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Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, is a tragic play focusing on the common man during the late 1940’s. Much of the story is told by flashbacks of Willy Loman’s past, including him cheating on Linda, his wife. His older son, Biff, witnessed the affair and has not been the same ever since. Happy, the younger son, is not actually happy but he enjoys lying in order to get ahead. Willy teaches his sons that being popular and “well liked” is more important than having skills. A tragic hero is a literary character who makes a judgement error that inevitably leads to his/her own destruction. The character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is an example of a tragic hero.
An example of a characteristic of a tragic hero is that the character must have a weakness. This applies to Willy Loman because he has several weaknesses, pride being the most evident. He has a false sense of his own importance and believes that he will die “the death of a salesman” with a crowded funeral, but instead dies pretty much alone (Miller 55). When Charley offers him a job, Willy turns it down because he feels that it may compromise his dignity. He is fine with getting hand outs but is too proud to accept Charley’s offer (Miller 26). He also constantly talks about being “well liked” and having friends (Miller 17).
Willy Loman represents the common working American man. Although he cheats on his wife and ruins his relationship with his sons, Willy suffers more than he deserves. Committing suicide is the way that he wants to redeem himself in their eyes, considering that his life insurance will leave them with twenty thousand dollars (Miller 39). His punishment, death, exceeds his crimes. Another way he suffers is when Howard refuses to move his work closer to home and then eventually fires him. Willy tells him that he “can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit” (Miller 55). By this, he means that the company cannot just fire its employees when they are too old and worn out to be of value to them. Willy has been with the company since the beginning, working for Howard’s father. The only reason that Howard kept him around was for his father.
This story definitely arouses fear and empathy from the audience. Willy’s biggest desire is to be noble and “well liked”, but he clearly never reaches that status. Throughout the play, it seems that he truly believes that he is popular, His death should raise fear in the common man, whom Willy symbolizes, because we can recognize similar possibilities of error in ourselves. He is a “low man”, struggling to succeed in the wrong way. His dream was never to be a businessman; that idea was planted into his head by his father. Being a salesman was wrong for him; he was always skilled at building things (Miller 26). The audience can understand Willy’s desire to be successful, well liked, and the value he sees in appearances (Miller 18). After all, “well liked” is probably the most common phrase in the entire play.
Willy discovers his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him. He was essentially a product of society, chasing after material goods and the “American Dream”. Not only did Willy want to be rich, he also wanted to be popular among others. He lives in the past, which is characterized by the conversations between Willy and his deceased brother, Ben (Miller 27). Willy smashing up the car is mentioned several times throughout the play, leading the reader to believe that he has tried committing suicide before (Miller 7). He also inhales gas from a gas pipe, in an attempt to slowly kill himself (Miller 39). In the end, it is Willy’s own actions that lead to his death.
Finally, a tragic hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in death. Spiritually, Willy’s affair with The Woman plays a huge role in his downfall. He loves Linda, but The Woman plays along with Willy’s belief that he is more important than he really is. When Biff finds out about the affair, he is destroyed. While he used to be the star football player at his school, he has given that up and does not graduate from high school (Miller 84). Willy knows that the affair has caused a drift in his relationship with his family, and he even feels guilty that he can provide stockings for The Woman but not for his wife. Each time that Willy crashes his car or inhales gas, he is physically hurting himself. Eventually, the car leads to his death (Miller 98).
In conclusion, Willy’s main flaw is having too much pride. He suffers more than he deserves, his own actions lead to his downfall, and his story arouses fear and empathy. Due to all of these and his death, Willy is able to meet the criteria of Aristotle’s tragic hero. The character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is an example of a tragic hero.
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