“Man is here too little and too passive to play the tragic hero”.
In Death of a Salesman, Miller presents us with a new version of what we define as tragedy. If we look to the Greek plays such as Oedipus Rex, we are shown very fixed ideas of tragedy that involve a hero falling from high stature to the depths of depravity by the mistakes that he has made. Indeed, Aristotle termed tragedy as downfall that was not the fault of the hero. However, he produced his definitions based largely on The Theban Plays and so perhaps gives us reason to question these archaic prescriptive terms. Moreover, if we are to ascertain whether or not Willy Lowman is able to “play the tragic hero,” we must surmise how effectively Miller’s writing conforms to our preconceptions of the tragedy genre. It would be luxurious to suppose that these preconceptions are changeable, for to give the above quote any credence, we are acknowledging “the tragic hero” as being one of many such figures that have made literary fame (or indeed infamy) before it.
Miller has willingly spoken of his play as being tragic and calls on the reader and his critics to acknowledge it so. “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” (1949 cited Weales 1967) This view forces us to question our initial interpretations of the “tragic hero.” Miller writes in a way that forces us to see each character as symbolic and not as individuals, and we may argue that this gives the story a certain myth. However, what seems more likely is that the characters have no individuality in areas such as what Willy sells or his name (Low-man), so that we perceive them in the same way they feel they are perceived by others. If we examine for one moment, the more confident and separate the character is from the American Dream, the more detail and information we learn of their lives. We know a great deal about the most far removed character, Biff, and know a little less about Happy; the other characters follow suit. Therefore, rather than attribute tragic status based on depth and lack of specificity, we must look to character stature for information.
Indeed, we have often associated tragedy with someone who starts on a high level (and falls), however, we may suppose that the same is true of Willy Lowman. In many people’s eyes, a hard-working common man, is the archetypal hero and indeed worthy of our respect. We are preconditioned, even outside of the American Dream, to believe that “a few shillings for a honest days work” is what makes an honourable man. However, how then are we defining honour? From the opening and indeed our initial perceptions of Willy, are that he is conscious of the world around him and enjoys all that is natural, “?it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is so warm.” (9) However, this “honourable” character is then seen to disillusion the reader by his reluctance to conform to the reader’s expectations of honourable behaviour. On the other hand, if we are not to blame Willy for his own nemesis, then he is not only honourable but his end is indeed tragic.
The American Dream had (some argue still does have), the ability to give you everything; if you only stretched out, the world was within your reach. In the same breath that Willy speaks of being “vital in New England” (10), he exemplifies everyone’s belief that they were someone and could be someone more if they wanted. There is little doubt that Willy buys into this ideology from the beginning of the play. Talking in slogans and adverts, “Chevrolet, Linda, is the greatest car ever built,” (26) Willy believes in what he is selling, albeit not a product but an ideology. Miller removes responsibility for this dream from Willy’s shoulders, by depicting the country as ganging up against him in a conspiracy of “apartment houses.” Willy feigns his own escape from responsibility by speaking of the population as “getting out of control.” (12) It is of little surprise that throughout the play there is continually a building site of new houses being built near-by which exemplifies not only his suffocation but also his continual reminder of a thriving economy, which he feels he is not a part of.
The only catch of the American Dream is that you have to grab out and reach it. If we are to feel any cathartic engagement with this character and to indeed recognise him as a hero, he must try his hardest to succeed against the odds. Is it a braver man who continues to do something that pays no dividend, or is he braver to change direction in order that he may support his family? A fundamental flaw in seeing Willy as a victim of his society is that Charley offers him jobs repeatedly and yet he declines them each time in the face of pride. Although there is honour in pride, at a family’s expense many would perceive this as foolish irresponsibility. Willy is not entirely to blame, as self-worth is as necessary to him as the money he will earn. However, selfishness may well be seen as a flaw, indicative of the morally corrupt Dream this “hero” follows. It may be argued that by not giving into Charley, Willy is indeed a better man who has not given into the cannibalism of the professionals. However, Willy’s reluctance to accept help is largely based on having to accept that Charley had been right all along. Faced with opportunity to rid his family of debt and financial stigma, Willy can be seen to decline.
In many ways it is other characters more than Willy himself who support the notion of Willy as a tragic hero. In the most positive of circumstances we can view Linda as providing the family unit with stability and love. Ironically, through her blind devotion and belief in her husband’s aspirations, she exacerbates his demise. Playing the Jocasta to Willy’s Oedipus, Linda is not aware of what she is doing and heeds no warnings. This idea of warning can be followed through to Charley, who warns Willy that if his children steal, then they will get caught, and yet like the Messenger speaking to Oedipus, Willy refuses to take any notice of this advice. (As we discover later in the play, Biff was indeed in prison for theft at a later stage.) If, therefore these comparisons can be made with Oedipus Rex, which may be considered to exemplify tragedy, can the same not term not be attributed to Death of a Salesman?
Oedipus is a king and consequently his demise is an excruciating and dramatic one. The irony of Willy is that if he and his children had followed the American Dream, they stood to succeed as well as Charley, Bernard and the notorious Ben. If any character could be described as worthy of being a “tragic hero” it is Ben. Ben’s character does not contain the realism of the others. Able to socially critique Willy due to his seeming moral security, he stands as a template of what could be achieved if only you knew how. Unfortunately, the answer lies within. Willy is not “too little,” but he is too feeble minded and unsure of his convictions to play the tragic hero. Miller does not explicitly write of Willy’s death and leaves a rather obvious implication instead. If Willy had been a “somebody” at any stage in the play, then perhaps his death would be tragic. Aristotle terms tragedy as being “the representation of an action that is serious, complete, and has a certain magnitude” (www). Whilst Willy’s death allows him to escape from his continuing battle with life, the magnitude of this event may be sad but can hardly be described as tragic.