A Tragic Hero: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman

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Who is the hero—different opinions

      Perhaps a play embodies a climax of controvertibility when there is controversy even about the hero of the play. In most literary pieces, at least this is generally clear : who is the hero of the play? But Death of a Salesman really seems to be a slippery play, even when this is considered. There is no straight answer to this question. Most of the critics agree that Willy Loman is the hero, and a tragic one, too. But many critics refuse either to accept him as the hero or are not willing to grant him the rank of a tragic hero. For them, Willy Loman is a little man, an everyman, a common ‘common man’. They feel that he lacks the grandeur and poignancy of a tragic hero. A woman critic feels that Linda is the heroine of the play; it is, in fact, the mother’s (Linda’s) tragedy, she argues out. Many other critics try to establish Biff as the hero of the play. But we should not blindly agree with any of these views. We should keep in mind the author’s intentions.

Miller—Willy Loman is the hero

      Arthur Miller makes it very clear that for him Willy Loman is the hero of the play. We should also examine the play for ourselves and then come to any proper conclusion. We find that there is both intrinsic and extrinsic evidence available which support the view that Willy Loman is the hero of the play.

Aristotle’s conception of tragedy should not be applied to Death of a Salesman

      Most of the debate takes place because many of the critics take Aristotle as the starting point. If we apply the canons established by Aristotle, naturally the entire edifice of the play as a tragedy is razed to the ground. And when the play is not a tragedy how can the hero be tragic? Aristotle said that the action in a tragedy must Be serious, magnificent and noble. And the tragic hero proportionately must be a figure of stature capable of arousing awe and sympathy.

Miller’s views on the tragic hero

      But the concept of tragedy and of the tragic hero has traveled a long distance from Aristotle to Miller. Discussing the tragic hero, Miller says:

1. “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were. On the face of it, this ought to be obvious in the light of modern psychiatry which bases its analysis upon classic formulations, such as the Oedipus and Orestes complexes, which were enacted by royal beings, but which apply to everyone in similar emotional situations”.

2. “ ....I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in society”.

3. “ ...if the exaltation of tragic action were truly a property of the highbred character alone, it is inconceivable that the mass of mankind should cherish tragedy above all other forms, let alone be capable of understanding it”.

4. “Insistence upon the rank of the tragic hero, or the so-called nobility of his character, is really but a clinging to the outward forms of tragedy. If rank of nobility of character was indispensable, then it would follow that the problems of those with rank were the particular problems of tragedy. But surely the right of one monarch to capture the domain from another no longer raises our passions, nor are our concepts of justice what they were to the mind of an Elizabethan king’

5. “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead to in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man.” (Miller’s essay : Tragedy and Common Man.)

      Following this line of argument, we are convinced that Willy Loman can at least claim to be the hero of the play. The tragic hero of Miller’s conception is a common man but not the passive, complacent common man.

Tragic hero—a questioning mind

      For Miller, the tragic hero is the man who cannot or does not compromise, is haunted by a guilt complex and with whom the voice of the past is as loud (if not louder) as that of the present; he always lives with his past. Desperate, though he is in his predicament, he continuously tries to know ‘why’? Questioning the Aristotelian concept of tragedy as the fall of a man of high rank of great importance, Miller says: “It matters not at all whether a modem play concerns itself with a grocer or a president, whether the hero falls from a great height or a small one. What matters is the intensity of the human passion to surpass his given bounds” and the importance of the issues that are raised through the course of the protagonist’s quest.

      Of course, Willy has wrong answers to his own problems as well as those of his sons. But do wrong answers disqualify a man from joining the rank of tragic heroes? King Lear, Hamlet, Othello all had wrong answers to their questions and certainly were not less foolish than Willy. When they have safely been seated on the coveted pedestal of tragic heroes, why not Willy Loman? Surely, in this respect, at least Willy is no different from them.

Willy—a modern man

      Death of a Salesman is a modern tragedy—the tragedy of modem man. And Contemporaneity prejudices our mind against a work of art, as it does against a person. Modern man cannot have the legendary status. It is a realistic, contemporary tragedy, so it follows logically that its protagonist is different from Greek and Elizabethan tragedies. Willy’s stature is different because he is in a different social environment than his Greek and Elizabethan predecessors. Death of a Salesman is Willy’s tragedy. He is its pivotal point. It deals mainly with his life; it reveals to us the inside of his mind; it lays bare to us his conflicts, his problems, his ideals (false or true). His predicament, his agony and suffering, his expectations and disappointments from the crux of the play. His relations with his wife and sons, his society and employers too, is a major concern of the playwright. The play does not end with the death of the protagonist. We see Willy through his unassuming, quiet funeral and in marked contrast what Willy had dreamed of, or perhaps had only wished.

