Death of a Salesman: as A Tragedy

Also Read

Introduction: endless controversy

      Perhaps no other play: of our times has met as much controversy as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. With this play, Miller seems to have sown the seeds of unending controversy—Is this play a tragedy? Who is the hero of the play? What are the motivations of the characters in the play? These are questions that have baffled the wary readers, the intellectual writers and the super-subtle, hair-splitting critics alike.

      First let us take up the basic question—Is this play Death of a Salesman a tragedy? People have argued zealously both for and against it. Let us see what those critics have to say who feel that the play is not a tragedy.

Bentley—the play is not a tragedy

      Eric Bentley, the unpredictable, stimulating critic feels that the play is not a tragedy. It arouses pity but no terror. He feels that the play suffers on account of its conflicting aims. The tragedy destroys the social drama, the social drama keeps the “tragedy” from having a genuinely tragic stature. By this last remark we mean that the theme of this social drama, as of most others, is the little man as victim. The theme arouses pity but no terror. Man is here too little and too passive to play the tragic hero. More important than this, the tragedy and the social drama actually have conflict. The tragic Catharsis reconciles us to, or persuades us to disregard; precisely those material conditions which the social drama calls our attention to....Or is Mr. Miller a “tragic” artist who without knowing it has been confused by Marxism?

Clark—the play is an intellectual muddle

      Eleanor Clark agrees with Bentley because of a different reason. Clark turns Bentley’s theory inside out. Clark sees Miller as a Marxist who has been confused by tragedy and the play as one that is characterized by ah intellectual muddle. As Clark says: “It is of course, the capitalist system that has done Willy in; the scene in which he is brutally fired after some forty years with the firm, comes straight from the party-line literature of the thirties, and the idea emerges lucidly enough through all the confused motivations of the play that it is our particular form of money-economy that has bred the absurdly false ideals of both father and sons. It emerges however, like a succession of shots from a duck-blind. Immediately after every crack the playwright withdraws behind an air of pseudo-universality, and hurries to present some cruelty or misfortune due either to Willy’s own weakness, as when he refuses his friend’s offer of a job after he had been fired, or gratuitously from some other source, as in the quite unbelievable scene of the two sons walking out on their father in the restaurant. The whole play is characterized by an intellectual muddle and a lack of candor that regardless of Mr. Miller’s conscious intent are the main earmark of contemporary fellow-traveling. What used to be a roar has become a whine”.

Aristotle’s definition—the arch-stone of such views

      The back-bone of these critics is Aristotle and the arch-stone of such criticism is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Aristotle defined tragedy 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 a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, where to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.”

      The general contention of critics who do not regard this play as a tragedy, is a well thought out logical argument. Definitely, Miller’s Death of a Salesman does not stand up to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, they triumphantly contend.

(i) Willy—a common man

      The first thing that strikes one about this play is its title, Death of a Salesman. The title makes it quite clear that Willy Loman is no exceptional being. He is one of the numerous salesmen. Another aspect of the play which the title makes clear is that it deals with nothing higher than the materialistic part of life.

(ii) The play deals with common materialistic concerns

      The whole concern of the play is money, competition, success or failure in the materialistic sense. Personal relations are at a discount in the milieu that is depicted in the play. Although Miller tells us that the play is not a critique of capitalism, he admits in the Preface: “Willy Loman has broken a law, without whose protection, life is insupportable and incomprehensible to him and to many, it is the law which says that a failure in society and business has no right to live.”

(iii) Success comes to the unscrupulous

      Even when Willy is at home, most of the conversation is about business, jobs and the proper way to achieve success. The play illustrates that in the capitalist society of America, those who succeed are unscrupulous, mean and selfish, while those who fail in this race are pathetic and get eliminated. Apart from this indirect indictment of American society, there are a number of direct comments which reveal the author’s mind. Willy says in Act I: “The street is lined with cars. There is no breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can not raise a carrot in the backyard.”

      A little later he remarks: “There are more people! That’s what’s ruining this country! Population is getting out of control. The competition is maddening. Smell the stink from the apartment houses”. The whole play presents a picture of a society rotten at the core where personal relations or emotions find no place. The Money God is sought after by all but is available only to the unscrupulous ones like Ben and Howard.

