Critically examine Death of a Salesman as a realist tragedy.
Willy Loman, the main protagonist in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is the embodiment of a tragic figure, his entire existence boiled down to his travails as father, husband, and salesman. He is struggling against forces both internal and external. He is an aging traveling salesman fighting to maintain his relevance in a business world that casts aside the old with the inevitability of a coming season, and his two grown sons have demonstrated little in the way of competency or commitment. His long-suffering wife, Linda, endures the emotional hardships that life with Willy entails, while defending his honor and legacy to his most vocal critics—his sons, one of whom caught Willy in the act of cheating on Linda while traveling for business.
Miller’s play is realist in that it portrays the real-life struggles of its characters. It is a tragedy in that, for Willy, there is no consolation. He dies at the end of the play and is mourned by a wife and a friend, both of whom understand that Willy had been living an emotionally hollow existence. Death of a Salesman is a realist tragedy.
As with most playwrights, Miller is meticulous in setting the stage for the story that will follow. His directions in the prelude to Death of a Salesman emphasize the clash between dream and reality that tears at the heart of Willy Loman. Note in the following directions the way Miller establishes the tone of his play (and considering the title’s obvious homage to the main character):
Willy Loman, the Salesman, enters, carrying two large sample cases...He is past sixty years of age, dressed quietly. Even as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent. He unlocks the door, comes into the kitchen, and thankfully lets his burden down, feeling the soreness of his palms. A word-sigh escapes his lips—it might be ‘‘Oh, boy, oh, boy.’’ He closes the door, then carries his cases out into the living-room, through the draped kitchen doorway. Linda, his wife, has stirred in her bed at the right. She gets out and puts on a robe, listening. Most often jovial, she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to willy’s behavior—she more than loves him, she admires him, as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties, served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings which she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end.
Willy Loman is considered one of theater’s great modern tragic figures. He is physically and emotionally exhausted. The extent to which he continues to harbor dreams of greatness or success is difficult to gauge. He successfully provided for his wife and sons, and that is no small thing. He has not, however, ascended to the heights he once imagined, and he lives with constant regret at not having pursued more potentially lucrative options (e.g., his lamentations regarding his brother Ben’s successes). The above-quoted directions immediately establish that the characters have lived a difficult existence and have too little to show for their efforts. Willy dreams of paying off the mortgage and providing for Linda, and he ultimately concludes that the only way to accomplish that objective is to engineer his death so that his wife can collect insurance money. If all of this is not realistic and tragic, then nothing is. The most tragic element of Willy’s life, however, comes down to Biff and Happy’s assessments of their father, prompting one of the great but sorrowful rebuttals in American theatrical history:
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.
Willy has failed to make his mark in the world. Nobody, save his family and one or two friends, will ever remember he once walked the earth. That, Miller is suggesting, is his reward for living a life of hard work and discipline. That is realist tragedy.
Death of a Salesman is indeed a realist tragedy insofar as it seeks to present the world as it is, rather than as it ought to be. In presenting the tragic life and death of Willy Loman, Miller pulls back the veneer of prosperity and success of post-war America to reveal a more complex picture beneath: a picture of failure, false optimism, and dashed hopes. Miller deftly contrasts his brutally realistic portrayal of American life with the romanticized ideal of the American dream, passionately believed in and rigorously pursued by Willy Loman.
Like all practitioners of dramatic realism, Miller places great emphasis on the environment's effects in shaping characters and their needs. Willy Loman is very much a product of his environment. That being the case, it's important for Miller to render Willy's home and working environments with the same degree of realism as his character. Even though Willy's inner world consists largely of dreams and delusions, it's nonetheless important, from the standpoint of dramatic realism, to establish some connection, however tenuous, between Willy and the outer world—the world in which he lives, moves, and ultimately fails.
Miller's depiction of Willy is highly based in realism. Miller wanted to depict a tragic condition of a "regular guy," someone with whom audiences could identify. Miller, himself, asserted this:
...the audience members "were weeping because the central matrix of this play is ... what most people are up against in their lives.... they were seeing themselves, not because Willy is a salesman, but the situation in which he stood and to which he was reacting, and which was reacting against him, was probably the central situation of contemporary civilization. It is that we are struggling with forces that are far greater than we can handle, with no equipment to make anything mean anything."
In the end, it is this level of identification that makes Willy a protagonist of a realist tragedy. Willy's depiction is one where audiences empathized with what is happening because his life is theirs. Combining this with Miller's belief that modern tragedy is one setting where regular people's plights are emphasized helps to enhance the idea that Miller's work is a tragedy of realistic proportions. When Miller argues that tragedy is of "the common man," it is something that reminds the reader that Willy is not a king or inheritor of legal throne. Rather, he is an ordinary guy facing difficult conditions of being in the world. This represents tragedy.