Willy—essentially American

      Willy Loman is essentially an American. He is afflicted with the ills that have afflicted the modern American society, in general. Articulating this eloquently, Benjamin Nelson says: “Death of a Salesman is a drama thoroughly centered in the mainstream of American theatre. It presents a critical outlook on contemporary American society; it employs dramatic form more expressive than the realistic technique in which it is rooted, succeeding as do the best works of O’Neill and Tennessee Williams in developing a poetic drama based upon the mode, language, and experience of American life: and it manifests the primary struggle of the American dramatists to present the common man....as the focus of dramatic imagination.”

Willy—his universality

      As we have seen, Willy is intrinsically American. But he is thoroughly universal, too. He is full of faults and weaknesses— almost an epitome of self-delusion and waste of human potential, that is universally characteristic of our times. He represents the littleness of modern man confronting an age that is too huge, demanding and incomprehensible to him. He represents the lost, bewildered modern man trying to establish something; trying to discover himself, to establish at least his own identity. His intense, particular individuality, does not in any way prevent him from being admitted into the category of archetypal fathers. In his hopes, aspirations, expectations, mistakes, catastrophe, and reconciliation, Willy is quite like the most ludicrous and sublime archetypal parent, King Lear. Finally, he personifies the destiny of all human endeavor—to perform the uphill task of extracting magnificence out of necessity, which is as exacting as extracting radium from coal-dust.

Fanatic commitment to Willy’s dreams

      Willy Loman encloses almost a super-human enthusiasm and a fanatic commitment to his dreams, within his ordinary frame and shabbily dressed exterior. He is almost tragic-comic. Comic in his foolishness and eccentricities and tragically grand in his single-handed fight against the forces that are trying to crush him. He is, of course, destroyed finally because of the nature of his goal—in this grim, dark, dull world, he is trying to find a moment of such ecstasy, which is difficult to find and, which, if found is impossible to retain or suspend. Yet it is in his death that he is immortalized. His innate capacity for love and his essential humanity make his self-sacrificing quest, a poignant one and thus justify it.

      The amount of waste latent in the death of this salesman is far superseded by the worth in it. And it is in this subtle balance that the play is poised. Yes, Willy Loman is “the little mail as victim”, as Eric Bentley points out very stingingly. But Willy is more victim of his choices than of this environment. He does not suffer just because he has to live to maintain the dignity of certain ideas, ideals, concepts and precepts, no matter how wrong and commonplace they may seem to others. He is totally committed to his goal, and sticks to his personal dreams with unimaginable, zeal and fervor, that lift him to the heights of greatness, the front where he can see the shadows of his original ordinariness, the point from where he started. Despite constant blows, Willy does not bid a farewell to arms; he does not give up either his vision of himself or his expectations of his sons. This fanatic adherence definitely gives him a place other than what glib labels like ‘little man’ and victim, associated with his name as well as his profession gives him. He definitely starts moving towards the glorious gallery of tragic heroes.

Willy—a misfit

      Willy is a misfit in his society. He can neither comprehend nor adapt himself to the ways of the world, in which he has to live. ‘Willy is not a materialist. To him money is not enough, it is not an end in itself; it is a means to grandeur’ says Benjamin Nelson. ‘Greatness’ and ‘magnificence’ are two words that he uses abundantly, and are more characteristic of him than his sales and the front stoop put together. Willy Loman meets his end for his son and the hope that he will achieve magnificence.

The problem of identity

      By now we have enumerated certain qualities in Willy Loman that qualify him for becoming the hero of modern tragedy. Some critics argue that the whole question of Willy’s hidden identity is quite similar to that of Oedipus. The parallel is pointed out in this oft-repeated phrase used to describe Willy Loman—“He does not know who he is.” But there is a difference too, and a major one... Unlike Oedipus, it is not the question of physical identity that Willy is trying to solve. The problem, here, is on the psychological plane. He wanted to know himself, his desires, his dreams. Is there anything in Willy, that in its quality, is equal to that which drove Oedipus to self-blinding and Othello first to murder and then to suicide?

