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Is Willy Loman An Effective Protagonist English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1561 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Willy Loman represents an effective protagonist in “Death of Salesman” as he is an ordinary working class man in keeping with the domestic aspects of tragedy. He possesses many anti heroic qualities by not fulfilling the American dream and glamorising the past when he believes he was successful. Yet in reality he was even a failure then, which demonstrates that he is not the classical tragic hero of high status. A quality which is common throughout all tragic protagonists is hubris. Willy has immense pride, arrogantly thinking he is better than he really is and believing that success can come without hard work. His hubristic aspect is, in effect, his fatal flaw because Willy’s obsession with being well liked emphasises his superficial pursuit of the American dream, which helps bring up themes like materialism, as a modern audience will recognise. However, Willy fails to become an effective protagonist in a tragic sense as he does not reach an epiphany, instead, settling for suicide.

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The first aspect of a modern domestic tragedy is the fact it centres on ordinary people. This is done in Death of a Salesman which contrasts with “Othello” that depicts Othello who is of noble class. Willy is a father and a husband who is head of the family and therefore he does have some responsibility and power over the people around him. Miller’s aim with his plot may be to reach closer to the audience, thereby showing how anyone’s fall from grace can be tragic. Also Miller could have chosen the name Willy Loman as the name “Loman” is similar to “low man” reflecting Willy’s true status.

Willy Loman is an anti hero which is as you might expect as a protagonist in a modern domestic tragedy. The audience would strive to be everything he is not, for example, his constant reminiscing of the good old days which were not that good as he had to borrow money to have a decent wage. What makes him even more of an anti-hero is the denial that he is really a failure. However, this could possibly make him an increasingly effective protagonist because his anti heroic qualities make him less perfect and therefore more realistic as a character. Conversely, Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair, which leads to his loss of ambition and respect. “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” is reinforced by the repetition to show Biffs’ anger. Here Willy’s actions damage Biff emphasising again his anti heroic qualities.

Hubris is typical of protagonists in tragedy and makes Willy Loman’s character more dramatically effective. Willy’s hubris is shown when he dismisses Bernard “Bernard don’t be a pest! (to his boys) What an anaemic!” because he believes that his sons are better than Bernard, instilling arrogance and his hubristic pride into them, shown through the stage direction. Excessive pride is evident in Willy’s attitude towards jobs, where he turns down a job offer from Charley “I don’t want your goddam job! “. His hubris accentuates the climax of the play as he could have accepted a job that would have guaranteed relative safety of income. The resulting loss of sympathy from the audience heightens the tragic elements of the play. In Act two Willy’s denial that he was responsible for Biff’s giving up with his future “What are you trying to do, blame it on me? If a boy lays down is that my fault?” is emphasised in the repeated rhetorical questions. The denial shows an excessive pride as he will not admit to being responsible for Biff flunking maths and thus destroying his future.

Psychological elements shown in Willy’s character reflect the modern aspects of tragedy. These signs of mental unease are shown as early as Act 1 “I suddenly couldn’t drive anymore. The car kept going off on to the shoulder, y’know?” indicating that Willy is perhaps struggling to cope with reality. Miller allows the viewers to gain a greater insight into Willy’s mind which makes him more effective as a protagonist because you can understand to a better extent the reasoning behind his actions. The whole play takes places during the final two days of Willy’s life, split between flashbacks of the past which increasingly leave him unable to distinguish between past and present. His inability to distinguish past from present adds another dimension to his character which is a more modern characteristic of tragedy, dealing with insecurity and mental breakdown. All of this is shown in the form, effectively demonstrating the downfall of his character. Most of the play revolves around constructs of the past in his mind which are portrayed as Eden like. The flashbacks represent Willy trying to recreate the past when he believed he was successful. Willy’s Eden is centred on his time with Biff and Happy in their younger years as he tries to cling to times when his son respected him like Biff in act 2 “when I take off my helmet, that touchdown is for you”, rather than the present when they are at odds. Another example is when Willy recalls Ben because he views him as a success, highlighting his refusal to face the present and the truth that he has not achieved the American dream.

Willy Loman’s fatal flaws are in part his hubris and it also his pursuit of the American dream. His idea of the American dream is the root of the problem, believing that you have to be well liked in order to be successful, as he describes Dave Singleman “Cause what could be more satisfying than . . . to go at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities . . . and be remembered and loved”. However, he may have been well known but Willy misses out the point that he still had to work until he died, highlighting that being well liked is not what the American dream is about. As he dismisses Bernard for being a “nerd” it shows that Willy thinks you can be successful without working hard. Whilst you could argue that Willy is to blame for his hubris, the reverse side is that society is the villain in the play, making him what he is. Miller shows this theme for example when the Lomans need a new fridge “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken!” which can explain Willy’s seemingly misguided pursuit of the American dream in the form of materialistic values. Yet because it is broken like many other items it could be a metaphor for the misplaced confidence of Willy in materialism as it lets him down, much like the aspirations for his sons. Miller creates an effective protagonist by connecting him with other aspects in society that are relevant in America at the time.

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Typical of many protagonists in tragedy is the reaching of a point of revelation. Willy does not reach this as he instead settles for suicide “worth more dead than alive”. Yet the realisation may not be from Willy but the audience in their perception of the American dream and how it can have disastrous effects on people. Despite not reaching any degree of self truth, his life insurance policy would in his eyes compensate Linda for his affair and he would gain the respect of Biff.

Catharsis, it could be said is not experienced by the audience up until the requiem. Charley’s speech “Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand … for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to life” highlights that the pressure of a salesman would have contributed to Willy’s downfall. It helps induce pity from the audience as it removes blame from Willy. Charley continues to give the audience reason to pity Willy “No man only needs a salary” which draws attention to the fact that materialistic values cannot sustain a man. Happy reinforces the catharsis as he is inspired by Willy’s death. However this catharsis could be undermined due to Linda’s comment “It seems to me that you’re just on another trip” hinting that the insurance money for Biff may not be put to good use. The recurrence of the flute music symbolically represents Willy’s misguided pursuit of the American dream. This could mean that the catharsis is not as effective as the world is not cleansed and is just as it was at the start of the play.

From an audience’s perspective they could possibly think that Willy is an ineffective tragic hero because it was his own fault that he was not successful. He failed to understand the American dream, in the process hindering his own son’s future. The anti heroic features of Willy could serve on their own as a reason the audience lose sympathy for him and possibly deem him ineffective as a tragic hero. However, on the other hand, society could be viewed as the villain of the play because it gives the audience reason to understand his character, thus making Willy an effective protagonist. Willy Loman could be considered an effective tragic protagonist because of his hubris and fatal flaw typical of a tragic hero. Likewise, the psychological aspects introduced to the plot draw attention to the modern characteristics of modern domestic tragedy.


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