In writing Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller was attempting to illustrate the idea that tragedy need not be concerned with characters of great magnitude; instead, he proposed that the protagonist can be an ordinary person, an “everyman”. He further explained this concept in his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man.” While I believe that tragedy can befall a common person, they must, by necessity, become more than human in literature. It will be argued here that, while Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, it is not a tragedy of a common man, but rather, a tragedy of a character apart from the rest of humanity.
It quickly becomes apparent that Death of a Salesman is, indeed, a tragedy when its structure and components are compared to various ideas of what tragedy is. In this comparison, it also becomes apparent that Willy Loman is not (indeed, can not be) the “common man” that Miller was striving to create.
Northrop Frye, in a series of lectures from 1966, stated that tragedy was based on two things: the order of nature, and the wheel of fortune. The order of nature is borrowed from Elizabethan times; God and the angels are at the top, followed by monarchs, the church, nobility, humans, and so on, with devils and Satan at the bottom. Frye proposed that the fall of man caused humanity to be caught in an endless wheel of fortune between heaven and hell. Propelled by society’s collective energy and ambition, people rise on this wheel until they are almost touching heaven, only to fall toward hell on the other side. The upper and lower halves of this wheel are respectively known as Appolonian (light, reason, order) and Dionysian (aggression, ambition, punishment). Frye stated that a tragic hero refuses to accept these conditions of life; the hero cannot accept the rising and falling of life on the wheel of fortune. He breaks away from the wheel, trying to fight it. However, the wheel is a far superior force, and he is overwhelmed, eventually dying.
Death of a Salesman matches Frye’s model of tragedy very well. Willy Loman cannot accept what has become of the world: its impersonality and harshness, and he breaks away from the wheel of fortune. “Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear…” (Miller Death 81) he tells Howard, his employer. Willy tries to fight the rules of society, but just as his home, surrounded by apartment buildings, he is surrounded and bombarded by social forces that contradict his belief system. It is this breaking away from the wheel that shows he is not a common man. Willy distances himself from the rest of society and becomes a singularity. He refuses to accept the conditions of life – he’s one-in-a-million. A true common man would accept life’s inherent conditions, and there would then be no tragedy. This is why a tragic hero in literature must become more than human.
In “The Tragic Rhythm”, Suzanne Langer proposed another model of tragedy. She put forward the concept that tragic heroes go through a period of growth, reach maturity, and then enter a period of decline that ends in their death. She stated that what a person leaves to fate is the difference between what he brings to the world and what the world demands of him. The tragic hero overestimates his own abilities, she said, and falls just a tiny bit short of what the world demanded of him. Langer also believed that the hero had one aim and one passion, and the pursuit of this turned out to be his “hamartia”, his fatal flaw, resulting in his eventual downfall.
Langer’s ideas about the hero not bringing enough to the world and having only one passion fit Death of a Salesman well. Willy is determined to be successful at all costs, and he will give up anything to get it, even reality. On page 82, Willy says angrily, “I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in commissions” (Miller Death). Later, Howard tells him, “this is no time for false pride, Willy” (Miller 84). Willy is so intent on being successful that he believes he is the best in the world even when it is a complete lie. In this, Willy again shows himself to be an uncommon man. He refuses to accept reality, and his one aim and one passion for achieving success (being well liked and rich) consume him to the point of living in a dream world of his own design and creation. Biff says on page 56 that his father is simply “spewing out…vomit from his mind” (Miller Death). A more-common man would accept that he would never be successful at selling and try to find another occupation that better suited him. He would realize that they could not bring enough to the job to meet its demands. Willy, however, lived his life in a lie of greatness.
There is a discrepancy, though, between Death of a Salesman and Langer’s model of tragedy. In the play, Willy does not go through a period of emotional growth. If anything, his state of mind seems to regress and he slips more and more into his dream world. He is constantly contradicting himself – on page 16, he says, “Biff is a lazy bum” (Miller Death), and then ends his second line after that with, “there’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy” (Miller Death). By the end of Act two, Willy his completely immersed himself in his artificial reality. He mumbles to himself and Ben, who, after Willy has a brief argument with Biff, leads him to his death.
During this argument, Biff tried to show his father the truth about the Lomans’ lives and lies. He says, “we never told the truth for ten minutes in this house” (Miller Death 131)! The rest of the family, however, simply cannot understand the truth about themselves – they have been living false lives as successful people, especially Happy and Willy. This inability to accept truth and reality is what makes up Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy. He stated that a tragedy “effects through pity and fear, the purification of such emotions.” It is almost exasperatingly pitiful that the Loman’s cannot see their mistakes. We as the audience think, “why can’t he just figure it out? Come on, Willy”, but he just doesn’t “get it”, and therein lies the tragic element.
