Death of A Salesman Essay Question

This essay will be due on Tuesday May 20th at 3:30 pm

Discuss Arthur Miller's vision of tragedy as it is enacted in Death of a Salesman.

Tragedy presents the spectacle of a heroic character in the grips of a terrible action which leads to 'catharsis', the moment in which the audience experiences pity at the fate of the hero but also awe, wonder, and fear!

Aristotle, the great Athenian philosopher, insisted that the hero of a tragedy had to be an individual "of a certain magnitude," larger than life: a king or nobleman. He argued that the actions of this hero revealed a 'tragic flaw' in his or her character that led to self-destruction. However, this flaw could easily be regarded as a virtue because it often expresses the most respected value of a society. Oedipus believes that he could use his reason to determine his own fate. Antigone demands justice for her dead brothers. Both are destroyed.

What makes Willy Loman a tragic hero? What does he believe in? What has happened to these beliefs? Why? How does his struggle and ultimate demise inspire not only pity but awe, wonder and fear?

Some ideas to consider as you prepare your essay:

Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, in the years following the Allied triumph in World War Two. American confidence in its way of life and liberal ideology was at its height. After the initial reviews of the play, Miller wrote a piece for the New York Times called "Tragedy and the Common Man." Many of the original critiques of the play asked whether Death of a Salesman was a tragedy, with most of critics arguing that Willy did not believe in enough that was noble to count as a tragic hero. Miller, of course, disagreed. In Willy Loman's story, the story of a common man, he found the material for a powerful tragedy.

Part of the reason why few tragedies had been written in the 20th century, he argued, was because modern literature had been dominated by psychological and sociological models of human behavior which excluded free will. He said,

... our lack of tragedy may be partially accounted for by the turn which modern literature has taken toward the purely psychiatric view of life, or the purely sociological. If all our miseries, our indignities, are born and bred within our minds, then all action, let alone the heroic action, is obviously impossible.

And if society alone is responsible for the cramping of our lives, then the protagonist must needs be so pure and faultless as to force us to deny his validity as a character. From neither of these views can tragedy derive, simply because neither represents a balanced concept of life. Above all else, tragedy requires the finest appreciation by the writer of cause and effect.

Tragedy for Miller demands a hero capable of action even in a situation in which his chosen image of what or who he is has been torn from him.  Miller's tragic hero "is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense of personal dignity." Miller understood his hero's 'tragic flaw' to be an "inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. The tragic hero acts against the scheme of things that degrades him, and in the process of action everything we have accepted out of fear or insensitivity or ignorance is shaken before us and examined."

Miller continues:

The tragic night is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man's freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such actions.

Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. 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. Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief--optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.