To what extent is Death of a Salesman a tragedy?

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MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To best answer this question, one should look to Miller's essay "Tragedy and the Common Man." It's important to understand that prior to the early 20th century, tragedies followed strict classical definitions. One of the requirements was that the central character be someone of royal or noble birth. Consider Shakespearean tragedies: we have tales of kings, princes, noblemen-not the average man on the street. But Miller revolutionized the notion of tragedy by arguing that the everyman could generate every bit of catharsis that the prince could, simply through the events of his everyday life.

This is the case with Willy Loman, whom many regard as a symbol of the ordinary American. Although we need to ask ourselves how much sympathy Willy deserves (his affairs, his treatment of his sons, etc.), Miller himself has endorsed the idea that the play is a tragedy in the true dramatic sense of the word – a tragedy of the common man, the “low man.” Even though the play is set in a very specific historical setting, the idea of a tragedy of the common man imbues the play with a sense of timelessness. We recognize in Willy a very common tragic flaw: an unflagging sense of optimism in the American Dream.