Aristotle also believed that the set of a play was important. Sure enough, the set of Death of a Salesman is a very important part of the play. It is constructed in such a way that high-rise apartments are visible above the Lomans’ house. This creates a setting in which a safe, yet vulnerable home is surrounded by the contradictory forces of society, which are hemming in the Lomans. At the very end of the play, the set becomes particularly important, as the lights on stage fade and the apartment towers become more visible, showing the supremacy of the social forces over Willy’s meager attempt to fight them.
It is interesting to note that one can see how even Miller’s own essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man” shows that creating a tragedy about a “common man” is an impossibility. Miller says on page 2, “the flaw…is really nothing,…but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity” (Tragedy). Miller believes that tragedy is a tribute to the human spirit, the determination to go on when the going gets impossible, never mind tough. How is this different from the actions of kings and protagonists in the classic models of tragedy? It is not, because the ambitions of Miller’s “common man” and a king are exactly the same when looked at in relative scope. For example, a business deal for Willy is equivalent to a treaty signed by a king. The only difference is circumstance. Although the two acts look very different on the outside, the actual internal thought processes, ambition, and effort are very similar.
Miller also states that when the character refuses to accept society and reality, “nothing is accepted, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains ‘size’” (Miller Tragedy 3). If the character has gained size and magnitude, does this not then immediately disqualify him from any claim to being a common man? Yes. In the very instant that he becomes a tragic hero, the very instant he decides to reject the conditions for living, the very instant he begins to be consumed by his one aim, the character separates himself from the rest of humanity and becomes a singular being. The tragic hero (Willy Loman) is not necessarily above humanity, but he is most certainly apart from it. Simply by living the life he does, he exiles himself from the masses of society.
As stated before, Death of a Salesman is the embodiment of Miller’s theory that tragedy applies to common people more than it does to kings. I do not believe by any means that tragedy must deal with kings and nobles, but I do believe that tragic heroes cannot be common people – that they, just like the kings of Shakespearean tragedies, are apart from the rest of society. It is just that, for audiences, it is easier to see a character’s fall when they fall from a higher social position. Kings are as high as humans can get, and so they were used in tragedies to emphasize the protagonist’s fall from grace.
Miller argues that tragedy’s appeal is that people see it and become afraid that the same events could occur in their lives and affect them. He states that common people fear these changes more powerfully than kings and nobles did in Shakespeare’s time. I do not believe this is true. Assassinations, invading armies, powerful nobles, and revolutions constantly threatened kings; their position was anything but secure. Monarchs would undoubtedly be disturbed and fearful upon seeing the fall of a king in a play; even more so because they would have so much farther to fall. Miller, therefore, has not changed anything about tragedy on this point.
We can see more parallels between Willy Loman and the kings of classic tragedies. At one point, Willy bursts with fury and screams, “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman” (Miller Death 132)! Monarchs also believed themselves to be above and better than the common person. A “normal”, everyday person, on the other hand, accepts his position as average and fits comfortably into society. They accept that they do not need everything to be happy, and that they need to work hard to be successful. This is unlike Willy, who believes that all he needs in life is people to like him, and he cannot even achieve that because of his refusal to accept his mediocrity.
Tragedy has been an important concept and idea in literature and drama for thousands of years, and it will undoubtedly remain one for thousands more. Although there are many different ideas about what tragedy is, the basic principles are very similar: a tragedy involves pity and fear, as well as a central character that does not accept the way society or nature is. This character has one aim and one purpose, namely their struggle with society or the forces of nature, and they very nearly achieve it – they fall just short of their goal and are destroyed by their failure. Arthur Miller, in Death of a Salesman and “Tragedy and the Common Man”, put forth the idea that the protagonist in tragedy does not need to be a king, but can be, instead, a common person, an “average Joe”. The play is most definitely a tragedy – Willy Loman is consumed by his passion for success, and he cannot accept his failures; he lives in a false reality where he is successful. He eventually becomes unable to cope with the pressures society (and his son Biff) is putting on him to accept the truth, and he is destroyed. However, the moment Willy rejects truth and reality, he becomes more than human. He is not above society in the sense that kings were in Elizabethan times, but he is apart from it, just as they were. By simply becoming a tragic hero, Willy is automatically distanced from the rest of humanity and becomes a unique, separate entity, a “not-so-common man.”