Death of a Salesman: A Social Tragedy

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      Perhaps the term ‘social tragedy’ appears derogatory to some critics. They feel that in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the mammon-worshipping hypocritical society is very obviously the major cause of tragedy for people like Willy, who are against the society but will not or cannot do anything to protest against it or understand it. Of course, it is beyond his control but it is not sublimely super-natural—it is only this worldly. The inscrutability of society is as great to Willy as that of God’s to the questioning Greek mind. Willy is caught up in a society, the forces of which he cannot comprehend—to the ways of which he cannot adapt himself.

Willy—a confused mind

      Willy’s real personality is diametrically opposed to the personality he has to put on, to adhere to what his social image demands of him. This clash or contradiction is the major cause of his tragedy. A very important aspect is that he himself is a confused mind. He is never sure of himself and neither does he understand himself. Willy has moments of realization when he gathers the courage to meet his enemy—himself. But this glimmer disappears the moment he turns his back towards his enemy. And flashes of momentary courage cannot lead anyone to self-realization. Other tragic heroes are very sure of their aims and make efforts to achieve them. Willy wants to get success but lacks the tact. He thinks that for him ‘success’ means ‘happiness’. But we, as detached and comparatively sane judges of his character know that this is not the case—had he been successful, even then he would not have been happy, because basically he has pastoral yearnings.

Willy—nonentitised because of industrialization

      In an age of increasing urbanization and technology, he has become a part of the social machine—a mere cog in the American capitalist system. He does not want to be an inconspicuous part of it but also knows that outside it he does not have any individual existence. This is his tragic predicament which grants to the play, the poignancy of a tragedy, and to Willy, the stature of a tragic hero. One of the major causes of his tragedy is that like Hamlet he thinks a lot: but there is one major difference between the two. Hamlet was almost forced to do so because of his social responsibility and the demands of his situation. Willy does it wilfully; he enmeshes himself in the cobweb of thoughts, dreams and illusions. Unlike Hamlet, Willy fails to act. He wants to succeed without effort. Willy is a victim of a social evil, but he is too weak to meet the challenge and thus, though the evil is man-made and hence remediable, weaklings and nonentities like Willy cannot remedy it. Such people are bound to get crushed in this increasing social evil.

Concept of tragedy has undergone a modification

      Agreeing to call the play a tragedy in such an obliging and condescending manner will be doing less than justice to the play. It deserves much more sympathetic, intelligent and subtle treatment. If Aristotle has to remain the God’s stamp on tragedy, no contemporary work of art can be categorized as a tragedy. We will not here undergo a discussion as to the utility or futility of categorization.

      Language is a growing organism. It keeps changing and growing with the passage of time. Words change, connotations change and forms change. Likewise, the connotations of the term ‘tragedy’ have undergone a change. Moreover, there is one fundamental point that must be kept in mind. When Aristotle defined tragedy, he merely assimilated the characteristics that he could find in the major tragedies, out of the literature available to him in his time. This is not to underestimate the great service that Aristotle has done to literature, for all countries and for all times. Of course, he deserves all reverence for having performed the uphill task of first formulating the qualities of a particular genre of literature. But we should now be careful and not be swept away in the inundation of reputation. Aristotle’s work was of a deductive nature, not dogmatic. From the existing works of literature, he deducted what the characteristics of tragedy were. But Aristotle was not dogmatic. He never meant, I think, that there could be no deviation or departure from the qualities he has discovered. Perhaps, even a master-mind like that of Aristotle could not foresee the innumerable forms of literature that have sprung up, in concurrence with, or as a result of unimaginable socio-political, economic, psychological developments all over the globe. Had Aristotle been living in these days, surely he would have been generous enough to allow modifications in his definition. There is no writer of significance who does not prefer to state or imply the whole Truth of Huxley, and magnificence of Aristotle in his own way. The standards of Truth and Magnificence have gone through a change in the Modern Age.

Miller’s concept of tragedy

      Miller is indeed sensitive to contemporaneity and meant his play to be a tragedy. At about the time of the play’s opening, Miller himself, when interviewed, stressed the tragic intention:

      “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.”

      This statement of Miller’s, sheds a completely new light on the play.

      Miller’s concept of tragedy is new and different from the existing concepts about tragedy:

1. Miller rejects the Greek tragedy and calls it archaic, “fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly”.

2. According to Miller, the common man is apt subject for tragedy, for exaltation of tragic action is a property of all man. The tragic feeling is aroused in us not by the stature of a hero, but by his willingness to lay down his life if need be, to secure one thing—his personal dignity.

3. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly or the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.

4. The feeling of terror and fear can be aroused by man’s fight against the environment, too.

5. The tragedy of monarchs and royal persons would not arouse as much sympathy now as it did during the Elizabethan period.

