Last Updated on May 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
Since its debut performance in 1949, Death of a Salesman has brought audiences to tears. Critical debate rages, however, over Willy Loman’s stature as a tragic hero. In the classic definition of tragedy, the hero is a person of high stature brought low by an insurmountable flaw in their character, known as the “tragic flaw.” Some scholars argue that Willy is pathetic rather than tragic, because he is not a great man who loses his stature because of something he does, but a common man who is largely a victim of a society in which the odds are stacked against him. For instance, Eric Mottram contended in Arthur Miller: A Collection of Critical Essays that Willy represents “what happens to an ordinarily uneducated man in an unjust competitive society in which men are victimized by false gods. His fate is not tragic. There is nothing of the superhuman or providential or destined in this play. Everyone fails in a waste of misplaced energy.” Others have suggested that Willy cannot be considered a tragic hero because he never confronts his faulty values. In his Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright, Benjamin Nelson asserted, “Although the play’s power lies in its stunning ability to elicit . . . sympathy, the intensely idiosyncratic portrait of Willy Loman is a constant reminder that the meaning of his drama depends upon our clear awareness of the limitations of Willy’s life and vision.” Conversely, College English contributor Paul Siegel compared Willy Loman to William Shakespeare’s great tragic hero King Lear, asserting: “The cause of the catastrophe of the king of ancient Briton and that of the salesman of today is the same: each does not know himself and the world in which he is living.” In his introduction to Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, Miller commented on his character’s inherent tragedy: “Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable if not incomprehensible to him and to many others, it is the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live. . . . The law of success is not administered by statute or church, but it is very nearly as powerful in its grip upon men.”
Because Willy struggles for money and recognition and then fails to gain either, some critics see Death of a Salesman as a condemnation of the American system. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll suggested that the drama is “a great public ritualizing of some of our deepest and deadliest contradictions. It is a play about the misplaced energy of the basic human material in American society.” However, many critics have offered differing opinions on the message Miller sends in the play. For example, Stephen A. Lawrence, in an essay in College English, suggested: “Perhaps what is wrong with the society is not that it has implanted the wrong values in [Willy] . . . but that it has lost touch with values which should never be relegated only to the personal sphere or the family unit. . . . Willy’s problem is that he is human enough to think that the same things that matter in the family—especially his love for his son—matter everywhere, including the world of social success.” Catholic World contributor Sieghle Kennedy offered another view, maintaining: “With Charley living next door, economics can hardly be termed the nemesis of Willy’s life. His failure as a man is the cause, rather than the effect, of his economic failure.” Willy’s decline is made more pathetic by the suggestion that he might have become an expert carpenter if he had not pursued the fantasy of wealth and popularity.
On one point most critics agree: Death of a Salesman is one of the significant accomplishments of modern American literature. In The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Lois Gordon called it “the major American drama of the 1940s” and added that it “remains unequalled in its brilliant and original fusion of realistic and poetic techniques, its richness of visual and verbal texture, and its wide range of emotional impact.” New York Times columnist Frank Rich concluded that Death of a Salesman “is one of a handful of American plays that appear destined to outlast the 20th century. In Willy Loman, that insignificant salesman who has lost the magic touch along with the shine on his shoes after a lifetime on the road, Miller created an enduring image of our unslaked thirst for popularity and success.” According to John Gassner in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Miller “has accomplished the feat of writing a drama critical of wrong values that virtually every member of our middle-class can accept as valid. It stabs itself into a playgoer’s consciousness to a degree that may well lead him to review his own life and the lives of those who are closest to him. The conviction of the writing is, besides, strengthened by a quality of compassion rarely experienced in our theatre.”