Willie Loman as a Tragic Hero

Aristotle’s definition for a tragic hero is one who is not in control of his own fate, but instead is ruled by the gods in one fashion or another.  The tragic hero for Aristotle is tragic because of their lack of control or will in the face of their predetermined future and downfall.  In comparing Arthur Miller’s tragic hero of Death of a Salesman (Willy Loman) and his seeming lack of control in his own fate.  This paper will expound upon Loman’s tragic flaw, his change of fate in the plot starting from good and going to worse.  Also, in defining and finding the correct terms in which to define the tragic hero Loman has a great tragic flaw (hamartia) which is his devil may care attitude at the beginning of the story, to the despondency and stagnation of hope that meets him at the end of the story, thus Miller’s play is a literary canon because it does not only utilize the Greek term of tragedy but puts a modern twist on it by stating that Loman’s characteristic optimism is his flaw.  Miller’s work analysis will be derived from Greg Johnson’s book Perrine’s literature : structure, sound and sense. As Arp and Johnson state,

“Where tragic protagonist possess overpowering individuality so the plays are often named after them.  (i.e. Oedipus Rex, Othella), comic protagonist tend to be types of individuals, and the plays in which they appear are often named after the type, (i.e. Moliers, The Miser, Congreves, The Double Dealer). We judge tragic protagonist by absolute moral standards, by how far they soar above society.  We judge comic protagonist by social standards, by how well they adjust to society and conform to the expectations of the group” ( Arp ; Johnson 1308)

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This is the dichotomy for Willy Loman, the tragic irony, the drama, and Willy Loman’s protagonist stance in a comic viewing.

            As John Jones (1962) states in On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy with an excerpt from Aristotle’s The Ideal Tragic Hero,

“The well constructed plot must, therefore, have a single issue, and not (as some maintain) a double. The change of fortune must not be from bad to good but the other way round, from good to bad; and it must be caused, not by wickedness, but by some great error [hamartia] on the part of a man such as we have described, or of one better, not worse, than that” (Jones 13).

This excerpt is the pivotal movement that changes Loman from a man who has hard luck, to the pinnacle of being a tragic hero in which he suffers from hamartia.  For Willy Loman, his reality isn’t attributed to ego; he knows where he is, what he is, but his tragic flaw is accounted for in the pitfall of banal acceptance, which is the cornerstone of the play as a literary canon.  Willy Loman doesn’t try to change anything, but is caught up in mediocrity, and essentially blind to anything with a silver lining; thus, the hero of the play is not glorious by anyone’s standards except his own, and even those are shot by his son’s opinion.  This is how Miller reinvented the literary canon for the century and why Death of a Salesman continues to be a reference point for other works.

Loman’s fate seems to be a depressed feeling of not being able to escape the sentiments of sadness in his already deteriorating life.  It is Loman’s death, which is often times seen as a tragic ending to a tragedy, but in the case of Miller’s play, there seems to be a certain sense of hope in Loman’s death, since his act of suicide would be the course through which his curse would not become his son’s curse.  As Harold Bloom (1991) writes in Willy Loman with an excerpt by Thomas Lask and his writing How Do You Like Willy Loman (New York Times, January 1966),

“Yet, to my mind, Willy represents all those who are trapped by false values, but who are so far on in life, that they do not know how to escape them. They are men on the wrong track and know it. They are among those who, when young, felt they could move mountains and now do not even see those mountains. Aristotle said the tragic hero must be neither all good nor all evil, but rather a median figure. Everything about him is paltry except his battle to understand and escape from the pit he has dug for himself. In this battle he achieves a measure of greatness. In the waste of his life, his fate touches us all” (Lask 60).

In Willy’s acceptance of his own commonness is his own personal flaw, and the tragedy of the play; he does not bring himself up to the challenge of his life.  He doesn’t strive to be any better but allows himself to dully, and accept that he’s a “dime a dozen”.  This dull acceptance means to the modern audience that Loman has given up ideas of grandeur, in getting out of his neighborhood, of being more than a salesman, he only recognizes these as flaws when his son brings it to his attention. It is Loman’s son who wishes his father were more, that enhances the tragic nature of the play.  Susan C. W. Abbotson (1999) states in Understanding Death of a Salesman, “Pursuing the dream of middle-class status and success, Willy does everything he thinks a good salesman is supposed to do. He smiles, he tells jokes, he hustles women receptionists. But Willy’s talents are ordinary at best, and his value in the market is marginal” (Abbotson  212).  This is Willy’s great error.  His mediocrity is a compromise to his once great dreams; thus, when his son tells him that he wishes his father were more, wishes their lives were different, better (because he compared himself to his friends and what wealth they have such as Loman’s neighbor Charley), that Willy recognizes his life not as a series of happy events, but as a series of misfortunes that have lead him to disparity and allowing his dreams to get away from him.  The depression and the tragedy of the lay allow Miller to relate these events to the common man, and herein lies the genius of Miller; he allows the characters to be human instead of grand heroes, and in making them human he has established a new literary canon; that of the modern man’s plight.  Between the two characters Loman and Charley, Miller created a paradox of the American Dream.  This concept illustrates how working class men may rise above their situations in life to a better livelihood.  This point is best seen with Charley’s character and the opposite of this is seen with Loman, as Willy says in the first act, “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want” (Miller Act One).  While the American Dream may be the crux by which Miller differentiates between the two characters that does mean that either character desires such a state of living less than the other.