Suicide a noble-intentioned choice

      Willy lives in contradictions. His freedom is curbed in the city, crowded with towering skyscrapers. His soul gets cramped in this city where only money matters. His world is limited and guided by commercial values. Willy finally resorts to suicide as the only answer to his ever-present problems. He feels that he is giving Biff something concrete, in return for the love he has tendered; he gives up his life to make his son lay hands on a substantial amount of money, which he still sees as the key to his son’s success. There is something immature in Willy’s evaluation and the response is equally immature. It is the response of a man who chooses death, not because a terrible guilt complex has rendered life intolerable for him, but because he sincerely believes that perhaps it is the price which has to be paid, in order to purchase security—something which he always hankered for, but could never find.

Willy’s relevance to us

      But there is one question that arises. Why is Willy Loman important? How does his death concern us all? Who is Willy Loman to deserve so much attention? To say that he is three million American salesmen put together and hence, equal at least to one Theban King (Oedipus) or one Moorish General (Othello), is being foolish. It is an evasion of the question to say that Willy is a common or Low-man and hence not eligible to be the hero of a tragedy.

Tragic vision—focusses on the soul’s motives

      The tragic vision does not take for itself, the station or status of a person as the central point. It tries to throw light on the inner workings of man’s mind and makes an attempt to explore the realms of the motivations of his soul. Othello and Oedipus are magnificent and grand not because they were highly placed but because they lived their lives intensely and possessed unexampled tenacity of purpose. They have at least tested the sweet fruits of life, they have achieved knowledge that life is good, and their destruction has affirmed their manhood. Willy Loman’s case is different.

Willy—seeds of heroism

      He has never ‘lived’ his life. He has always been striving. He has never achieved his fullest bloom. Even in the sphere, where he seems most successful, the audience is aware of the falsity and shallowness of Willy’s achievement. Like Oedipus, Willy does not ‘know’ his father or his children. But Oedipus at least has the strength to pursue the truth and inflict such a terrible punishment on himself. In a contrast to him, Willy is almost an ignorantly weak desperado. His suicide is not like that of Othello—an atonement and redress of balance, paying a heavy price for wisdom. Willy’s suicide is the only way out—springing from despair, lack of thought and immaturity. If we reject Willy, it can only be on the grounds that he is a hero only potentially. He never expands to his full dimension, though there is always in him, something of the heroic spirit. He only has a vague feeling that his life is meaningless. We reject him because he decides that his life is not worth living without even caring to examine it. But there is a point at which Miller’s vision and that of Sophocles and Shakespeare meet. These tragedies bring us to a point where we are forced to deduce that we have created a society that is fundamentally destructive for mankind. It cuts him off from nature, threatening his very existence. Hegel’s description of the tragic hero fits Willy like a glove.

Willy is a tragic hero

      Hegel defines a tragic hero as a character who seeks a “good” too far, or in the wrong directions, so that he loses his identity, his necessary values, and is carried to destruction. Willy Loman pursues success, in itself a good. His tragedy occurs mainly because of his environment and also due to Ben and Linda who feed him with wrong concepts of success. The rest is, of course, his fault; he refuses to remain passive and is fanatically devoted to his aim.

An element of the sublime

      There is definitely an element of the sublime in his naivete. He lives for himself and his family but he dies entirely for his sons; to give them a good start in life. In his concern, love and affection for his sons, he is no less than a Lear. He is an emotional giant, though intellectually a common man. He is in fact, cast in a heroic mold; he can feel greatly, though his thinking is confined and narrow.

Quest for self-hood in a nonentitising society.

      Perhaps the sanest world and most balanced understanding or interpretation of a work of art comes from the author himself. Let us accept Miller as the final word regarding this controversy, because the general consensus, too, seems to be tallying with what Miller says: “The trouble with Willy Loman is that he has tremendously powerful ideals. We are not accustomed to speaking of ideals in his terms, but if Willy Loman, for instance, had not had a very profound sense that his life as lived had left him hollow he would have died contentedly polishing his car on some Sunday afternoon at a ripe old age. The fact is that he has values. The fact that they cannot be realized is what is driving him mad. The truly valueless man, the man without ideals, is always perfectly at home anywhere because there cannot be a conflict between nothing and something. Whatever negative qualities there are in the society or in the environment don’t bother him because they are not in conflict with any positive sense that he may have.


      No view about Willy can be more apt and more balanced than Miller’s views about him. Miller continues : “I think Willy Loman 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....”

University Questions

Discuss Willy Loman as a tragic hero.
“Willy Loman lacks the stature of a tragic hero”. Do you agree?
“Willy Loman is the victim of a remediable social evil, as such, he fails to achieve tragic dimensions.” Do you agree?

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