Examine how Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller can be considered as a tragic play. Many differ on defining  a tragic drama. Is this play considered tragic? What would be the basis to consider it...

Examine how Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller can be considered as a tragic play. Many differ on defining  a tragic drama. Is this play considered tragic? What would be the basis to consider it tragic? 

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

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Miller himself offered a standard to define tragedy. From this, a case can be made that Willy Loman's narrative is a tragic one.  In his 1949 article, "Tragedy and the Common Man," Miller made the case that the modern, ordinary man can be a tragic figure because echoing from his regal past, he searches for a standard of dignity that defines his pain- ridden condition:  "I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity." Using this standard, Willy Loman is a tragic figure. Death of a Salesman is a tragedy.  Willy is immersed in tragedy because he is a character "who is ready to lay down his life" for "personal dignity."  Willy wants to "be someone" and "be something" in a society that does not validate him. 

Miller sees tragedy in Willy Loman and the time period that gave birth to him.  Willy is tragic because he carves his dignity from external notions of the good.  His tragedy lies in his desire to appropriate an extrinsic standard of happiness, something that is impossible to attain.  This can be seen when Willy defines himself in economic terms:  "Does it take more guts to stand here the rest of my life ringing up a zero? ... And twenty thousand—that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there." There is tragedy in this condition, one where happiness is pursued, but impossible to achieve.  It is a tragic condition because it is rooted in a flaw that shows an "inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status."  Such a tragic defiance is seen in how Willy defines himself through the gaze of the external other.  Examples of this can be seen when he speaks to Linda about his importance to the company as "the New England man" or how he insists to Biff that he is a "big shot" or the way in which Willy praises Ben for being "rich."  These are tragic constructions of Willy's characterization. They represent how Willy seeks to grab his dignity in vain.  He will continue to persevere and fight a losing battle in the name of his perception of dignity.  This is tragic in scope.

Miller suggests that the idealized vision of the 1950s American Dream is a tragic construction.  It is steeped in tragedy because of what David Reisman terms as its "other- directed nature."  In The Lonely Crowd, Reisman suggests that the need to look to other people to determine worth and identity made the time period extremely tragic.  Dignity was defined through the eyes of other, an external gaze gave the individual worth.  It is this tragic condition in which Willy lives and wages his fight for dignity.  A reflection of such tragedy is evident when Biff suggests that Willy "didn't know who he was."  Miller himself comments on this when he notes the audience's reaction to Willy's tragedy, as people were "weeping because the central matrix of this play is ... what most people are up against in their lives."  This becomes the tragic condition that Willy represents and what the audience realizes as the narrative unfolds.  Death of a Salesman is a tragedy because of this futile fight for dignity embedded in what Miller would term as "the heart and spirit of the average man."

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