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Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

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Is Willy Loman a tragic hero in Death of a Salesman?

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It is has been debatable whether Willy is a tragic hero, or just a tragic character. However, what makes a character a "hero" are the potentially redeeming traits that may help the character serve a higher purpose, should the character learn to change. 

The redeeming qualities of Willy Loman are evident toward the end of his life, and after many tragic mistakes. Such mistakes constitute Willy's essential flaw, which is where the term "tragic" would come from; Willy is, essentially, his own enemy. 

Now that it is clear as to what makes him tragic, what are the redeeming qualities that would make him a hero?

First, Willy recognizes in the conversation with Bernard, Charley's son, that Biff's life changed the moment he (Biff) caught Willy with a mistress. This is something Willy had been denying to himself for years while blaming Biff for his own failures. Before this moment, Willy had never admitted his own influence in the downward spiral that has become Biff's life. 

Second, Willy is able to discern, also for the first time in his life, something other than the shallow end of things. While he does not mend his relationship with Biff, he is able to finally realize, toward the end, that their riff was caused, precisely, because of how much they once loved and admired one another.

Third, Willy realizes that all these years seeking for the superficial joys of life has rendered him quite poor. He has "no seeds" planted from which his kids can reap any profits. The sad scene where Willy tries to plant the seeds that he purchased  at the hardware store, right on his concrete floor, is a strong metaphor of his life: his eternal search for quick and easy money did not allow him to build upon what really mattered. 

Fourth, Willy decides that he can still make amends for his family. Unfortunately, the only way for this to happen, according to Willy, is by committing suicide; he feels that he can only help his family start over by removing himself and letting them cash in his life insurance policy. 

This latter fact is what seals Willy's status as a tragic hero: he is willing to end his life on behalf of his family after years of being selfish and self-centered. He has changed, and is desperate to redeem himself. His death will put an end to the endless years of wasted time and money that he has caused by dragging his family around, in search of an nonexistent dream. Therefore, Willy's entire life is his tragedy. The fact that he will make the ultimate sacrifice to make amends for what he has done to his family is what renders him a "hero" in the literary sense. 

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What do literary critics say about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman being classified as a tragic hero?

Whether or not Willy fits the definition of a tragic hero is actually a much debated point. In his own article "Tragedy and the Common Man," which appeared in The New York Times in 1949, Arthur Miller certainly stated that he attempted to portray the common man as a tragic hero in Death of a Salesman. He argued that tragedy is seen when a character is willing to "lay down his life" for the sake of "his sense of personal dignity." We see Willy commit suicide by crashing his car after loosing his job in order to secure $20,000 in insurance money, thus providing for his family and giving Biff something to start his business with. His dignity was saved because even though he felt like a failure, his death was worth something.

However, other scholars would disagree with Miller's interpretation and presentation of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a noble person, often a great political hero. Even if we agree with Miller that a tragic hero can be a common man instead of king or other high-ranking figure, the hero must still be a noble, just, and morally up-right person. Willy fails in this instance because he cheated on his wife, a huge reason for Biff's emotional and psychological struggles. Furthermore, Willy lost his life due to suicide, even making several suicide attempts before finally succeeding. Suicide is not generally accepted as a virtuous activity. While we often see tragic heroes commit suicide, such as Antigone, it is only because their lives are already threatened. In the case of Antigone, her true tragedy is that she was judged too harshly and condemned to a harsh death of starvation in a tomb. Hence, she decided to take her own life through the quicker, less painful means of hanging. Loss of job, like Willy lost his job, does not seem like a just and noble reason to commit suicide. Hence, Willy does not fit Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero because he is not noble and virtuous.

Also according to Aristotle's definition, a tragic hero's downfall stems from mistakes made through freedom of choice. Bert Cardullo of The Columbia Journal of American Studies points out that Willy does not even fit this definition because Willy felt that he had no other courses in life. He very passively accepted working himself to a state of exhaustion and choosing to kill himself (Death of a Salesman and Death of a Salesman: The Swollen Legacy of Arthur Miller," href="">Cardullo, "Death of a Salesman and Death of a Salesman"). The character Biff, however, may dispute Cardullo's point. Biff makes it clear that he thinks his father made all the wrong decisions. He felt that his father should not have been a salesman, but would have been better off as a carpenter instead. If we are to agree with Biff, then we can argue that Willy's choices led to his tragic end, rather than agree with Cardullo who stated that Willy really had no choice.

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Can Willy Loman be considered a tragic hero in the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller?

Miller wrote a now-famous essay called "Tragedy and the Common Man." In it, he argues that the high tragedies of classical and neo-classical drama feel remote to modern audiences because we lack the nobility associated with heroism in those early works. He writes, "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." It was once believed that only kings possessed enough to evoke the tragic feeling in an audience when they lost everything. However, Miller argues, the experience of loss is not unique to royalty.

Miller continues: "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."

By this definition, Willy Loman is certainly a tragic hero. He is certainly deeply flawed, and he finds himself out of place in a changing world, confused about how he (and his family) have fallen so far and how they were unable to live up to the promise that seemed like destiny in his flashback scenes. He cannot admit failure, cannot accept working for Charlie, and dies rather than facing unemployment.

Lastly, Miller writes,

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. Nor is it necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing—and need be nothing, but his 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.

The play concerns itself with the discrepancy between what Willy believes is his rightful status and the status conferred upon him by a business world that does not value him, a son who no longer worships him, and a time that has passed him by.

As such, he is equal to Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Dr. Faustus, and others who will do anything to get (back) what they believe they deserve.

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How can Willy Loman be described as a "tragic hero" in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman?

In discussing the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," the tragedy is overwhelming, the "hero" aspect less clear.

Willy Loman is one of the most tragic characters in modern theater history.  He has lived his life in the thankless and not particularly prosperous role of a traveling salesman.  He has clearly not been a financial success, as his family resides in a low-income house and, visually, the appearances of Willy and his wife, Linda, clearly indicates a lower-middle class lifestyle.  As he approaches the twilight of his life, he has little to show for it but for his self-perception as a well-liked man.  His oldest son, Biff, has been, in Willy's eyes, a failure, as is younger son Happy.  Willy suffers in comparison with his friend and neighbor, Charlie, who is a successful businessman with an equally successful son.  Willy's only consolation is that, in his mind, Charlie is not well-liked.

Willy's death -- a probable suicide intended to provide Linda financial support -- is the proverbial last act of a desperate man.  

To the extent that Willy Loman can be considered heroic, it is in the very same manner in which he can be considered tragic.  He is the quintessential American working man, the salt of the earth, providing for his family through hard work.  He loves his family, but can't come to grips with the fact that his sons will likely never amount to much (although, Happy, at the end of the play, appears to be heading in the right direction).  He lives an increasingly illusory life, with Linda acted as a loving facilitator.  If Willy is heroic, it is not in the sense that he triumphed over adversity; it is solely in the way he accepted responsibility for himself and his family and tried to do well.

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