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The American Play Death Of A Salesman English Literature Essay

Death of a Salesman is a classical American play which crafts American society and distinguishes Willy from other Citizens. On the surface the character Willy Loman projects similar characteristics that a normal American would do during the time of the play, however on a closer analysis Willy is portrayed as a very idealistic and stubborn character; Willy has as a result fabricated a non existent world for himself.  In this illusion of a world, he and his sons are men of prominence that “have what it takes” to make it in the business environment. Almost immediately however Willy is portrayed as a figure which to some critics such as Ronald Harman takes away the persona of the all important tragic hero delusional, ‘He is portrayed as a man with a false sense of self, and he has passed this false sense of self onto his sons, making them believe they are something they’re not’. On the other hand however, Miller sternly believes that Willy Loman and his ethos bear the characteristics of a modern day tragic figure.  The modern hero, rather than falling calamitously from a high position, begins the story appearing to be an ordinary, average person, which serves to illustrate Miller's belief that all people, not just the nobility, are affected by materialistic and capitalist values. The modern hero’s story does not require the protagonist to have the traditional catharsis to bring the story to a close.

Undoubtedly, the most frequently discussed critical issue regarding Willy Loman is whether he can be labelled a genuine tragic hero. Although Biff calls his father a ‘prince’, and this evokes a possible comparison with the Shakespearean play Hamlet (Prince of Denmark) we know that Willy Loman was not of noble birth and thus not a prince. Aristotle, a famous philosopher, wrote the first and most significant written study on tragedy in his Poetics. It is here where he wrote tragedy can only affect nobility, who are themselves of a ‘certain magnitude’. Therefore it is from Aristotle’s Poetics many critics such as Harman have found fault with Miller’s intention to portray Willy Loman as a tragic figure. In saying this however this is only one view of Aristotle which simply does not provide sustainable reasons not to label Willy as a tragic hero. Arthur Miller argued that times have changed and that "we no longer live in an era dominated by kings and queens- and so maybe our definition of tragedy should change, too." A tragic hero, such a Willy Loman is someone in a way almost spectacular, a tragic hero presents the readers with a belief that they aspire to fall for a personal view, but also bear that all important tragic flaw; this is what makes the tragedy of Death of a Salesman so effective. Willy is, therefore a character so enticed in his view that he is willingly able to offer his life to it.

On the other hand it is necessary to note two important factors concerning Aristotle and his Poetics. Firstly Aristotle’s Poetics concludes that the prime quality of a tragedy is not character but in fact plot. This leads many critics including Coleridge to believe Willy is presented as a tragic figure. Secondly Aristotle’s opinion about tragedy is based solely on the plays he knew in which Death of Salesman does not contribute highlighting the general view in which Aristotle looks upon tragedy, which in essence allows modern day interpretations of tragic hero’s to be expressed. Miller and Samuel Coleridge strongly disagree with Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero albeit Aristotle’s definition of tragedy has retained more followers than detractors. Therefore it is understandable that classical critics have expressed their concerns regarding Willy’s endowment as a figure of tragedy. “Willy Loman is not a tragic hero. He neglects his responsibilities as a father. He is not truthful, and this leads to loss of his pride and dignity. Willy is blinded by his pride that he did not realize the consequences of his actions. Unlike a true tragic hero, Willy does not admit his own errors and his false pride.”

Capitalism and capitalist values were pressing issues during the time of the play and the American dream influenced many beliefs including those of Willy Loman. Willy therefore yearned for a constant increase in his capital which consequently had a major part to play concerning his downfall. Currently, in the life of Willy many things are simply not going his way, as a result he becomes more faithful to his job and earning money then he does towards himself and his family. Evidently this exacerbates the situation in which Willy has created for him self. Procrastination was evident during Willy’s lifetime, as he kept putting of changes in order to make his life better, this additionally added to his inevitable downfall. Although procrastination played a significant role in the life of Willy Loman, Willy still dreamed and reminisced about his brother Ben who left for Africa to mine diamonds and became a great financial success. “A diamond is hard and rough to the touch”. Willy has grasped the dream in which in brother was successful in and believes that by committing suicide his diamond would be worth $20,000, enough to support Biff in his life. However as the quotation states the diamond is rough to the touch meaning that in order to obtain this lifeline Willy must become a sacrifice in order to allow Biff to produce “what it takes” to make it in the business environment.

