Explain why we may consider Death of a Salesman to be a tragedy. 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

One reason that Miller suggests we consider Death of a Salesman to be a tragedy is because of its focus on the "low man."  Interestingly enough, Miller suggests that we make a mistake in considering the dimensions of tragedy applicable only to the elevated individuals of rank.  Miller suggests that tragedy is a narrative that can apply to the ordinary man, filled with the elements that tug at the sensibilities of the audience:  

I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were. On the face of it this ought to be obvious in the light of modern psychiatry, which bases its analysis upon classific formulations, such as Oedipus and Orestes complexes, for instances, which were enacted by royal beings, but which apply to everyone in similar emotional situations.

Miller believes that tragedy that applies "to everyone in similar emotional situations" should be the metric used to determine if a particular work is a tragedy.  In this standard, Death of a Salesman can be seen as a tragedy.  Willy Loman is a tragic archetype that applies to everyone.  Nearly every person has felt the pang of not being able to accumulate enough wealth, questioning whether they are a success, and seeking to validate their own condition in the face of overwhelming external reality.  In a Canadian production of the drama, Miller noted that 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."  This is one way in which Death of a Salesman can be considered as a tragedy.

I would suggest that another reason Willy's narrative can be seen as a tragedy is because his tragic flaw is universal.  Willy's tragic flaw is his inability to understand what is real and what is temporary.  His tragic flaw rests in the incapability of making "the right choice," something that Miller would suggest is universal.  For Miller, tragedy is seen when the tragic flaw is revealed as one that impacts everyone:  "In the sense of having been initiated by the hero himself, the tale always reveals what has been called his "tragic flaw," a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters.... Most of us are in that category."  In analyzing Willy's tragic flaw, it becomes clear that Miller's work is a tragedy because of its exploration of the tragic flaw.  Willy's condition is a tragic one, and is a condition that afflicts "most of us."  Willy's tragic flaw being something intrinsic to all of humanity becomes another reason in which Death of a Salesman can be considered as a tragedy.

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franzo's profile pic

franzo | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 3) eNoter

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One reason for its being tragedy is death of Willy for death is linked with suffering and that Willy had to suffer himself to let his family stay in peace. He did not have any other option left than death. If seen from Linda's perspective, again it is tragic because she wanted to have a happy and healthy life with Willy but what she got at the end was a great loss, a loss forever, Willy could not come back, though she got money after his death but Linda wanted Willy's company not money's hence, she was left with a pain for her life.

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