Willy Loman: as A Tragic Hero in Death of a Salesman

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      Modern concept of Tragedy. Environment shapes human life as well adversely affect it. Man is therefore the product as well as victim of the surroundings. How external factors influence man has been portrayed by modern writers. Tragic quality of a literary production is enhanced by the emphasis on the adverse working of external forces as well as subjective illusions and false ideals. In the traditional tragedy of Othello, King Lear, etc., the tragic hero reveals man’s essential and potential nobility through his struggle with social injustice and his own recognition of his faults and deficiencies. The audience is ennobled and uplifted by the spectacle of this heroic struggle. The modern concept, and more so Miller’s is that man is continuously being shaped by the environment rather than stimulated occasionally. Modern dramatists make an onslaught on social conditions and underline their plays with an optimistic premise. The playwright questions everything and makes the people learn the truth by the method of questioning.

      Miller’s views on Tragedy. When we witness a character readily acting to lay down his life to secure his goal and brighten his own sense of personal dignity, we find the tragic feeling evoked in us. If man fails to achieve this sense of personal dignity, it cannot but be the fault of society. Not that the hero is flawless. Miller decries the adverse character of the social forces as well as the inner weakness of the hero. He feels that everything stifling and stunting the growth of the individual is ripe for attack and scrutiny. This scrutiny reveals the moral law and the enlightenment of a tragedy is dependent on it. The function of a tragedy is that it should lay bare the social truth underlying the frustration in the man and everything that denies him his right to personal dignity.

      Willy Loman as tragic hero: society and the individual. In the conflict with the society the hero gains size. The hero need not be high born, royal or an outstanding military genius. Willy is a layman. To the extent of his willingness to stake everything he has to secure a rightful place in society and to fight for the same when he had risen to that stature. He is portrayed as the victim of his society, doomed, by his own perverted values, and misled by his own illusions regarding his achievements. Only on very few occasions has he the benefit of clear thinking about himself. Very rarely does he assert himself. He is feeble in making others impressed by this worthwhileness. He is a pathetic character. Although pathos is associated with pessimism when the character is throughout seen doomed, a tragedy must be able to breathe out optimism in the view of Miller.

      Law of success broken. We cannot legislate the law of success. Nor can religion lay down the principle regarding success in business and consequently in life. That is because failure in life or business tantamounts to forfeiting the right to live. Willy is obsessed with the belief that to fail in business is not to belong to society any longer. There are persons who may criticize Willy for being foolish or rather less tough-skinned in the face of repeated failures. Thus Willy may not be a heroic challenger nor does he seem to be clear-sighted enough. In this regard he shrinks into an ordinary character of a problem play.

      Improvement of society. The playwright may seek to improve society through the facts portrayed in the play. No one can deny that every ethical system can be improved as it is necessarily faulty and incomplete. If the intellectuals do not consciously work for changing our environment which retards our progress, they are likely to be condemned later on. The idea that man is not merely a part of Nature doomed to succumb to the adverse law and forces should be popularised. Man can and should resist his environment and change it suitably.

      Manual labor not one of the dreams. Willy Loman would have shone as an artisan. Charley says: ‘He was a happy man with a batch of cement.’ Biff says: ‘There is more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.’ Linda says ‘He was so wonderful with his hands.’ But why did he fail in life? He had wrong dreams throughout. Happy says: ‘Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It is the only dream you can have—to come out number one man.’ Thus the opinions of his friends and kinsmen should be synthesized into one. Willy’s life was tragic. His end was tragic. He was a tragic hero of sorts. A man like Willy Loman cannot be blamed if he commits suicide as his last attempt to gain for himself a substantial place in the lingering memory of his kinsmen.

      Conflict in profession. If Willy as a salesman was a failure, Willy as a salesman has some conflict with Willy as man also. The recalling of past incidents to synchronize with present dilemma in the play signifies this conflict. Each of those previous episodes lays emphasis on this point. He was all along blind to this fundamental contradiction in his life. Willy wants to commit suicide as an answer to his own old problem. He must give something to Biff in return for his love—the love that he acknowledges despite instances of hatred on various occasions especially at the time when Biff catches him in the Boston hotel room with the woman friend.

      Conclusion. In the case of Willy, life has not become too intolerable to be continued. The burden of life is not too terrible to allow him peace of mind. Then why does he choose to die? He believes that his death will yield something he was not able to bequeath his son. On coming to know that Willy Loman has committed suicide are the spectators moved to ask—What is the human issue that his death signifies? Is it not an ordinary episode in modern society, although a bit tragic? Is it necessary to pay any particular attention to it? These questions tax the common spectator of course. Hence the fact that Willy Loman is a. tragic hero.

University Questions

Do you regard Willy Loman as a ‘tragic’ character? Give textual evidence in support of your answer.
Consider Willy Loman as an unheroic hero whose character cannot sustain genuine tragedy.
How would you respond to the charge that Willy Loman lacks the stature for the tragic hero?
Comment on the validity of Miller’s choice of a mere salesman as a tragic hero.

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