Miller illustrates the shallow nature of material gain with his characters.  The interesting point is that while Charley has material wealth he is happy and Loman is without such a steady income he becomes increasingly unhappy but only because of the reflection he gets from other characters throughout the play.

The motif of the capturing of the American Dream is best found in Miller’s character Charley.  While Charley seems to be ‘swimming’ in wealth Loman is fired from his job by a man who is as young as Loman’s son.  Charley then offers Willy a job after this episode but Loman still harbors resentment for Charley for having his version of the American Dream fulfilled.  In some ways in the play Charley seems to remind Loman of his older brother Ben who left for Alaska and then Africa at a young age and was rich when he died as Willy states, “The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” (Miller Act One).  This marks the trait of jealousy in an underscoring fashion even stronger since both men remind Loman of what he has to achieve in his life.

Charley owns his own business and his son is a prestigious lawyer.  Charley is constantly loaning Willy money and while Willy is grateful for the help he is also extremely jealous of Charley for his good fortune, income, and son’s status in society.  The true difference between Charley and Willy rests within how they approach their lot in life.  While Willy is at first hopeful in being a salesman, and grateful for a family (especially when his son was in high school and received great cheers for being a star football player) both men are complete yin and yang in the play, and Willy becomes despondent at the end of Miller’s play.

Charley may be considered the protagonist which Willy is supposed to measure up to, and although Miller created these two protagonists to mirror each other the hero of the American Dream is Charley and Loman seems to be the underdog of the story excepting that Loman does not rise above his own lot and circumstance in the play.

            In Willy’s acceptance of his own commonness is his own personal flaw, and it is Charley’s aid to Willy that is his greatness in the play.  While Willy seems to hit many circumstantial pitfalls which cause him to get fired, has his family life destroyed with false identities in his sons, and the lack of caring from home expected of a man who just got fired, as Willy’s wife Linda says of Willy, “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” (Miller Act One), it is with Charley who takes on a more pragmatic approach as is seen with him owning his own business that the audience sees as the true hero of Miller’s play since Charley does not give in to his circumstance.

Loman is a ‘new canon’ tragic hero.  Loman’s sons epitomize this failing of the American Dream as Biff says he cannot be happy.  Even in the common man’s world Loman doesn’t stand out as unique or special; his flaw is in his power to be invisible.  No one seems to care in his existence and for Willy Loman, this realization in turn makes him not care about his own existence in a way, toward the end of the play at least, when his hope is close to banished.  This small sentiment can be found in a few muttered lines from Willy, “I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess.  I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well liked, that nothing-“(Miller 97).  This sums up Loman’s fate; his drowning enthusiasm pitted against an uncaring cast of characters.

Willy Loman’s view of the world breaks when he loses his job.  Loman faces the world as no ordinary common man but also an invisible entity left to make no difference on the face of the earth while Oedipus is bereaved of his position and would rather not have lived (or seen what he had accomplished) because of the things he has done.  As Arthur Miller states in Perrine’s Literature,

“Whoever heard of a Hastings small R refrigerator? Once in my life I would like to own, something outright before its broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs.  The refrigerator consumes belts like a Goddamn maniac.  They time those things.  They time them so when you finally paid for them they’re used up” (Miller 1586).

This is the truth behind the tragic hero Loman.   The paradox for Loman as a tragic hero is in Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero; he’s doomed to failure.

In conclusion, Loman began his story with an aplomb of luck, or ego, or a rosy view of the world, and his story ends with destruction:  Loman is hit by a car.  The connotation here is that Loman was blind in the beginning of Miller’s play, but not really in the second act.  Loman has dwindling faith in himself and reality.  Loman survived in life under false pretences, thus he suffers from his one flaw; blindness.

Works Cited

Arp, Thomas R & Greg Johnson.  Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense.   Heinle & Heinle /Thomson Learning, 2002, 8th edition.

Bloom, Harold,  ed.  Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

Hamilton, Victoria. Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. London:            Karnac Books, 1993

Jones, John. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press,       1962.

Miller, Arthur.  Death of a Salesman.  Penguin Books, New York, 1949.

Murphy, Brenda, and Susan C. W. Abbotson. Understanding Death of a Salesman A            Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport,      CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

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