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Death of a Salesman is not a Tragedy

Tragedy retells the events which lead to the downfall of a person of great significance. This causes the readers to feel pity for the protagonist's downfall. According to Aristotle, ?Pity is caused by undeserved misfortune.? Meaning, the purpose of tragedy evokes pity and fear. With this being the case, Arthur Miller?s Death of a Salesman diverges from the traditional definition of a tragedy due to the fact that Willy Loman brings upon himself all which befalls him. This in no way makes his demise caused by undeserved misfortune for he fails to do what a tragic character must do; evaluate himself justly.

To evaluate oneself justly, there is need for a desire to learn from the mistakes to be a better individual. By definition, evaluation is to determine the value or significance of something; in this case the individual. Justly is exact, something that is done according to standards that are proper. Therefore, Willy Loman fails to evaluate himself justly. He only notices the past, and therefore cannot and will not make himself a better individual.

In the ?classical? tragedies, such as Oedipus, those who had fallen in a tragic state were those of greater significance and prestige. Those who fell into a state of misery and woe were also those that were unaware of the things that were happening to them and they tried dreadfully to correct what was wrong. Oedipus for example was completely oblivious to the fact that he loved and was married to his mother and had killed his father. It was when he found this information out that he most dreaded living and wanted to change his life. Even until the end of the play, Oedipus never felt pity for himself; he only wanted to correct what was right and make known his tragedy. Arthur Miller himself even agrees with this stating that, ?From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to fain his ?rightful? position?? Unfortunately, Miller contradicts himself in writing Death of a Salesman because Willy Loman did not even begin to scratch the surface of ?attempting to gain his ?rightful? position?. He merely vegetated through his misery.

One cannot possibly evaluate themselves justly when they live their life selfishly, as Willy does. If Willy did indeed evaluate himself justly, the play would not last many pages, for Willy continually contradicts his feelings and actions, putting the blame on others consistently. ?Tragedy enlightens?and it must?? There cannot possibly be enlightenment in blaming others and contradicting all that surrounds them. There is no possibility of enlightenment in that.

Willy contradicts himself so much that it confuses the people around him. In the course of five minutes action he says, ?Biff is a lazy bum!???there?s one thing about Biff?he?s not lazy.?? After which, Willy turns to his wife Linda and asks, ??why am I always being contradicted?? Through out his absurd contradictions, those around him are always trying to do things that will please him and yet they do not know what will please him at any given moment. He seemingly contradicts himself just to keep the cacophony erupting. This cannot possibly be the foundation for undeserved misfortune.

A prerequisite of tragedy is a characters ?inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity.? In this, at least, Willy does not remain passive; however, he fails to do anything. He tries desperately to make those around him feel sorry for him, even his family. At one point in the play, Willy attempts suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning through a rubber hose. He leaves this hose around so someone will in fact find it. He knows that this would arouse pity and sorrow for him and his miserable, unfulfilled life. Yet he is miserable and unfulfilled because he spends his time feeling sorry for himself rather than being ?unwilling to remain passive?. His actions are not tragic, merely feeble. According to spokesman T.K. Whipple:

[q]The older writers of tragedy [have] their protagonists go down to defeat, of course, but they go down in a blaze of glory. There is a kind of recompense for the defeat of their greatness; and more often than not their outward defeat is somewhat atoned for by their winning a spiritual victory.[/q]

Willy does not go down in a blaze of glory. He simply goes down. He is not in a situation which would cause any thinking and feeling person to honestly believe that the only way out is suicide. And furthermore, he does not conquer a spiritual victory. As Miller stated, ?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?. Willy?s death is not for personal dignity, but only to fulfill the self deprecation that he feels for himself.

Unfortunately he realizes that his entire life?s composite is one fruitless attempt after another at purely existing. He has not, on the other hand, tried to better himself or anyone around him. He has consistently been selfish and unfeeling. During a point in the play, Willy wants to build a stoop for his house without paying for it, and therefore, makes his son steal the materials for that task. Biff reveres his father, and Willy uses Biffs love for him to have Biff steal the materials for the stoop, bringing to pass Willy?s obvious and absurd selfish and unfeeling behavior. Biff is a reflection of Willy?s problems, and has been nurtured on Willy?s dreams. But as he has grown up, he has been forced to see the truth.

If anything, Biff is the tragic character in this play, for he engenders true pity. He finally eradicates himself with his own strength. None of which Willy ever does. When Biff goes to Boston to see his father, Biff realizes that the rosy dream of happiness will not ever be prominent in his life as soon as he walks into the hotel his father stays at and sees the affair. Then and there Biff is robbed by his fallen idol of any further desire to succeed in life. That is the tragedy.

The entire family has been built under the fa?ade that Willy created. They then feed on each others self-loathing and fail to acknowledge what is right before their eyes. Linda, Willy?s wife, ?is not part of the solution, but rather part of the problem with this dysfunctional family and their inability to see things for what they really are?. She accepts Willy?s dreams and yet fails to allow him to leave to attain them. When she finds the rubber hose lying around, she puts it back in its place so she does not upset Willy by allowing him to know that she is aware that he has tried to commit suicide. She is caught up in the disaster of their lives, and does nothing about the destruction. ?She lets this whole masquerade continue right in front of her instead of doing something to stop their out of control lies?. The sons, like Linda, are part of the problem. Happy is blissfully satisfied in his fa?ade. During the play, Happy and Biff speak of the fact that they should change their situation for the better. Happy says, ?See Biff, everybody around me is so false that I?m constantly lowering my ideals?? What kind of life is that? Unfortunately that is the basis of our society.

Our society is so concerned with pleasing others that we fail to please ourselves. Happy has been brought up in that type of environment because of his father, and thus lowers his ideals just to keep up with the world. All the characters in the play are consumed with the idea of the ?American Dream? and it causes them to refuse to see anything else.

Miller declared, ?The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy.? There is plainly no possibility for victory in this play. Miller has constructed a great piece of drama and theater, but that is all. It is a brilliant piece of theatricality for it does indeed make you feel as though you should feel something. In society, we seem to feel what we are told to feel, but upon analysis there really is no character substance in this play. The characters are at best two dimensional and therefore cannot possibly be tragic characters.

Willy never accepts himself straightforwardly and this influences on those closest to him and infects them with the same disease, that of self deprecation. He never accepts responsibility. Unlike Oedipus, he never blames himself; it is always other people, places, and things.

Miller has not written a tragedy even of the Common Man. Willy is too common and has no redeeming qualities at all. There is not one glimmer of nobility, beauty, gusto, or even honesty in him. This then goes to show Death of a Salesman is not a tragedy. It is only a pathetically brilliant piece of theatrical entertainment.

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