In this play, Willy Loman is presented as a person in a ruthless world, trying to achieve set goals and to fulfil his ambitions, or even just trying to survive each day, in a society which has become strange and hostile. It is worth thinking about what Arthur Miller really wanted this man to portray – is Loman deserving of the title of a tragic figure or hero who had tried to do his best in the circumstances, or is he just a loser responsible only for his own choices and mistakes? At face value, even his name seems to suggest he is meant to be the underdog, when you separate ‘Lo/w’ and ‘man’. The title of the play with ‘Death of…
Is an obvious sign that Loman is indeed at least involved in a tragedy as he dies. Even though he is the head of the family and the breadwinner compared to Linda’s lesser housekeeping role, throughout the play he does not have complete control over his family and his sons do not appear to respect him as a father, although it could be argued there are reasons why this is. But at the time this story is taking place in the 1940’s and 50’s, with the nuclear family and its patriarchal all powerful father very much the norm, someone like Loman would have been seen as a failure, as how could the father fail to provide for his wife and children?
His wife however stays devoted to him, and during an argument with Biff and Happy, she protests to her son’s accusations with an outburst where she lists reasons why Willy deserves to be held in better judgement. First she reduces his position in life admitting, “I don’t say he’s a great man… He’s not the finest character that ever lived. ” So it is actually made plain that Loman is not anyone ‘special’. But she then says, “… he’s a human being… attention must finally be paid to such a person,” showing that she disregards his supposed lowliness and still believes that he is doing something right.
She makes the point that Willy is exhausted – “Even a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man” reaffirming that Willy as a ‘nobody’ deserves the attention that would usually be given to a ‘somebody’. The phrase ‘small man’ is significant because in tragedies, the hero is not a small man. She says that it is unfair that after working thirty six years in the same company, he has not been given any more salary than before. She talks in detail about Willy’s current working state, blaming his failures at the job on the fact that the old buyers “that loved him so” are all dead.
She justifies his slightly odd behaviour on the grounds of his stress – “what goes through a man’s mind driving home without having earned… why shouldn’t he talk to himself? ” She says again that Biff and Happy do not give their father enough attention even though he has acted in all aspects of life for them – “The man who never worked a day but for your benefit?…. Is this his reward? ” This is Linda’s view, that Willy gains credit as an ordinary but hardworking man, and in turn assumes the title of a tragic figure to which one should feel sympathy for.
In the classical rules of tragedy, which comes from the Greeks and is more directly taken from Shakespeare, a tragic hero must be nobly born or occupy a high status. Also in the pattern of tragic heroes is the fatal character flaw, such as pride, insecurity, willingness to trust, paranoia or the ability to love too much and too easily. The hero usually dies as a direct result of that flaw, because only this flaw is crucial in allowing the catastrophic series of unstoppable events to occur. Willy Loman clearly does not fit into the first requirement of a tragic hero.
He is not born with status, and although it’s not really said he is probably in the working class. Miller wanted to portray a different character, and reject the common tragic mode. In his writing ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ he justified the common man being as apt a subject for tragedy in saying that Loman is a character ready to make sacrifices to secure his personal dignity, like most of us, and status is irrelevant. The traditional tragic heroes were motivated by high passions but Miller suggests these are no more admirable than Loman’s determination to be liked – he says to his sons “Be liked and you will never want.
” So Willy’s flaw in acting out against what degraded him is not like the classic tragic flaw, but the fear tied in with his actions are. Miller wrote, “… the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world… today this fear is strong” and this is like Willy’s fear of his world changing beyond repair if the consequences of him losing his job have effect. Willy dies, as the classic tragic hero does, and his belief that he is doing the right thing in securing money for Biff is tragic because he makes a sacrifice of himself on the altar of the belief which has failed him.
Although Loman may resemble a tragic figure in some ways, the play is not necessarily tragic. Miller also wrote, “I set out not to write a tragedy but to show the truth as I saw it. ” Perhaps he intended for the audience to just respond to the power of the story and its message. The Requiem at the end indicates this, leaving a chance for audiences to reflect on what has happened. There are also reasons to suggest Willy is far from a tragic figure. To any reasonable person, committing the act he did was selfish and he left his family behind.
Again in the Requiem, Linda painfully emphasizes how they were nearly almost out of debt, so the situation just looks even more poignant. She fails to understand why he did what he did. It makes Willy look as though he made a terrible mistake. Biff’s real interests are in a rural existence, not to develop business projects, so the money gained could just be a waste. The drastic act of exiting the world could be interpreted as cowardly and avoiding the real issues or creating more issues for those left behind.
Then there is his adultery committed on his loving wife which makes Loman appear desperate and stupid, and is an example of a flaw that could be put against him. Willy looks like a victim of ageism in the workplace, but it could be said that this is a fact of life, and one should make preparations for old age to avoid being left with nothing. He refuses Charlie’s offer of a job, which seems unforgivable as it could have been an end to the tragic events. The reason he does this – pride – being central to Willy’s character, is also like his pride in being a successful salesman.
Looking at the whole story, he fails at this. It is like he was pretending to be something he was not. Biff points this out to him when he says, “I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you. ” Willy gains the love of Biff again, but he misinterprets his son’s frustrated tears as an expression of love. Happy, who was always sidelined in the family, vows to realise his father’s dream but this is not supposed to happen. The lesson is supposed to be learned that in Biff’s own words, that is a “phoney dream…. burn it before something happens.
” Willy Loman’s life and death raises the question of what we as the audience live for. For many, things like material success and wealth in life mean an incredible amount, and maybe even the difference between happiness and misery. The play shows that he is under a lot of psychological pressure, and feels guilt a lot of the time, even when things are probably out of his control. The external world is like an ideal of standards which must be met. The tension is built up until things are intolerable.
We see Willy at the end of his career, so it is like we have not even seen the whole story, suggesting there is a bigger picture of huge problem with American society. Despite his failures, Loman has enough similarities to a normal person to make him almost a tragic figure, because tragedy is the most accurately balanced portrayal of a human being struggling to achieve. Linda’s view holds a lot of weight because all in all the treatment of Willy Loman is unfair. It is a need for any human to hold dignity at all costs, and Loman certainly does prove that he wants his.