Silhouette of a grinning person wearing a top hat with a skull-like face and a red nighttime sky in the background

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

Start Free Trial

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Willy Loman is not considered a tragic hero in the classical sense of the term defined by Aristotle. Unlike the classical definition of a tragic hero, Willy Loman does not hail from a royal family, is not universally revered, and is not destined for greatness. Instead, Willy Loman is a...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

simple, working-class American, who does not possess any extraordinary talent or abilities and is not destined for greatness. He shares the same qualities as a regular person and is not exceptional in any specific way. However, Willy Loman's life is tragic and evokescatharsis from the audience after he commits suicide. While Willy Loman cannot be labeled as a tragic hero individually, his character symbolically represents millions of working-class men, who become the tragic victims of a capitalist economy. Therefore, one could multiply Willy Loman's character by millions and he becomes a tragic hero simply by the sheer numbers of men experiencing the same tragic fate. Arthur Miller's classic character symbolically represents the millions of men who became disillusioned by the American Dream and died tragic deaths attempting to achieve the unattainable. Overall, one could consider Willy Loman to be a tragic hero in the modern sense of the term, which is quite different from Aristotle's classic definition.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller does not fit the classical model of a tragic hero. In classical tragedy, the hero was always a figure larger than life. He typically had noble parents, and often had some divine blood. The hero was normally a powerful or honored member of the community, often a king or an outstanding warrior. What made a play a tragedy was that it focused on the fall of someone admirable, who might have been victim of a curse or possessed of a tragic flaw.

Willy Loman is none of these things. He is a middle class salesman, rather than a noble or ruler, and not even particularly good at his job. There is no sense of the gods being concerned with his fate; this is a purely secular drama. Instead, rather than a tragedy in the classical mode, this is a modern drama with a protagonist who is almost an anti-hero.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I believe that Willy Loman can be considered a tragic hero, and was intended by his author to be a tragic hero, only in the sense that he is not an individual but a type. Willy Loman represents the millions of hard-working American men who end up on the ash heap when they get too old to be of value to their employers. Willy Loman by himself is too insignificant a character to be considered a tragic hero, but if we think of him as being multiplied by the millions who preceded him and the millions who will follow him, then his fate becomes tragic by the sheer weight of numbers. It seems obvious that Arthur Miller intended Willy to symbolize workers under capitalism. They start off full of hopes, dreams, and enthusiasm when they are young, but most of them end up like Willy--worn out, disillusioned, defeated, discarded, despised by their own children, still struggling to pay off their debts, still wondering what went wrong with their plans. If Willy Loman is regarded as a type rather than as an individual, then his tragic flaw is his belief in the American dream. Like millions of other men, he was not able to achieve his dreams of success, and so he projected his dreams onto his son Biff. But Biff was beginning to see the reality and the deception involved in the system. If Biff's disillusionment were to become universal, then a change would take place in the system. The difference between Death of a Salesman and classic tragedies such as those performed by the ancient Greeks seems to be that the heroes of the old tragedies were strong, dynamic individuals while the hero of Death of a Salesman is a symbol of millions of little people. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would have to say no.  A tragic hero is tragic because he has all the elements of greatness.  He could be something great and grand and memorable, but through his own failings, all that greatness is turned to horror.  Here, Willy doesn't ever have the elements of greatness.  He's a sad small man who wants to do great things, but he never has.  Aristotle says that a tragedy or tragic hero should have a peripeteia... a turning point.  Willy never goes from success to failure because he never knows how to succeed at all.  Certainly he has a hamartia (fatal flaw) in his ignorance and arrogance, but he never has an anagnorisis (a moment of realization where his knows his fatal flaw has caused his life to unravel).  Up until the very end, Willy believes the world has treated him unfairly and that he is just the pawn who has no control over his destiny.

I wouldn't call Willy tragic... just sad and small.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I felt sorry for Willy as well (though most of my students were relieved when he killed himself.) We talked about whether he was a tragic hero, and we agreed that he was. Though he wasn't born into any form of royalty, he was ultimately responsible for his own fate and had a tragic flaw--both of which were an inability to see success more than being well liked and only defining success in those terms. He was blind to everything else in his life. And, obviously, he meets with a tragic death, which, happening offstage, mirrors Oedipus'.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I do not see Willy as a tragic hero at all.  I do not view him as pathetic either.  He is a man who has visions of grandeur and who desperately wanted to be much more of a success than he was.  He also longed to be truly liked and greatly respected.  He envisioned himself as being more popular and liked than he was.  He longed for the acceptance and love he never got from his occupation, so he created this false vision of himself.  I felt sorry for Willy, actually.  He struggled with so much and did not have the tools to deal with those struggles, so the only way out was to kill himself, which is never a good option.

Approved by eNotes Editorial