illustrated portrait of American playwright Arthur Miller

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Student Question

How do the concepts of tragedy in Miller's Death of a Salesman and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex compare, specifically in terms of literary form, rhetoric, hamartia, and catharsis?

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Arthur Miller's modern classic play Death of a Salesman premiered at the Morosco Theatre in New York City on February 10, 1949.

On February 27, 1949, an essay by Arthur Miller titled "Tragedy and the Common Man" appeared in The New York Times. In the essay, Miller asserts that the "common man" can be as much a tragic hero as any character in any ancient Greek or Elizabethan tragic play.

Miller doesn't mention Death of a Salesman or its leading character, salesman Willy Loman, in the essay. Miller attempts to argue for the "common man" as a tragic hero in a general or universal sense, but it's clear that he's responding to criticism of his own play in his arguments.

As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, 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. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggles that of the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his Society.

Essential elements of an Aristotelian tragedy which are found in Oedipus Rex, such as hamartia (tragic flaw), peripeteia (a change or reversal of fortune), anagnorisis (revelation, recognition, or discovery), and pathos (suffering) might well be present in Death of a Salesman, but the presence of these elements doesn't necessarily qualify the play as a classical tragedy, and a lead character with a personality disorder don't necessarily qualify the character as a tragic hero.

Willy Loman suffers from the same tragic flaw of hubris (excessive pride) that Oedipus does, but a significant difference, if not the defining difference, between the characters like Oedipus, Orestes, Medea, Hamlet, and Macbeth and Willy Loman is that, "as a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me," true Aristotelian tragic heroes don't simply despair of life and kill themselves.

Some tragic heroes, like Oedipus's daughter Antigone, resign themselves to their fate and accept death as a consequence of their actions. Others, like Oedipus, impose the consequences of their hubris on themselves—Oedipus blinded himself and exiled himself from Thebes—but most true tragic heroes are willing to fight to the death (or at least until circumstances overwhelm them).

Willy Loman's death is more petulant than heroic. When Willy realizes that he's a failure and a has-been and that he'll never have the "death of a salesman" that old Dave Singleman had—"when he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral"—he gives up on life, his family, and himself, and kills himself.

Some might rationalize that Willy is heroic in leaving behind a twenty-thousand-dollar life insurance policy for his family, but that doesn't explain his taking of his own life for nothing more than feelings of inadequacy and hurt pride.

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