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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a work that has been interpreted many different ways over the last few decades. As the main character Willy Loman’s mental health unravels, the audience has a hard time figuring out if this classic is a tragedy or just a man with psychological issues and a possible identity crisis. Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, but unlike others audiences have seen or read about before but ultimately, Willy meets all the criteria for what a tragedy is. Willy’s personal psychological issues create a serious flaw in him as a main character, along with social pressures brought on by outside sources and moral weakness within Willy. The unhappy ending is foreshadowed but none the less, is a tragedy.
The first issue that contributes to Death of A Salesman being a tragedy is the issue of social pressures that Willy undergoes by seeing how successful his brother Ben has been, seeing the world around him industrialize, as well as Bernard pressuring him about how Biff has to do well in school in order to succeed. Its portrayed that Willy wants to achieve the American dream, but in reality he is just falling under the pressures that society has set in place during that time period. The world around Willy was beginning to really industrialize, which would understandable put insecurity and pressure on a man with a family during that time who wasn’t really progressing in his career. Willy even goes as far as blaming the growing population for ruining the country. Claiming that, “Population is getting out of control. The competition is maddening,” (Miller 12). Which seemingly Willy is making up an excuse to as why he hasn’t achieved success in his life due to many people attempting to reach the same goal. Another social pressure includes Willy’s brother Ben who found success in Alaska. Willy repeatedly mentions how he should have went, “If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different,” (Miller 35). Showing how he regrets not accomplishing the American dream how Ben did.
Bernard attempting to help Biff out in school by reminding him to study also adds social pressure for Willy because he wants Biff to be successful, but plays it off and jokes about how Bernard won’t amount to nothing just by doing good in school because he isn’t well liked. He repeatedly dismisses Bernard by saying “Don’t be a pest!” and calling him anemic to his sons (Miller 25). Willy does this because he doesn’t want to be reminded of how his son Biff is failing in something in his life. Even when his wife attempts to speak up for their son and agree with Bernard, Willy freaks out and exclaims, “There’s nothing the matter with him! You want him to be a worm like Bernard? He’s got spirit, personality,” (Miller 31).
Another issue which helps in identifying this play as a tragedy would be the main character Willy’s moral weakness, which is his dream of success for himself and his family. This is a weakness because he is not achieving success and is not the great salesman as he see’s and portrays himself as. When talking to Happy, he claims “’I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own,” (Miller 24). He goes to his boss and asks for a different position in his company, but gets fired because his irrationality shows and the truth comes out about his few career accomplishments. He keeps telling his boss he just needs a certain amount of money to keep his household secured but as the conversation intensifies, the amount Willy requests gets lower and lower. Which exemplifies how desperate Willy is to succeed at the financial goals he dreams about. Howard tries to explain to Willy isn’t and hasn’t been doing much for the company most of his career, “I don’t want you to represent us. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now” (Miller). Bringing the reality of Willys delusion to the surface.
As Willy’s weakness for success continues to shine through throughout the play, Willy repeatedly tries to push his financial dreams off on Biff and live through him vicariously. In the beginning of the first act, Willy talks down about his son Biff to his wife Linda. Calling Biff lazy and that, “Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace,” (Miller 11). As he paints his son as a failure, he then goes on to admit he knows his son is not lazy; but that someone like him who is attractive and likeable, should be able to achieve the American dream. Which also happens to be the same thing Willy has worked for in his own life in attempts to achieve but failed.
The final issue that makes Death of a Salesman a tragedy would be the tragic flaw that Willy has of being in-denial and delusional. Willy’s mental state is a huge downfall because it makes him believe Biff (and himself) are able to become successful and rich just for being attractive and liked by many people. Willy being not being able to come to terms with reality ironically pushes people away even his own son, although he is supposed to be well-liked. When he is contemplating his suicide he even goes as far as telling himself (who he imagines as talking to Ben) that, “Ben, that funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old timers with the strange license plates,” (Miller 41). As he is talking, Willy is trying to convince no one but himself that all of his ‘friends’ will come from all parts of the United States. As he continues to go on he says, “I am known! Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey — I am known, Ben, and he’ll see it with his eyes once and for all. He’ll see what I am, Ben” (Miller 41). In his delusional state as he plans life for his family after he is gone, he is still worried about people viewing him as a great successful salesman. He talks down to and about Biff because Biff knows reality from fantasy unlike his father. Biff tries forcing Willy into reality by explaining, “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them! I’m one dollar an hour, Willy I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it,” (Miller 43). With the harsh reality of the fact he isn’t going to amount to anything and neither will his son, Willy is still a bit in denial and mentally unstable, so he decides death and the insurance money his family will receive, is the ultimate solution.
It’s understandable how some would presume that this work is not a tragedy because Willy Loman is just a regular guy who had some psychological issues. In most tragedies, there is a King or a huge hero who has a unfortunate downfall but Death of A Salesman captures tragedy in a different light then most people are used to because it portrays a tragedy of the everyday man. If an important figure is not involved when unfortunate situations happen doesn’t make things more or less of a tragedy.
In the end this was a tragedy that could really happen to any person. Willy being so caught up on being successful and trying to provide more than what he could give to his family was ultimately what was slowly killing him inside while driving him mad, and ironically also the reason he took his own life. Willy responded to his broken dreams by admiring how after Ben died, his kids received insurance money and decided to finally provide financial happiness for his family in the same way. The tragic flaw in Willy, along with the social pressure and moral weakness he had, makes this play a tragedy.
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