A Modern Tragedy: Death of a Salesman

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      Introduction. Although controversy centers around Miller’s Death of a Salesman as to whether it deserves the title of a tragedy. There can be no two opinions about the fact that the play evokes pity and sympathy, the two principal elements that constitute tragedy. No doubt, Aristotle gave concrete shape to the concept of tragedy by defining it as ‘the imitation of an action that is serious (or noble or important) and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself, in language with pleasurable accessories....in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, where to accomplish the catharsis (purification) of such emotions’.

      Aristotle’s definition and Miller’s play. Judging by the definition of Aristotle that the action in a tragedy must be serious, magnificent and noble, Miller’s play Death of a Salesman dwarfs into insignificance as it does not deal with an accomplished man or a man of noble lineage. It is a story of a common man, who slides to the pathetic state of committing suicide, with the wreck of each days’ wishes, wishes he cherished as being realizable! It is this failure of a man to realize his fond wishes that form the foundation of this play as being evocative of pity and pathos, Miller himself remarked about this play thus: ‘I set out not to write a tragedy, but to show the truth as I saw it. The truth is that Death of a Salesman is a play about a man who is seeking for a kind of ecstasy in life which the machine civilization deprives people of. He is looking for his selfhood, for his immortal soul, so to speak, and people who don’t know the intensity of that quest, think he is odd, but a lot of salesmen, in a line of work where ingenuity and individualism are acquired by the nature of the work, have a very intimate understanding of his problems’ (Arthur Miller).

      Tragedy born of social values. Miller thus inclines to imply that anyone who has had to make do with the sharp vicissitudes and rapid changes in American life has fully gained the right to our sympathy and consideration. Willy Loman, the hero of the play, brings upon himself his downfall by a tragic trait, the trait of living in a world of illusions. His worship of people, who attained success in their chosen career smacks of hero-worship, an exercise that is illusory and comes to naught.

      As a salesman, he himself wants to become a hero; he has hallucinations of Ben as a hero, an old salesman as a hero, Biff as a hero—even if he is a football hero. Willy recalls how Ben went into the forest and emerged rich; he remembers how the eighty-four-year-old salesman did his sales job unflinchingly just with the help of the telephone and dominated everybody, including his customers. Willy’s dreams about Biff's career show the intensity of his illusions: ‘Without a penny to his name, three great universities are begging for him, and from there the sky’s the limit, because it is not what you do Ben. It is who you know and the smile on your face! It contacts, Ben, contacts!’ Thus Willy unwittingly attaches importance to personality, persuasive power and the ability to outwit others by hook or by crook as being basically necessary for a successful survival in this world!

      Belief in materialism and false ideals: myth of success. The keynote of pathos is struck at the start of the play itself when Willy Loman, on returning from an exhaustive trip, found that both of his sons were asleep after a date. He laments the loneliness of his hearth thus: ...work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it and there is nobody to live in it.

      The hectic activities and the struggle for existence that Characterise the present-day life are also not spared when Willy Cryptically observes thus: ...it is a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock or making phone calls or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire it to be outdoors, with your shirts off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still that's how you a build a future. Thus Willy consciously admits that life consists of only these things, although in point of fact, he also tried to live in this fashion by chasing after illusions all through his existence. It is his inability to get away from the beaten track of existence, an existence that is steeped in false ideals and universal commercialism that has become the main reason for his destruction of hopes!

      But one of his two sons, Happy, is all the more wiser when he expresses frankly that everybody around me is so false that I am constantly lowering my ideals. Had Willy also set the same philosophy of life as preached by his son Happy, he would not have to meet with frustration and self-inflicted death. Unfortunately if that were to happen the play would have lost its claim to call itself a tragedy!

      Misfit in a callous success-oriented society. Again, the element of tragedy is made clear in the course of the play when Willy compares himself with Charley, his life-long acquaintance and neighbor who loaned out money to Willy every month since Willy was put on straight commission. Willy commends Charley as a man of few words, and they respect him, But when his wife Linda intervenes to say that he is not talkative, but just lively, Willy chides her thus: Wel, I figure, what the hell, life is short, a couple of jokes. Then in a tone of mocking self-pity he mourns to himself, I joke too much.