6. That tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the on-looker’s brightest opinion about the human animal.

7. Tragedy takes place when a human being loses the grip over the forces of life.

8. Tragedy is a manifestation of truth.

      Arthur Miller also discusses the concept of ‘tragic victory’. He repudiates the idea that a man who sacrifices himself for a cause should make the audience feel some kind of elation. A man’s death is a terrifying thing, as Miller says and should not bring joy to anyone. “But” he says, “in a great variety of ways, even death, the ultimate negative, can be an assertion of bravery.” Let us see if it applies to Willy Loman. “Willy”, he says, “has achieved a powerful piece of knowledge, which is that he is loved by his son, and has been embraced by him and forgiven.” In this, he is given his existence, so to speak, his fatherhood, for which he has always striven and which he could not achieve until now. Why then, did he commit suicide? Miller’s answer is that Willy has ‘so far committed himself to the false coinage embodied in the idea of success, that he can prove his existence only by bestowing ‘power’ on his posterity, a power derived from the sale of his last asset for the price of his insurance policy’. His suicide can be said to be ‘an assertion of bravery, but it is prompted by so obstinate a misunderstanding of what Biff has been saying that its stature is diminished.’

Hawkins—the play modeled on classical tragedy

      It is not only Miller who has said that the play is a tragedy through modifying the implied connotations of the term tragedy. There are critics who very enthusiastically plead a case for the play, admitting it in the ranks of finest tragedy. One of the first critics, to have called the play a tragedy, is William Hawkins. In his review of the play’s stage production in 1949, William Hawkins observed: “Death of a Salesman is a play written along the lines of the finest classical tragedy. It is the revelation of a man’s downfall in destruction, whose roots are entirely in his own soul. The play builds to an immutable conflict where there is no redemption for this man in this life. The play is a fervent query into the great American competitive dream of success, as it strips to the core, a castaway from the race for recognition and money ... The failure of a great potential could never be so moving or so universally understandable as is the fate of Willy Loman, because his complete happiness could have been so easy to attain. He is an artisan who glorifies in manual efforts and can be proud of the sturdy fine things he put together out of wood and cement... At eighteen he is introduced to the attention he might receive and the financial vistas he might travel by selling on the road. This original deception dooms him to a life of touring and a habit of prideful rationalization until at sixty he is so far along his tangent that his efforts not to admit his mediocrity are fatal... Through most of his career runs the insistent legacy of ‘amounting to something’ on his adopted terms, which he forces on his favorite son. With indulgent adoration, he unbalances the boy, demanding a mutual idolatory which he himself inevitably fails. If young Biff steals, it is courage; he captains a football team, the world is watching... In the end, after repeated failure, Biff sees the truth, too late to really penetrate his father’s mind. The boy’s tortured efforts to explain his own little true destiny can only crack open the years-long rift, and the salesman, with all his dreams, lost shadows, has no alternative to death for his peace.”

The play—a tragedy of our own time

      Perhaps the sanest and the most balanced affirmation of the view that the play is a tragedy comes from Messrs Judah Bierman, James Hart and Stanley Johnson.

      The above mentioned critics realize that the subject of modern tragedy cannot be king or royal personage as advocated by Aristotle. Aptness and truth are very subjective terms. What was proper in a particular country at a particular moment in the history of mankind, does not always hold good eternally. Since Aristotle, people’s way of thinking has seen many fluctuations and the face of the globe scarred by toil and tribulations, by social and economic upheavals. In ‘The Dramatic Experience’ they discuss Death of a Salesman quite intelligently. They argue quite coherently and convincingly. The essence of their discussion is as follows: “Unlike the dramas of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Lorca, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a tragedy set in our own times, played out on our own scene, by characters who, however we regard the quality of their thought, speak in our own language and with our own peculiar accents. In one sense, therefore, we cannot claim that the play is foreign to us. For what we lose of Oedipus because we are not Athenians, and of Othello because we are not Elizabethans, and of Blood Wedding by not being Spaniards, that much, at least, is ours because we are Miller’s American contemporaries. Even were we to reject his assumption and deny his conclusions, we would still know the world Miller creates, because the apartment houses that cut off Willy’s horizon cut off our own as well, and the three thousand miles from Brooklyn to San Francisco involve more a change of name and site than of setting.”

Balance tilts towards the positive statement

      We have by now traced the parallel lines of criticism regarding Death of a Salesman. It has been furiously attacked and stoutly defended by critics. But the balance seems to tilt in favor of establishing it as a supremely powerful tragedy. We do not think it very necessary or useful to try and fit the play under established divisions and classifications. Every new work of art should be viewed objectively—stripped of any preconceived notions and prejudices, Otherwise, the situation will be like trying to fit an ancient coat to a living, growing man.

Miller—play heroic if not tragic

      Arthur Miller himself feels that ‘it is a slippery play to categorize’. “The play was always heroic to me”, he says, and in later years “the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the hero seemed incredible to me,” but he explains, “I set out not to write a tragedy, but to show the truth as I saw it”.


      Miller had said earlier that tragedy is the manifestation of a truth. So by the voice of majority and going by the consensus arrived at, after studying the play with sympathetic objectivity, we conclude that the play is one of the finest tragedies of our times.

University Questions

Discuss Death of a Salesman as a social drama.
How far is Death of a Salesman a social tragedy?
Is the play a dramatization of socio-political philosophy? Discuss.

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