Playwright Arthur Miller defines a tragedy as "the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly" (Tragedy and the Common Man). Â In Miller's controversial play, Death of a Salesman, the main protagonist, Willy Loman, serves as an American tragic figure because his downfall is caused by his: lack of realization, false pride, and inability to secure his personal dignity which overall sparks emotions of catharsis. Being an idealizer of the American Dream, Willy strives to achieve his goals through his notion of being well-liked, and by doing so he develops a hamartia, or tragic flaw, of hubris as he attempts to protect his dignity. However, when he fails to secure his dignity, he begins to lose his self-worth, thus ultimately leading to his downfall. Despite being responsible for his own death, Willy Loman's tragedy emits catharsis, a feeling of pity and fear caused by witnessing a tragic death, within his son, Biff Loman.
Willy Loman is an ordinary man who embodies traditional American values of success, but it is his ideals of being "well-liked" that leads to his failure of accomplishing his dreams. For instance, after Bernard, a hard working scholar, pleads Biff to study with him to help him avoid the risk of failing math, Willy takes note of Bernard. To Biff, he comments, "Bernard is not well liked, is he? [He] can get the best marks in school, but when he gets out in the business world, you are going to be five times ahead of himâ€¦The man who creates personal interest is the man
who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want" (20-21). Willy grew up believing that popularity is an essential part of being successful. According to Willy, Bernard will always be behind his son Biff in the business world because he is too focused on his studies and academics rather than being liked by his peers. Willy continues to reflect back on the delusional past, and as a result he fails to understand that success comes from hard work and not from personal charms. However, irony sets for Willy when Bernard's father, Charley, tells him "How do you like this kid? Good argue a case in front of the Supreme Court" (73). In the past, Willy had always deemed Bernard to be unpopular and thus believed that he would never become as successful as his son, Biff. It is ironic because Biff, who was a popular football star during his high school years, had had over thirty jobs and has yet to find his potential, while Bernard on the other hand, was "not well-liked" in his adolescent years, but is now living the American Dream by being a lawyer. Willy felt that this was unfair because he worked so hard to earn an honest living and he scolded his sons with the wrong ideas in hopes that they would help make a family legacy.
Throughout the play, Willy Loman becomes prideful when he attempts to secure his dignity. For instance, when he discusses how much money he had made with his wife, Linda, he exaggerates the amount and says "I did five hundred gross in providence, and seven hundred in Boston" (22). He lies to Linda primarily because he does not want to disappoint her. His ulterior motive, however, is to become something bigger than he already is. His insecurities get the best of him when he lies to make himself feel better. Another example is after when Willy's boss fired him, Charley offers him a job, but Willy replies with "I don't want your goddam job! I just can't work for you, Charley" (75). Despite Willy being jobless, it is his hubris which makes him decline Charley's offer. He is undoubtedly jealous of Charley because he is successful while he,
himself is not. Willy Loman is distracted by his fantasies of being greater than he really is that he believes he does not need to work in order to maintain the success within the American Dream.
Willy Loman's death is caused by his loss of dignity and tragic flaw of hubris. When Biff uncovers the truth about Willy's affair with another woman, he yells at his father and says "You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!" (95). Willy's way of securing his dignity is to think highly of himself and by living in a pretend world of success, but when Biff catches him cheating on Linda, he calls him a phony, which lowers his self-worth and robs him from his dignity. Willy's excessive false pride gets the best of him when he turns away from his son instead of facing reality. He stubbornly refuses to accept his faults and admit he is a failure and instead he takes his own life.
As a result of Willy Loman being stripped from his dignity which leads to his death, a sense of catharsis is induced. Right before Willy's death, Biff had an argument with his father and tells him "I am not a leader, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anythingâ€¦.Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" (105-106). Biff begins to realize that his father did not know himself and that he has been following the wrong road. By witnessing what Willy has become, Biff has gained a sense of fear as he recognizes that his father's advice were just faulty words embodied with his disillusions. His fear prevents him from becoming what his father wants him to be and learns to just be himself. At the funeral, Biff talks about his father. He says: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong. He never knew who he was (111). Biff feels pity for his father as he argues that the problem with him was that he was desperately trying to search for self identity. Catharsis in this case, gives Biff a chance to finally
move forward with his life rather than experiencing more instability by following his father's words.
In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller uses Willy Loman to demonstrate how a common man can become a tragic figure. Like any Greek tragedy, Willy Loman possesses a hamartia of hubris, gives off a sense of catharsis as a result his death, and is stripped from the very thing he tried to secure - his dignity. He becomes too consumed with the past and the fantasies he has of success and refuses to accept reality. Willy's stubbornness eventually leads him into losing his job, isolating himself from everyone, and committing suicide. Ultimately, his death is caused when he takes up for self-evaluation and realizes that he would rather die than accept the truth.