      The height of pathos is touched in the scene when Linda explains to both of her sons as to how far their father has been suffering in his old age for their sake even by agreeing to work on straight commission, like a beginner, an unknown of five weeks. When this touches off a retort from Biff that his father’s employers are being ‘ungrateful bastards’, Linda swiftly silences him by a biting counter thus: ...are they any worse than his sons! It is her inability to be patient any more with her sons? irresponsible and indolent way of life that has forced her to come out with this caustic comment and in this Miller has achieved his sense of tragedy more explicitly.

      In fact, the same idea is driven home with redoubled emphasis by Willy Loman when he talks to his son Happy that initiative and industry alone make life worth living and not a state of sloth and indolence. He amplifies this argument by an aphorism thus: ‘The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress!’

      The play’s claim to being called a tragedy is confirmed when Loman, tired and exhausted of his peripatetic life, pleads with his employer Howard for a change of job that does not subject him to the agony of unceasing travel. Howard remains mute. Then in a fit of fury but corking up the commotion of his feelings with masterly control, Loman tells Howard in a philosophical vein thus: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!’ What a gem of wisdom lies in this statement that knocks the bottom out of the callous thinking of commercially-minded bosses like Howard! Miller’s decisive departure from the Ibsenite drama of social criticism to a particular class of people such as capitalists is nowhere conclusively demonstrated in the play than in these weighty words of wisdom uttered by Loman to Howard, his employer.

      The sons’ love for their father. Although Biff, the elder son of Willy on whom the father has pinned all his hopes and who could not ‘find himself for the last fourteen years for a proper settlement in life, did quarrel with his father often by attacking him mercilessly for having doted on him, he has pathetically clung to his father’s essential goodness. His concern for his father and the fondness he displays towards him are eloquently brought to light when his younger brother’s girlfriend Miss Forsythe attacks Willy as not being worthy to call himself their father. Biff is instantly provoked and he goes to the defense of Willy thus: ‘Miss Forsythe, you have just seen a prince walk by. A fine, troubled prince. A hard-working unappreciated prince. A pal, you understand? A good companion. Always for his boys? In these lines, Miller establishes the abundant affection Willy’s sons bear for him, although they could not see eye to eye with him on other matters. It is this affection and love that the sons bear for their father that makes the play tragic in more than one sense as this bond of relationship is based on sincerity tempered by sympathy.

      Willy’s ‘hubris’—his belief in the success-oriented society. As tragedy implies values, in this play Willy Loman has values that were born out of dreams and his desire to scale spectacular heights on the social ladder by this personal charm and persuasive salesmanship. The fact that the values were hard to maintain especially in a world of combative and conflicting interests had been driving him mad. When ultimately his values of successful career and prosperous life could not be realized, Willy sacrifices his personal life for the failure of his dreams by the act of suicide. His death earns him the sympathy of every member of his family as they demonstrate their concern for Willy in the 'Requiem’ scene. Rightly did Biff remark that his father, ‘had the wrong dreams, all, all wrong’. His Tiubris’, his arrogance, lay in his thinking that he could reach the top in that society. The tragedy with Willy is that he has become so much part of the system of false values in a materialistic world that he dare not even deign to think of himself as apart from it. Willy’s decisive resolve of killing himself is the cumulative effect of his agonies and the setbacks he has suffered by the demolition of his illusions. He achieves dignity in death, as he leaves a sizeable chunk of money to his family out of the insurance he had earlier executed.

      The play is a tragedy. In Death of a Salesman, Miller’s attitude to Willy Loman is ambivalent. He has nothing but pity for Willy, the salesman, who can no longer justify his existence once he loses his ability to sell and whose fate mirrors a world in which ‘the absolute value of the individual human being is believed in only as a secondary value’. However, Miller’s criticism is reserved for the web of deception and self-deception which Willy has woven around his own life and the lives of his sons, Biff and Happy. Thus for all his foibles, on account of which Willy has become a victim of his delusions that eventually takes his life, his characterization in the Death of a Salesman is deftly done to rouse readers’ sympathy and pity profusely and on this count the play deserves to be called a tragedy, par excellence.

University Questions

Give your definition of tragedy and show to what extent Death of a Salesman fulfills the requirements of your definition.
Discuss Miller’s concept of tragedy with reference to Death of a Salesman,
‘Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly’ (Arthur Miller). Discuss with reference to Death of a Salesman,
Discuss Death of a Salesman as a tragedy with an unheroic hero.
Consider critically Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy. Explain the tragic vision embodied in the play.
To what extent does Death of a Salesman assume the status of a tragedy? Substantiate your view.

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