Death of a Salesman: The American Tragedy
Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” is considered by many to be a modern tragedy. In “Poetics”, Aristotle offers his description of a tragedy, and Miller’s play meets these requirements. The American Dream that the protagonist, Willy Loman, spends his life chasing, is, in itself, tragic.
And that his family had the same values, the same delusions that Willy did, helps to build the case for tragedy. Aristotle defined tragedy as such:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. Tragedy, if one is to believe Aristotle, is something that causes fear and pity. In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, Willy Loman fails at the American Dream.
This is a common occurrence in modern America, and readers can see themselves in Willy’s shoes, creating fear. They feel sorry for Willy, because ultimately, he is the same as them. His failure is their failure. Not just pitiable, this thought is nothing less than terrifying. According to current research, all human brains have dopamine receptors. Dopamine (DA) is the predominant catecholamine neurotransmitter in the mammalian brain, where it controls a variety of functions including locomotor activity, cognition, emotion, positive reinforcement, food intake and endocrine regulation.
If tragedy instills fear, an emotion, clearly a normal working DA is required. With the DA controlling emotions, such as fear and pity, it could be said that humans are hardwired to see all loss as tragic and the play, even as defined by Aristotle, is therefore a tragedy. Being able to see ones self failing, over and over again, is both pitiable and fearful. The average human can see themselves failing. Willy Loman’s failures and crushed dreams become their own. In his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man”, Arthur Miller states: In this age few tragedies are written.
It has often been held that the lack is due to a paucity of heroes among us, or else that modern man has had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by the skepticism of science, and the heroic attack on life cannot feed on an attitude of reserve and circumspection. For one reason or another, we are often held to be below tragedy-or tragedy above us. The inevitable conclusion is, of course, that the tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly, and where this admission is not made in so many words it is most often implied.
What he is saying is that, while outdated, tragedy still exists in some form, and no one is above or below it. Willy Loman wanted the American Dream. He wanted to be successful and he wanted his children to be successful. This dream perhaps, is the biggest tragedy of all. The play begins when Willy is old, a salesman no longer working on salary, but for commission. He can no longer afford to support his family. All of his contacts from decades of selling are dead. He is the only one left, and he is far from successful.
To Willy Loman, success is the equivalent of being well-liked. To modern man, success is having a house, a couple of cars, two point three children, Rover in the backyard and a white picket fence. There is no need to be well-liked as business can be done over the phone or via email while one is in his pajamas. Willy Loman was not well-liked. He had few friends and even less success. He struggled his life away, clawing for the next rung on the metaphorical ladder of life, and never reaching it. His sons were failures and destined to follow in his footsteps.
Senile or not, Willy lived the last of his years in a complete fantasy, believing that Biff and Happy were doing well for themselves, when in reality, Biff was working as a farm hand and Happy was living with a new girl every week. Happy tried to reassure his father that he was going to get married and be successful. Biff seemed to throw his hands up in despair. He was content doing the work that he was, but Willy still thought of him as a failure.
WILLY: How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand?
In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!
LINDA: He’s finding himself, Willy.
WILLY: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace! (Penguin Plays, pp 16)
Biff himself tells his brother that their dad mocks him all the time. He feels inadequate and lost.
BIFF: …And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not getting’ anywhere!
What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I oughta be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself. (pp22) Happy, too, in a conversation with his Biff, in clearly not content with the direction his life has gone in.
HAPPY: …I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car and plenty of women.
And still, goddammit, I’m lonely. (pp 23) The severely dysfunctional Loman family is a tragedy. Biff and Happy’s constant struggle to make the grade, to be well liked, to be successful; is a tragedy. Willy, barely able to separate past from present, truth from fantasy, has raised his boys to think that the more friends they have the more successful they will be. Willy Loman measures success in people, and he taught his sons to do the same. He is unable to understand what Biff’s problem is, though the reader finds out at a later time. The problem was Willy. Biff had it made.
He was well liked. He had three scholarships coming his way. He failed math, and before summer school started he went to visit Willy on one of the many business trips he took. He finds his father with another woman and leaves, foregoing summer school, the credit and the football scholarships. Albert A. Shea considered “Death of a Salesman” to be a scathing social commentary on capitalist America. Shea wrote: Arthur Miller casts a score of darts — at advertising, credit selling, the family automobile; at the petty larceny and the subversive attitude toward sex characteristic of our time.
