Willy Loman and Shelley Levene as The Examples of a Tragic Hero

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About this sample


Words: 1012 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

Words: 1012|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Tragic Hero Concept
  3. Willy Loman: A Modernist Tragic Hero
    Shelley Levene: A Postmodernist Tragic Hero
  4. Comparative Analysis
  5. Conclusion
  6. Works Cited


Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" are two iconic American dramas that have ignited intense debates among scholars, literary critics, and readers regarding the concept of tragic heroes. In this essay, we will closely examine the central characters of these plays, Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" and Shelley Levene in "Glengarry Glen Ross," to discern the distinctions between a modernist tragic hero and a postmodernist tragic hero. Both Loman and Levene can be regarded as tragic heroes, as they make decisions and errors in judgment that inexorably lead to their downfall, a characteristic that aligns with Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero.

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The Tragic Hero Concept

Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero is a foundational element in the analysis of literary characters who meet their downfall due to their own judgment errors. This concept adds depth and complexity to the examination of characters like Willy Loman and Shelley Levene, whose actions and fates challenge traditional notions of heroism.

Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero is rooted in the idea that this character is someone the audience can identify with on a fundamental level. The term "hero" inherently carries a positive connotation, typically associated with noble qualities and virtuous actions. However, when combined with "tragic," it introduces a unique dimension. Tragic heroes are not conventional heroic figures; instead, they grapple with their own flaws and errors, leading to their inevitable destruction.

Willy Loman: A Modernist Tragic Hero

Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," exemplifies the qualities of a modernist tragic hero as defined by Aristotle. At 63 years old, Loman is a relatable figure for the audience, representing the common individual who has experienced the trials and tribulations of life. He has dedicated 34 years of his life to working for the same company, a testament to his unwavering work ethic and dedication.

However, Loman's tragic flaw becomes apparent as the story unfolds. His persistent idealism and unyielding pursuit of the American Dream define his character. He clings to the belief that success is just around the corner, refusing to acknowledge the harsh realities of his past failures and changing circumstances. This refusal to adapt, a common trait among modernist tragic heroes, sets him on a path toward self-destruction.

Loman's character is marked by his reliance on nostalgia and his resistance to change. He often retreats into the past, reliving moments of past glory, while struggling to reconcile these idealized visions with the harsh present. This internal conflict and inability to adapt contribute significantly to his tragic downfall, aligning him with the characteristics of a modernist tragic hero.

Shelley Levene: A Postmodernist Tragic Hero

Shelley Levene, a central character in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," offers a contrasting perspective on the tragic hero, one influenced by postmodernist sensibilities. Like Loman, Levene is an insecure and desperate salesman facing the looming threat of job loss. However, his journey takes a distinct postmodern turn.

Levene, once a powerful and successful salesman, has experienced a sharp decline in his career. Fueled by desperation and the fear of failure, he resorts to unethical practices in his pursuit of success. This includes breaking into the office to steal valuable leads, a decision motivated by a desire for self-preservation.

While Levene's actions may appear to be a means of survival, they ultimately seal his fate, leading to his dismissal from the company. His tragic flaw lies in his willingness to adopt unorthodox and morally ambiguous methods to achieve success, aligning with the postmodernist narrative that challenges traditional ethical boundaries.

Comparative Analysis

While both Willy Loman and Shelley Levene can be categorized as tragic heroes, their journeys and characteristics reflect distinct literary and philosophical contexts. Loman embodies the modernist tragic hero, characterized by idealism, nostalgia, and an inability to adapt to changing circumstances. In contrast, Levene represents the postmodernist tragic hero, marked by moral ambiguity, ethical compromise, and a willingness to embrace unorthodox methods.


  1. Errors of Judgment: Both Loman and Levene share the common trait of committing errors in judgment that lead to their respective downfalls. Loman's refusal to accept his past failures and adapt to a changing world, and Levene's decision to engage in unethical practices, contribute to their tragic outcomes.
  2. Hubris and Pride: Both characters exhibit moments of pride and hubris when they achieve some level of success. Loman's pride in his reputation and Levene's boasting about his salesmanship achievements underscore their tragic flaws.


  1. Modernist vs. Postmodernist: Loman represents the modernist tragic hero, reflecting the ideals and struggles of his time. His narrative is rooted in the American Dream and the belief in personal success through hard work. In contrast, Levene embodies the postmodernist tragic hero, navigating a morally complex world where success is pursued through compromised ethics.
  2. Nature of Tragedy: Loman's tragedy is marked by his internal conflict, delusions, and isolation from reality. His downfall is a gradual internal unraveling. Levene's tragedy, on the other hand, is triggered by external factors, such as his desperate actions and the consequences of his unethical choices. His tragedy is more immediate and external.


Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero serves as a foundational framework for analyzing characters like Willy Loman and Shelley Levene. While both characters share the designation of tragic heroes, they do so within the contexts of different literary and philosophical eras.

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Willy Loman embodies the characteristics of a modernist tragic hero, characterized by his idealism, resistance to change, and reliance on nostalgia. In contrast, Shelley Levene represents the postmodernist tragic hero, navigating a morally complex world and resorting to unorthodox methods in pursuit of success. These distinctions highlight the evolution of the tragic hero concept across different literary and philosophical contexts, enriching our understanding of these compelling characters in American drama.

Works Cited

  1. Aristotle. (1999). Poetics (R. Janko, Trans.). Hackett Publishing Company. (Original work published in the 4th century BCE)
  2. Miller, A. (1949). Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books.
  3. Mamet, D. (1984). Glengarry Glen Ross. Grove Press.
  4. Segal, E. (2016). Aristotle's Poetics: A reading guide. Routledge.
  5. Rehm, R. (2010). Aristotle's Poetics: The poetry of philosophy. Duckworth.
  6. McDonald, M. (2013). Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Routledge.
  7. Singh, R. (2015). David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross: Text and performance. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Willy Loman and Shelley Levene as the Examples of a Tragic Hero. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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Willy Loman and Shelley Levene as the Examples of a Tragic Hero. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 Feb. 2024].
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