drama is tragic not only because of Willy Loman's suicide, but because he has left his family with nothing, and his sons with no hopes and abilities of their own.
Brief overview of the play
Argument for tragedy
Pro argument for tragedy
Con argument against tragedy
What the critics say
Death of a Salesman as Tragedy
This paper analyzes the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Specifically, it discusses the definition of tragedy by Aristotle, and research if it is correct to label the play as a tragedy.
Death of a Salesman is indeed a tragedy of epic proportions. The drama is tragic not only because of Willy Loman's suicide, but because he has left his family with nothing, and his sons with no hopes and abilities of their own.
Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1948, and it premiered on Broadway in February of 1949. Critics Susan C.W. Abbotson and Brenda Murphy note the play was an immediate dramatic success. They write, "Salesman ran for an extraordinary 742 performances on Broadway, winning the Pulitzer Prize, the Donaldson Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the season" (Murphy and Abbotson xiii). The play has continued its popularity until the current day, and it is often studied in classrooms and reading clubs. Many people believe the play is the quintessential story of the quest for the American Dream and all that represents in modern society, but it is also a modern-day tragedy, straight out of a long tradition of tragic drama that began with the Greek tragedies and the writings of Aristotle. Death of a Salesman is not Miller's only work, he had many other successes, but it is one of his finest, and lives on even after the author.
Miller is known as one of America's premier playwrights, and he passed away only last year after a long and fulfilling career. Miller himself was often hesitant to categorize the play as a pure tragedy. Late in his life he described the play succinctly, saying, "Well, it's about a salesman and he dies. What can I tell you?'" (Otten 281). However, Miller's play is much more than that. It is the story of a family falling apart and a father who is unable to grow and change with the times. It is the story of three weak men, with only one showing any promise for the future. Loman has passed on a legacy of failure to his sons, and it seems they will not be able to accomplish much more than their father has been able to accomplish with his life. It is a sad and haunting story, and the family is tragic in its own right, but that is not the only element that creates tragedy in this story. The real tragedy is that the Loman's are hemmed in by modern life, just as their growing Brooklyn neighborhood has hemmed them in. All of them are unable to adapt to changing times and changing needs, and the entire family is tragic because it is trapped in somewhat of a "time-warp." They are passe and no longer necessary, and Loman cannot deal with being over the hill and unable to provide for his family.
The main characters in the play are the Loman family, Willy, the father and the salesman, Linda, his wife, and Biff and Hap his two sons. There are other characters, including Willy's boss, some more successful friends, and even a vague "Woman" -- mistress Willy kept as he traveled during his more prosperous years. Most of the minor characters are more successful than Willy is, and they serve as a contrast to Willy's gradual decline. They are prosperous because they are adaptable, and they make Willy look even more sad and pathetic by comparison. Willy cannot face reality and make himself a better person through his shortcomings, and that is another aspect of the play that is tragic. Willy does not have to die at the end, but because he cannot adapt, he sees death as his only hope and his only choice. Sadly, suicide leaves behind the pieces, like Linda and the boys, unable to make their own decisions and left hanging by their dependence on Willy. The story is sad, but it is also tragic because Willy continually makes the wrong choices with his life and cannot admit that, even to himself.
One of the most important ingredients in good drama is the obstacle or obstacles the main characters must face. The Loman family faces many obstacles in this drama, which is one reason it is so fascinating and memorable. Willy faces the obstacle of his aging and his health. He simply cannot do his job as well as he could when he was younger, and he cannot face the fact that he is not as successful or as young as he used to be. He notes early in the play, "Willy: Funny, y'know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive" (Miller 1043). All of this looking back creates another tragic element in the play, and that is the foreshadowing of Loman's death. Even the title foreshadows what will happen by the end of the play. Loman's greatest obstacle is not his aging, or his health, or even his family -- it is himself, and he cannot overcome his own shortcomings to make himself a better and stronger person. Instead, he gives in to his misery and his failings, and allows them to dictate the rest of his life. He is weak, and he is tragic because of his weakness.
The rest of the family faces obstacles, too. Loman's two sons have both experienced their own failures. Biff could have been an excellent football player, but he chose not to go to college. Hap bounces from job to job, is a petty thief and womanizer. It seems he will never grow up and will instead follow in his father's unsuccessful footsteps. Biff has found a measure of happiness working on a ranch out west, but he will always wonder what might have been had he made different choices. Linda Loman is a shadowy figure who does not seem to really understand her husband or her sons. She says poignantly at his grave, "Why did you do it? I search and I search, and I can't understand it Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home" (Miller 1054). All three of these supporting characters also meet the definition of tragedy, and they help create the aura of misfortune that surrounds the play. They are all likeable people who the audience eventually pities, but they seem powerless to pull themselves out of despair and make something important out of their lives. It is not enough to want something, but these characters do not understand that. They have dreams, but they do not have the impetus to make these dreams come true. Their own failings fail them, and that makes them all tragic and pitiable figures.
Early Greek playwright and philosopher Aristotle defined tragedy as, "An imitation of action concerning the fall of a man (person) whose character is good (though not pre-eminently just or virtuous) whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity but by some error or frailty with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of these emotions" (Amsden). Clearly, Death of a Salesman meets and even exceeds this definition of tragedy. Critic Bloom continues, "Death of a Salesman appears to imitate Classic tragedy primarily in its acceptance of the principle of the ultimate responsibility of the individual" (Bloom 11). First, Loman falls and falls hard by the end of the play. His character is good, and he is certainly not a bad or evil man. He is simply a man who is past his prime and can no longer effectively compete in the only world he has ever known. His misfortune comes about because he is weak and makes the wrong choices in life, and he does indeed arouse pity in the reader. Loman could be considered the perfect tragic character -- he fits the mold that completely. However, it is not only Willy Loman that makes the play a tragedy. The entire family is weak and unprepared for success in life; another legacy Loman has handed down to his sons. This makes the play even more tragic; more Loman's are loose in life and waiting for someone to save them or take care of them. Another critic believes Linda and Happy are especially simple-minded and tragic. He writes, "Linda and Happy are repeatedly shown to be among the most deluded, obtuse, and mendacious characters in the play" (Phelps 239). They, like Willy, have not learned from their past mistakes, or their past at all, and they…