Tragedy, can easily lure us into talking nonsense."
In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, we are introduced to Willy Loman, who believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream -- that a "well liked" and "personally attractive" man in business will unquestionably acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Willy's obsession with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability are at odds with a more granular and beneficial understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. (Bloom) Willy's interpretation of likeability is perfunctory -- he childishly hates Bernard because he thinks Bernard does not embody the qualities that he admires. Willy's faith in his warped version of the American Dream leads to his psychological decline when he is unable to accept the incongruity between the Dream and his own life.
But is Death of a Salesman a tragedy in the true sense? This controversy has never really abated among critics, and the topic inevitably continues to surface. "(When) Matthew Roudane interviewed (Miller) in November of 1983, Miller seemed less defensive and insistent. Responding to the question of whether or not Death of a Salesman was a Sophoclean tragedy, he commented, "I think it does engender tragic feelings, at least in a lot of people. Let's say it's one kind of tragedy. I'm not particularly eager to call it tragedy or anything else; the label doesn't matter to me" And in a recent interview in 1997 he claimed that when people ask him what the play is about, he simply responds, "Well, it's about a salesman and he dies. What can I tell you?" (Otten) Willy Loman is certainly a pathetic and tragic character whose life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in despair each time. Willy's father leaves him when he is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. As a result of his father's abandonment, Willy develops a fear of abandonment that makes him want his family to conform to his version of what a family should be. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand his own reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the most promising, turns away from Willy and his overzealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy's adultery. Biff's ongoing business failures further his alienation from Willy. Just when Willy feels that Biff is on the brink of greatness, Biff shatters his father's illusions and abandons the, Willy in the bathroom of a restaurant. Willy's primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff's disloyalty of his aspirations for him. Willy thinks that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise within him. When Biff walks out on Willy, he takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with "insult" and "spite"). (Bloom) Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff's ego-crushing rejection ultimately reflects Willy's inability to "sell" him on his version of the American Dream -- the product in which Willy himself believes most in more than any he has ever sold. Willy thinks that Biff's betrayal comes from him finding out about Willy's affair with another woman. Willy feels that Biff has abandoned him, and Biff feels that Willy, is a "phony little fake" and has betrayed him with his ceaseless stream of feeding lies.
Although most readers of the play can agree that Loman is pathetic, can we agree that his situation is tragic? "Miller has always admitted his predilection for tragedy, at times at the cost of obfuscating his plays by defending them as tragedies. The plays "that have lasted," he has insisted, "have shared a kind of tragic vision of man." (Nyren) and certainly Death of a Salesman does have many elements. According to Aristotle "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.... Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality -- namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody." Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative; tragedy "shows" rather than "tells." According to Aristotle, tragedy is higher and more philosophical than history because history simply relates what has happened while tragedy dramatizes what may happen, "what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity." History thus deals with the particular, and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others. Tragedy, however, is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain. (Abbotson et al.)
With Aristotle's definition in mind, I do feel that Death of a Salesman is a tragedy in the truest sense. Arthur Miller does not simply relay the story of Willy Loman to us, we actually live it -- we hear his thoughts and can sense his emotions. The story is not simply a narrative history of Willy's life...it is Willy's life and we are seeing it as it unfolds and ultimately ends. Death of a Salesman does arouse pity from the reader, but it also provokes a sense of fear in them as well. Why? Because all of us at one time or another have felt like Willy Loman. All of us have our ideals about what the world is supposed to be for us and our families. Aren't each of us a small part of Willy Loman? It certainly is something to think about.
Most who question if Death of a Salesman is truly a tragedy allude to its "tragic situations," its evocation of "tragic feelings," its "tragic implications" or "tragic rhythms," or other sub-themes of the genre. "Nonetheless, Miller has long confessed that classical tragedy and Ibsen's subsequent adaptation of it in the post-Enlightenment period have provided the structural and thematic spine of his work. Looking back over his career in the mid-1980s, he remarked: "I think probably the greatest single discovery I made was the structure of the Greek plays. That really blinded me. It seemed to fit everything that I felt. And then there was Ibsen, who was dealing with the same kind of structural pattern -- that is the past meeting the present dilemma."(Nyren) Most often paralleled with Oedipus, Death of a Salesman has also been compared with Shakespearean tragedies (especially Lear and Othello), Lillo The London Merchant, and various plays by Ibsen, O'Neill, Williams, and others. Attacks on the play as tragedy have ranged from "casual dismissal to vitriolic antagonism." (Abbotson et al.) Representative views include Eleanor Clark's early severe condemnation of the play's "pseudo-universality" and "party-line" polemics in her 1949 Partisan Review essay. Calling Miller's concept of tragedy "not feasible," Alvin Whitley, among other later critics, admonished Miller to realize "that he is extending the traditional interpretation [of tragedy] to embrace demonstrably different emotional effects" and that "in the basic matter of personal dignity, Willy Loman may have ended where Hamlet unquestionably began." Richard J. Foster labeled Willy a "pathetic bourgeois barbarian" and concluded that the drama was "not a 'tragedy' or great piece of literature." Reflecting a common theme among Miller critics, Eric Mottram assaulted Miller's "muddled notions of Greek tragedy and modern psychology" which "lead him to plumb for that old stand-by for the American liberal, "the individual." (Otten)
Underlying any consideration of the play's tragic potential is the larger question of whether or not tragedy can exist in an age when "God is dead." Nietzsche warned that it would go hard with tragic poets if God is dead, and writers like Joseph Wood Krutch and George Steiner have long since pronounced the death of tragedy, largely on the grounds that the absence of some identifiable, universal moral law that locates the operation of a transcendent order against which to judge the tragic hero denies the possibility of tragic drama. Miller himself has certainly recognized the problem this presents. When asked if his plays were modern tragedies, he admitted: "I changed my mind about it several times... To make direct and arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the function of religion and power, which was taken for granted in an a priori consideration of any classic tragedy." (Bloom)