Does Death of a Salesman fit the classic definition of tragedy? 

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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In 1949, following the enthusiastic public reception of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller himself reflected on this question in an essay entitled "Tragedy and the Common Man". In it Miller acknowledged that few tragedies are written today, owing, he states to the "paucity of heroes among us" and the supplanting of the supernatural with science. Classic tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero through the deadly mix of hubris, fate and the will of the gods. This, Miller writes, is no longer possible in our time. But does that mean that a tragic vision of man no longer exists? Not so Miller claims: "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." To shift the definition of tragedy onto the common man, Miller retains, but revamps one crucial aspect of the classic definition of the tragic hero - the flaw or hamartia. The flaw need not be perceived as a weakness, he writes, but rather as a resistance to a challenge to his sense of dignity, to his rightful place in the universe. From the other side of the coin, the tragic figure of modern literature is one who is willing to be deprived even of life itself to achieve the full stature of his humanity.  This, Miller argues, is the reason why people of our time need tragedy as much as the ancients. We need to see the disregarded man, like Willy Loman, attain some kind of dignity. As Linda, his wife says: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid".


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