"The Tragedy of Willy Loman cannot be considered in isolation from the society that he inherits."
That the tragedy of an individual cannot be divorced from the action of the play he/she features in is now accepted as a truism. Characters are fictions, which should be discussed in terms of their actions, interactions and soliloquoies. It is crucial that in considering Willy Loman, the tragic protagonist of Death of a Salesman, we should always remain aware that he is a fiction, rather than an individual of flesh and blood.
Society, specifically the economic pressure and constraints that society imposes are not simply an element that impinges of Willy's (mis)fortunes in Salesman, they are, in fact, what defines these very fortunes. Indeed, Willy's hamartia is not a character flaw, it is his acceptance of a flawed ideal, namely the American Dream. Unremitting pursuit of this ideal is what leads to his downfall. His blindness to the tragic consequences that this will entail initially seems Oedipal, but Willy is not blinded by ignorance, as was Oedipus, but, like Jocasta, he chooses to blinker himself in order to preserve his battered ego, his sense of self. Even the benevolent Charley, who Willy addresses as "the only friend I've got", is unable to get through to him when he tells him "no man only needs a little salary" - that fulfilment lies in more than the accruement on wealth. Put simply, Willy is too strongly socialised into believing in the American Dream to ever escape it.
However, he does indulge in an escapist fantasy: sowing his own crops in the symbolically dark garden, too shady for anything to grow. Crucially, it is industrialism that provides this morbid shade in the form of the apartments towering over his lonely house. However, even Willy's fantasies are very much a product of society, symptomatic of the barrenness and lack of sustenance of the Depression era wherein he spent his formative years. This agrarian utopianism is the legacy of Jefferson and the frontier spirit of self-sustenance, and as American as apple pie.
In analysing to what extent the postwar American society shapes Willy's tragedy, it is necessary have at least a cursory understanding of the origins and mores of said society. Clearly, Salesman is firmly rooted in a society where individual achievement is seem as superior to the needs of society as a whole, and the pursuit of happiness through the medium of success reigns supreme. The success in question is narrowly defined: it is simply upward mobility. This is not to suggest that Willy sees anything so cohesive and stable as the traditional vision of the class system; to him, there are two kinds of people: those who have made it and those who haven't. This is the sordid underbelly of the sow that is the American dream, a sow who often inadvertently rolls over and crushes her young. The origins of the American dream are to be found in the Puritan ethics of the Founding Fathers, who believed that God rewarded his loyal servants with fine houses and bountiful land, exemplified in Benjamin Franklin's aphorism "God helps those who help themselves." This evolved into the Protestant Work Ethic: if you worked hard, lived honestly, and trusted in God, you would be duly rewarded. Although this seems like a benign ideology, it all too often defines work by monetary value: hence the writer who spends a year slaving over an unpublished novel is a lazy bum, whilst the errant son of a captain of industry, placed in some superfluous management position thanks to his familial connections, is worthy of our admiration. In the increasingly secular United States, this ideology was developed into the American Dream: You work hard, live honestly and be careful with your money and you would be able to support yourself and eventually retire a wealthy, admired man. To the poor, the main merit of such a world view was the lack of social barriers to upward mobility: even a pauper could progress, through a combination of luck and hard work, into the upper echelons of society. Willy's over-abundance of self-belief and! the unrealistic expectations it imposes on himself and on his sons are the product of a skwewed, rose-tinted vision of the American Dream. The decline of one theocracy has fuelled the apotheosis of a new godhead: Mammon.
Miller's derision of the American Dream is the legacy of his pre-war Marxist Romaticism. He is subtextually offering agrarian collectivism as an alternative to Willy's ludicrous belief in the cult of the individual. This distaste for monetary gain is unsurprising: indeed, to the delight of conspiracy theorists and reactionaries everywhere, a predilection for socialism was a characteristic common to many of the educated secular Jews of New York of Miller's era: indeed Miller himself was scrutinized by the pHouse of Un-American Activities] for a number of years, although all charges against him were dropped in 1955. Salesman, however, is bereft of any trace of Jewish culture of heritage, presumably because Miller felt this would distance, even alienate his audience from Willy, his tragic everyman, and lessen the pathos of the play.
