Aristotle’s definition for a tragic hero is one who is not in control of his own fate, but instead is ruled by the gods in one fashion or another. The tragic hero for Aristotle is tragic because of their lack of control or will in the face of their predetermined future and downfall. In comparing Arthur Miller’s tragic hero of Death of a Salesman (Willy Loman) and his seeming lack of control in his own fate.
This paper will expound upon Loman’s tragic flaw, his change of fate in the plot starting from good and going to worse. Also, in defining and finding the correct terms in which to define the tragic hero Loman has a great tragic flaw (hamartia) which is his devil may care attitude at the beginning of the story, to the despondency and stagnation of hope that meets him at the end of the story. Miller’s work analysis will be derived from Greg Johnson’s book Perrine's literature : structure, sound and sense. As Arp and Johnson state,
“Where tragic protagonist possess overpowering individuality so the plays are often named after them. (i.e. Oedipus Rex, Othella), comic protagonist tend to be types of individuals, and the plays in which they appear are often named after the type, (i.e. Moliers, The Miser, Congreves, The Double Dealer). We judge tragic protagonist by absolute moral standards, by how far they soar above society. We judge comic protagonist by social standards, by how well they adjust to society and conform to the expectations of the group” (1308)
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This is the dichotomy for Willy Loman, the tragic irony, the drama, and Willy Loman’s protagonist stance in a comic viewing.
As John Jones (1962) states in On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy with an excerpt from Aristotle’s The Ideal Tragic Hero,
“The well constructed plot must, therefore, have a single issue, and not (as some maintain) a double. The change of fortune must not be from bad to good but the other way round, from good to bad; and it must be caused, not by wickedness, but by some great error [hamartia] on the part of a man such as we have described, or of one better, not worse, than that” (13).
This excerpt is the pivotal movement that changes Loman from a man who has hard luck, to the pinnacle of being a tragic hero in which he suffers from hamartia. For Willy Loman, his reality isn’t primarily attributed to ego; he knows where he is, what he is, but his tragic flaw is accounted for in the pitfall of banal acceptance. Willy Loman doesn’t try to change anything, but is caught up in mediocrity, and essentially blind to anything with a silver lining. As Harold Bloom (1991) writes in Willy Loman with an excerpt by Thomas Lask and his writing How Do You Like Willy Loman (New York Times, January 1966),
“Yet, to my mind, Willy represents all those who are trapped by false values, but who are so far on in life, that they do not know how to escape them. They are men on the wrong track and know it. They are among those who, when young, felt they could move mountains and now do not even see those mountains. Aristotle said the tragic hero must be neither all good nor all evil, but rather a median figure. Everything about him is paltry except his battle to understand and escape from the pit he has dug for himself. In this battle he achieves a measure of greatness. In the waste of his life, his fate touches us all” (60).
In Willy’s acceptance of his own commonness is his own personal flaw. He doesn’t strive to be any better but allows himself to dully, and almost dutifully accept that he’s a dime a dozen. Susan C. W. Abbotson (1999) states in Understanding Death of a Salesman, “Pursuing the dream of middle-class status and success, Willy does everything he thinks a good salesman is supposed to do. He smiles, he tells jokes, he hustles women receptionists. But Willy's talents are ordinary at best, and his value in the market is marginal” (212). This is Willy’s great error.
His mediocrity is a compromise to his once great dreams. Even in the common man’s world he doesn’t stand out as unique or special; his flaw is in his power to be invisible. No one seems to care in his existence and for Willy Loman, this realization in turn makes him not care about his own existence in a way, toward the end of the play at least, when his hope is close to banished. This small sentiment can be found in a few muttered lines from Willy, “I’ve always tried to think otherwise, I guess. I always felt that if a man was impressive, and well like, that nothing-“(97). This sums up Loman’s fate; his drowning enthusiasm pitted against an uncaring cast of characters.
With Oedipus this is the same; his tragic hero status is ensured by his unwillingness to exist as a partial man; without knowing his origins, without knowing his true identity. While Loman is realizing that he has no identity he thus becomes a tragic hero, for Oedipus when he discovers his true identity, therein lies his status as a tragic hero. He realizes his ego got in the way of his life. His ego was his ruin.
Willy Loman’s view of the world breaks when he loses his job. Loman faces the world as no ordinary common man but also an invisible entity left to make no difference on the face of the earth while Oedipus is bereaved of his position and would rather not have lived (or seen what he had accomplished) because of the things he has done. As Arthur Miller states in Perrine’s Literature,
“Whoever heard of a Hastings small R refrigerator? Once in my life I would like to own, something outright before its broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a Goddamn maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them they’re used up” (1586).
This is the truth behind the tragic hero Loman. The paradox for Loman as a tragic hero is in Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero; he’s doomed to failure.
In conclusion, Loman began his story with an aplomb of luck, or ego, or a rosy view of the world, and his story ends with destruction: Loman is hit by a car. The connotation here is that Loman was blind in the beginning of Miller’s play, but not really in the second act. Loman has dwindling faith in himself and reality. Loman survived in life under false pretences, thus he suffers from his one flaw; blindness.
Arp, Thomas R & Greg Johnson. Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. Heinle & Heinle /Thomson Learning, 2002, 8th edition.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Hamilton, Victoria. Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books, 1993
Jones, John. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books, New York, 1949.
Murphy, Brenda, and Susan C. W. Abbotson. Understanding Death of a Salesman A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Oedipus at Colonus. Antigone. Ed. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Random House, New York, 1942.
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