits suicide by crashing his car so that his family would get the life insurance money of $20,000 and make life easier for them. This is of course a noble reason to kill oneself as it is very selfless. However, it would make Willy a hypocrite as killing himself is also him giving up – something he condemned. Nevertheless, his intentions were admirable and this could make him seen as a hero since he willingly died for a selfless cause.
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