Another, significant factor in Death of a Salesman arises with the death of Willy Loman. This part of the play contributes magnificently to the tragic hero appearance Miller has provided Willy. It is here were we see the real attributes of a tragic hero. Firstly the critic Ronald Harman says that “the play is universal because it is particular”, proposing that the very specific setting of characters and place appeals to us because we see something of ourselves in it in which we can relate to adding to the modern day tragedy, consequently the death of Willy supports this notion. “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” This particular quote from Willy again asserts the critique Harman’s statement. After living his life although not without flaws Willy finally expresses his true feelings and what he is worth to the world. After failing deplorably in search for the ideology presented in a country’s obsession with the American dream Willy commits an illegal act of suicide in order to increase his capital, again still rather captive in the materialist concept.

An equally significant aspect of Willy Loman’s death contributes to the notion that he was not portrayed as a figure of tragedy; instead Miller has designed an ethos which bears the essential symbolic view of a man thriving within a state of deep pathos as stated by the critic Coleridge. Moreover in traditional tragedies the hero dies ambiguously, either achieving a sense of dignity by showing courage in the final moments, or passively co-operating with the workings of divine necessity. Adding to this further the classical view is that ‘the tragic hero makes a fuss’ as stated by the critic Leech about what has happened to him and thus consequently dies fighting rather than accepting the unacceptable. Willy does neither which again adds to his ever lasting state of pathos. Willy simply doesn’t posses the qualities to show courage instead he runs away from the reality which brings him into a dream world in which everyone can grasp firmly the American dream. On the other hand however, many critics argue that Willy’s death is indeed tragic, for a man’s death should not make him a sacrifice on the altar of the belief in which has failed him.

Certainly, there is no shortage of disagreement within Miller’s mind that Willy is not perceived as a genuine tragic hero. Shortly before Willy dies an unbearable death Miller sets the scene graciously as Willy plants vegetables’ and seeds alike in his garden. It is here that Miller has intentionally created a metaphor of Willy’s death and his son’s lifestyles. The planting of the seeds and vegetables’ alike represent what Willy is doing in reality. As Willy has already stated he would be worth more dead than alive, he begins to play with this notion and in a sense begins planting fresh seeds in which his sons can grasp respectively and change their lifestyles so they don’t follow in their father’s foot steps. It is here were many critics agree with Miller that Willy is a genuine tragic figure although still going against the Aristotelian view on tragedy.

As has been mentioned the view that Willy Loman is a genuine tragic hero has been criticized by many a far and wide from Harman to Coleridge. As the genre of tragedy originated in Greece during the fifth century, Aristotle’s view on the highest regarded genre, play an important role to determine whether Willy bears the ethos of a tragic hero. Returning to the subject that Willy doesn’t follow the definition of Aristotle’s Poetics highlights the attention of the critics involved. As a result of this many have concluded that Willy is not a tragic hero instead he has been portrayed as a pathetic figure in which Miller has created a man lost in America. Ronald Harman however has argued that Willy’s death is indeed enough to perceive him as a genuine tragic hero. In response to the critics Miller felt ‘it matters no at all whether a modern play concerns itself with a grocer or president, whether the hero falls from a great height or a small one, what matters is the intensity of human passion’, therefore it becomes clear that Willy who has once be branded ‘too little’ and to ‘too common’ has indeed the essential characteristics of a genuine tragic hero. Although critics argue that Willy is not a genuine tragic hero because of his low birth status hence ‘Low-man’, like Shakespearean tragic hero’s Willy is omnipresent in the sense that he embodies hopes, dreams and fears alike which are evidently typical of all of us. Lastly it has also been argued that Aristotle’s Poetics only provides a whisker of what a tragic hero really is. Aristotle was not able to analysis this classical play and produce his own view on whether Willy obtained the essential characteristics of a tragic figure. Hence leaving many critics especially Ronald Harman to believe that Willy Loman a sixty something salesman has been presented as a genuine tragic hero.

Word Count 1,517

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