Pathos is an important feature of all tragedy, as it evokes feelings of empathy crucial to catharsis. The traditional Aristotelian view, as outlined in the Poetics, is that only a tragedy of the highborn, the aristocracy, would provide the peripeteia, or reversal of fortune, of sufficient magnitude to prompt a cathartic response in the audience; or as Dr Roche simply put it "how far can Willy fall?" Miller himself, however, had no such qualms and "freely discussed his own work in the context of traditional tragedy"1. He felt that hamartia was the crucial feature would could make the "common man" a apt figure for tragic treatment - in his own words "The one fixed star of tragedy is the hero's urge to realize himself fully in the face of all that would rob him of his just deserts or repress what he feels to be his true nature; and the gauge of his heroism is the magnitude of the risk he is willing to take."2 Miller uses the character of Linda as a mouthpiece for his agenda when she states that Willy is not a great man. This is an attack on the plutocratic Aristotelian view of tragedy The realism of characters interrelations in Salesman is in direct contrast to the mythos and self-aggrandizement of the Sophoclean, and hence, the Aristotelian vision.
Salesman's most direct antecedent, Ibsen's Ghosts, shares a similar vision of the domestic tragedy and, like Salesman takes place in a secular society. Indeed, Captain Oswald can be viewed as a less sympathetic predecessor to Willy, with their shared tendency for hypocrisy and strongly developed pleasure principle, most clearly evinced in Salesman in the information that Linda has to re-darn his stockings whilst Willy buys them for his mistress. However, Willy's guilt at these reprehensible actions - he can't stand to watch Linda re-darn her stocking - redeems him to an extent. Such striking similarities are not surprising as Ghosts and Salesman share relatively similar social, historical and economic contexts. However the scale of the intertextuality between Salesman and Oedipus Rex is more revealing. Despite the society of Salesman being diametrically opposed to that of Oedipus Rex, the two plays share many common themes and motifs: familial relations and the dishonesty involved therein, the impact of the past on the present and the role of external forces outside our control in shaping our destinies. Willy's deafness to his son's protestations that he only worked in a menial position for Bill Oliver mirror Oedipus' blindness to his own family truths. Both men retain a certain pride and dignity despite their reduced circumstances: compare Oedipus' vainglorious exchanges with Creon with Willy's refusal of Charley's job offer. It is the universality of these themes, inherent in all the tragedies that I have studied, which makes them so powerful and enduring. However, there are striking differences: the dialectic between the pastoral, embodied by Biff, and the urban industrial, embodied by Willy, is entirely absent from Oedipus Rex. Also, Salesman is neatly divided into two acts: the first takes place in the private, family sphere, the second is in the public domain whereas Oedipus Rex is only concerned with the public domain More importantly the unfortunate Oedipus "through his extraordinary sufferings, ultimately exerts a magical, healing effect on all around him, which continues after his death"3 whilst Willy's tragicomic self-slaughter bears no fruit: as Charley presciently tells him (indeed I fancy there is something of the seer Teiresias in him) "Willy, nobody's worth nothin' dead."
In conclusion, although the tragedy of Willy Loman cannot be considered in isolation from the world which he inherits it shares many of its themes and devices with its tragic predecessors and I feel that it serves the same civic function as its ancient Greek predecessors: to produce pathos in order to provoke the audience into catharsis and a reappraisal of themselves. The absolute dependence of tragedy on human warmth in its two forms, friendship and love, is eloquently outlined below.
"The thing that now suddenly struck Winston was that his mother's death, nearly thirty years ago, had been tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason... She had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Today there were fears, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep and complex sorrows."4
1 Sewall, Richard B. The Vision of Tragedy, Yale University Press, 1959
2 Miller, Arthur. Tragedy and the Common Man, New York Times Theater Section, Feb 27, 1949
3 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy (Trans Clifton P. Fadiman), Modern Library 1927
4 Orwell, George. Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Harcourt, 1949