But his main attack is against the view that a man is a fool if he does not get something — as much as possible — for nothing more than a smile, being a good fellow and having good contacts. Perhaps Arthur Miller is not casting darts at the view that man is a fool to expect something for nothing. Miller is no doubt attacking the standard good old American Dream, called a dream because that is precisely what it is— “… something that somebody hopes, longs, or is ambitious for, usually something difficult to attain or far removed from present circumstances.”
A dream then, that seldom becomes a reality. These hopes themselves are tragic, because, as mentioned above, they are difficult to attain. For the Lomans, they are not difficult, they are impossible. The Book Rags website writes Willy Loman died a failure by his own standards. Biff considers Willy’s life a failure because he had the wrong dreams. He spent too much time convincing himself he could be a successful salesman, when what he was clear he was skilled at working with his hands.
If he’d followed the right dreams, and confronted his abilities in a realistic and honest way, he may not have been a failure, and his life might not have ended this way. Even in death, Willy Loman’s plans fail; no one shows at his funeral, and his life insurance policy doesn’t cover suicide. And so, at the end of it all, the reader sees, at the same time the Lomans see, that Willy is a failure. His life has consisted of numerous stories and fabrications. He has lied to his wife about how much he has sold, about how many friends he has and even about silk stockings.
Willy is a perfect portrayal of the American husband in the fifties. He longs to provide for his family. He dreams about making it big. These are aspirations that he has passed on to at least one of his sons, Happy, who tells him “Pop, I told you I’m gonna retire you for life. ” (pp41) to which Willy responds: “You’ll retire me for life on seventy goddam dollars a week? And your women and your car and your apartment, and you’ll retire me for life! ” A summary on Homework Online offers this: Willy has lost at trying to live the American Dream and the play can be viewed as commentary about society.
Willy was a man who was worked all his life by the machinery of Democracy and Free Enterprise and was then spit mercilessly out, spent like a “piece of fruit. ” Joyce Carol Oates read the play in the 1950’s and now writes: His occupation, for all its adversities, was “white collar,” and his class not the one into which I’d been born; I could not recognize anyone I knew intimately in him, and certainly I could not have recognized myself, nor foreseen a time decades later when it would strike me forcibly that, for all his delusions and intellectual limitations, about which Arthur Miller is unromantically clear-eyed, Willy Loman is all of us.
Indeed, Willy Loman is all of mankind, and that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all. Oates remarks that Willy Loman resembled none of the men in her family when she was fourteen or fifteen, and then she realized that all of the men in her family were Willy Loman, in their own way. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy being something that creates fear and pity. Willy is both our fear and our pity.
Perhaps Oates summarizes the tragic nature of Willy Loman better than anyone else:
In the intervening years, Willy Loman has become our quintessential American tragic hero, our domestic Lear, spiraling toward suicide as toward an act of selfless grace, his mad scene on the heath a frantic seed-planting episode by flashlight in the midst of which the once-proud, now disintegrating man confesses, “I’ve got nobody to talk to. ” His salesmanship, his family relations, his very life—all have been talk, optimistic and inflated sales rhetoric; yet, suddenly, in this powerful scene, Willy Loman realizes he has nobody to talk to; nobody to listen.
Perhaps the most memorable single remark in the play is the quiet observation that Willy Loman is “liked . . . but not well-liked. ” In America, this is not enough. Indeed, it is not enough in America.
1. Poetics by Aristotle. Trans. S. H. Butcher. 21 May 2004. The University of Adelaide Library. 30 November 2006. <etext. library. adelaide. edu. au/a/Aristotle/poetics/>.
2. Missale, Cristina, S. Russel Nash, Susan W. Robinson, Mohamed Jaber and Marc G. Caron. “Dopamine Receptors: From Structure to Function”. Physiological Review. 78. 1 (1998): 189-225.
3. “Tragedy and the Common Man”. The Literary Link. 7 October 2006. 8 December 2006. < http://theliterarylink. com/miller1. html>.
4. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1949.
5. “Death of a Salesman” Book Rags. 8 December 2006. <www. bookrags. com/notes/das. html>.
6. “Death of a Salesman”. Homework Online 8 December 2006. 8 December 2006. <www. homework-online. com/doas/index. asp>.
7. Oates, Joyce Carol. “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: A Celebration”. Fall 1998. USFCA. 10 December 2006. <http://www. usfca. edu/~southerr/arthurmiller. html>.