In his essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, Arthur Miller describes ‘the heart and spirit of the average man’, and the nature of his tragic hero Willy Loman. He highlights that ‘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’. Yet it can be questioned whether Willy does indeed make it through the play with his sense of personal dignity, and whether his struggle, in which he lays down his life, is honourable or futile, through examining Willy’s values, what makes a tragic hero, and his death, to reach a conclusion as to whether Willy can be classified as a tragic hero.
Dennis Welland asserts that ‘tragedy implies values’; in Death of a Salesman, Willy has comparatively few values, perhaps inhibiting his story from being a true tragedy. Throughout the play, his lies, adulterous behaviour and unappreciative regard of his family suggest that Willy only has one real value; being ‘well-liked’, something that ultimately proves to be vacuous and futile. Although he seems to value the concept of the American Dream, the innovative and enterprising nature of this concept seems to pass him by, as he enters a distinctly unoriginal job, a salesman, in the world’s largest purchaser of commercial goods. He does work hard, but only for something he deems worthwhile; Willy sees no harm in accepting money from Charlie every week, as long as it is done so in a clandestine manner, and in this sense prefers to be given handouts rather than work for his money, something that somewhat undermines the notion of the American Dream. However, perhaps the tragedy is that while chasing his ‘rightful’ place in society, Willy feels obligated to compromise his values; it is clear that he loves Linda, yet resorts to infidelity just to get to the front of a buyer’s line. If this is the case, this compromise perhaps undermines the personal dignity that Miller argues is essential to Willy’s position as a tragic hero.
It is also debatable whether Willy can be classed as a traditional tragic hero. Typically, a tragic hero has to have an admirable quality, be it Macbeth’s valour or Oedipus’ leadership, yet Willy lacks this distinct characteristic. A traditional tragic hero, according to Aristotle, must have a high status; Miller calls his ‘archaic’, and is correct in his assertion that ‘the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings were’. Yet whether the story of Willy, although the story of a common man, can be classified as tragedy relies on the perception of what makes a tragic hero. An Aristotelian tragic hero is a victim of circumstance; Willy does not really fit this definition, as he had the choice to leave Brooklyn and selling to go and seek his fortune in Alaska, and chose not to. Instead, Miller defines the tragic struggle as ‘that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in society’. But Willy, who disregards his individual capabilities that dictate he has not the capacity to be anything other than a ‘low man’, fights against his rightful position in society with a sense that he should be able to succeed, a sense of entitlement; possibly Willy lays down his life for this sense, rather than that of a personal dignity.
Whether Willy can be classed as a tragic hero depends on how his suicide is interpreted, whether his death is admirable or tragic, whether he dies for any reason at all. In the play’s requiem, the audience sees the sparsely attended funeral and questions whether Willy’s life really made an impact on anything; according to Miller, ‘this very limitation…serves to complete the tragedy’. And certainly the story of an unknown person who fails in life despite enormous efforts is a tragic one. However Miller also states that what is ‘more important… [that] we learn’; although Willy doesn’t learn, and neither does Happy, Biff does. Yet arguably he had already reached his anagnorisis by the time of his father’s suicide; if this is the case, Willy’s death was just futile.
Willy, whose life was dictated by the dreams or delusions that he constantly hoped to achieve, chooses to die because he believes he is worth more dead than alive. His misplaced notion that his death will benefit his family, both in terms of his life insurance dividend and in seeing how well-liked he really was from the crowds he imagines at his funeral is especially poignant as the audience knows neither are likely to materialise, as Willy’s dreams rarely do. The nature of his death, the abandonment of his family, in fact costs him the last shreds of his personal dignity that had largely evaporated throughout the course of the play. Although he died in an attempt to preserve what he thought was his personal dignity, he dies a foolish man rather than the great one he aspires to be. And in this sense, perhaps it is not a tragic feeling that is evoked in us, but rather one of waste, and of pity for the common man.