(iv) An elegy on the unsuccessful

      Death of a Salesman is not concerned basically with the successful ones. Its chief characters are Willy, Happy, Biff and Linda—characters who are unable to cope with the competition, America forces them to participate in. The dominant theme in Death of a Salesman is defeatism. Biff is the most attractive character in the play, both physically and otherwise, yet he, too, is a constant failure whatever Willy or Linda may like to think of him. His brother Happy is no better. Linda knows all this but she deliberately blinds herself to reality. And, of course, the supreme example of failure and despair is our hero, Willy Loman. He likes to pretend before his sons that he is very successful, but he knows the truth about himself. “I don’t know the reason for it, but they just pass me by. I’m not noticed.” A moment later he moans: “I’m fat. I am very foolish to look at, Linda,” reminding us of Prufrock.

(v) Willy—does not achieve any self-knowledge

      All this is admitted by Willy quite early, in Act I itself but he is no better by the end. He is a comically deluded fool. Between his extreme confidence and utter despair there is a lot of gap which produces laughter on the stage. This is how this play is different from Hamlet and Oedipus which begin with the hero’s ignorance but end with the hero’s having achieved self-knowledge. Death of a Salesman has been admirably summed up as “an anatomy of failure” and “an elegy on the unsuccessful.”

(vi) Willy only dreams—serves a utilitarian purpose

      Willy Loman is not a tragic figure by any standards. He wants to do so many things but all he manages to do is to suffer. He has lofty dreams and ambitions, but does nothing to fulfill them. He is a mere cog in the American system and like all others, fulfills only a utilitarian purpose. The moment his utility ends, he is discarded. Personal ambitions and desires find no place in the system of which Willy and numerous others like him are victims. But Willy appears a pathetic figure because all his great dreams are shattered along with him. Willy’s death establishes nothing for him—it does not even perpetuate his dreams.

(vii) Willy—an absolutely common ‘common man’

      Willy is an absolutely common ‘common man’ as these critics feel. It is of course true that his environment is rotten. But one can take Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann as an example. He too is no exceptional being (though his brother is the Mayor of the city). Yet he wins our admiration because he knows his course of action and follows it in the teeth of all opposition. One can be a part of a rotten atmosphere and yet have a sound mental health. But Willy surely does not have it. Willy believes that he is an exceptionally popular and successful salesman but he is made to face the fact that with age his success declining and finally he is sacked. He wants to be loved by his family but his sons do not seem to care for him. Only Linda offers him support and dotes on him in spite of all his shortcomings and whims. Willy seems to live in contradictions. He thinks he is fond of his wife but goes and commits adultery with some woman. At moments he propounds his views emphatically. But soon his energy seems to get exhausted and he needs support, and confirmation of his views from other people.

(viii) Willy faces problems that are down to earth

      Willy is faced with basic, down to earth problems, not with cosmic issues as faced by most Greek and Shakespearean heroes. This earthiness is a part of modern realism but Willy is too much a victim of the system to be able to question it. Apart from his status and power Willy is a very weak man personally. Willy has been over-indulgent with his sons, bringing them up on principles that lead him to a blind alley. His sons too turn out to be vagabonds, despite Willy’s best efforts to be a good father. Willy does not even know what is best for himself. He does not take up the agrarian way of living in favor of his quest for ‘success’.

(ix) Willy—weak and sensitive

      Things perhaps would have been running smooth, if Willy Loman had not been sensitive. Willy has opted for the job of a salesman, but is all the time craving for a life that of Ben and his father. The worst part is that he does not move from a position of ignorance to a position of knowledge but remains in utter ignorance throughout his life and dies with his illusions. Willy is too weak to face harsh realities. He has made many unsuccessful attempts at suicide from the very beginning of the play. When Willy is made to face brutal realities, it is too much for him. In consonance with his character he drives off in his car and meets his end.

(x) Willy establishes nothing

      “A man can’t go out the way he came in”, says Willy to Ben. But does Willy succeed in emulating this? What does he do to add to the world, to the ground, where nothing is planted?


      The specters of such questions have been haunting the minds of the critics who do not want to agree to the view that the play is a tragedy. They do not even agree that Willy is the hero of the play. Any comparison between Willy and Shakespearean or Sophoclean heroes appear fantastic to them. After prolonged discussions and persuasion, these critics very condescendingly agree to grant the play, the status of a social tragedy.

University Questions

Discuss Death of a Salesman as a Tragedy.
How far is Death of a Salesman Miller’s prime tragedy?
What makes Death of a Salesman so popular and so successful a drama? State the reasons explicitly.
“Death of a Salesman while undeniably affecting, is without profound, tragic significance.” Discuss.
“Death of a Salesman does not conform to the requirements of a serious tragedy.” Discuss.
To what extent do you think Death of a Salesman lacks the elements of true tragedy?

Previous Post Next Post