Death of a Salesman as a Modern Tragedy
Unlike Classical tragedy or Shakespearean tragedy, Death of a Salesman tick marks all the flavor of a modern tragedy. Though the fundamental rules of high tragedy has strictly been maintained, yet in some way Miller has applied some unconventional rules with the ingredients of a modern tragedy. In Miller’s definition of tragedy, a common man can be the hero of a tragedy thus victimized to be a sufferer which can produce catharsis by exciting pity and fear.
All discussions of tragedy start with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. With reference to the emotional effect of tragedy, Aristotle says that, by exciting pity and fear, tragedy brings about the catharsis of such emotions. This is the most controversial part of Aristotle’s definition. According to the homeopathic system of medicine, like cures life; that is, a sick person is given doses of a medicine which, if given to a healthy man, would make him sick. Similarly a tragedy, by arousing pity and fear, cures us of these very feelings which always exist in our heart. A tragedy, therefore, affords emotional relief and the spectators rise at its end with a feeling of pleasure. This, according to Aristotle, is the aesthetic function of tragedy.
Aristotle’s theory of tragedy is not widely accepted now. Various opinions regarding the nature and function of tragedy have been advanced. Without going into the details and confining ourselves mainly to the emotional effect of tragedy, we can say that tragedy arouses not only the feelings of pity and fear but several other feelings also. Tragedy affords us pleasure by virtue of its exhibition of human endurance and perseverance in the face of calamities and disasters. In some cases tragedy arouses in us a feeling of the existence of a moral order in the universe. We may be made to believe that a man suffers chiefly on account of his own errors and faults, so that the vision of eternal justice arouses in us a sense of reconciliation. The nobility of human nature arouses a kind of hope in us. That is not all. The grandeur of verse and rhetoric (in case a tragedy is written in verse), the splendour of eloquence and the beauty of words in a tragedy arouse a keen aesthetic pleasure in us.
According to the traditional view, the tragic hero should be a person of a high status or one holding an exalted rank. All Shakespearean tragic heroes fulfill this condition. Furthermore, while in ancient Greek tragedy destiny or fate is chiefly responsible for the downfall of human beings, in Shakespearean tragedy this downfall is brought about by some fault (hamartia) in the tragic hero himself, although the element of fate or destiny is not absent from Shakespearean tragedy. The tragic heroes of Shakespeare are built on a grand scale. They have either nobility of mind, or strength of character, or genius, or immense force which despite their defect or flaw, excites our admiration and sympathy for them.
Miller’s concept of tragedy is entirely different. Miller does not believe that the tragic hero must be a man of exalted rank. In the introduction to his “Collected Plays”, Miller tells us that he regarded Death of a Salesman always as heroic, and that the charge that Willy Loman lacked “stature” for the tragic hero seemed unbelievable to him. Willy Loman is merely a middle class salesman. Thus he belongs to the common people and is almost commonplace. But Miller tells us that he cannot see why this play should be judged by the standards of the ancient Greeks or the standards of the Elizabethans to whom insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan-belts, Chevrolet and Studebaker cars were unknown. He cannot imagine how Aristotle’s criteria of tragedy can be applied to this play.
It is now many centuries since Aristotle lived. Things have changed greatly since then. A man’s stature as a hero should not be utterly dependent on his social rank. A grocer can surpass the President of the United States as a tragic figure provided the “intensity” of the grocer’s commitment to his course is the maximum possible. It matters not at all whether the hero falls from a great height or a small one, whether he is highly conscious or only dimly aware of what is happening, if the “intensity” is there.
“The lasting appeal of tragedy”, says Miller, “is due to our need to face the fact of death in order to strengthen ourselves for life.” Willy, according to Miller, is a very brave spirit who “cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end.” Willy is no dumb brute heading mindlessly to his catastrophe. Had Willy been unaware of his distance from values that endure, he would have died contentedly in the course of some routine job. But he is agonized by his awareness of being in a false position. He is constantly haunted by the hollowness of all he has placed his faith in. He has an intense consciousness that the life he had built for himself was without form and inner meaning. It cannot be called a complete consciousness, because there is necessarily a severe limitation of self-awareness in any character, even the most knowing. This very limit serves to complete the tragedy and, indeed, to make it at all possible.
The responsibility for Willy’s tragedy lies squarely on the society of which he is a member. Willy dies as a victim of what is called the great American dream according to which a man can attain material success by means of personal attractiveness, personal charm, personal magnetism, and personal contacts. This is the kind of dream or myth which has been fostered by authors like Dale Carnegie. Having known the case of Dave Singleman, Willy has always been deluded by the belief that his career as a salesman would take him to the top and that he would face no difficulties even in his old age.
More than that, he has been weaving bright images in his fancy regarding the future of his older son, Biff, who looks like an Adonis, or a god, and who has proved himself to be a popular football champion. He has been foreseeing a magnificent future for Biff, and he clings to his optimistic faith till the very end, even though Biff himself has become disillusioned. This means that social laws have replaced fate as man’s relentless enemy. The social law here is one which says that a person who has failed in society and in business has no right to live. This law of success is not administered through legislation, but it is nearly as powerful in its grip on people.
It is possible to argue that it is Willy’s own folly and short-sightedness that allow him to be deceived by the American dream, especially because Willy’s own neighbour, Charley, does not believe in any such myth and has yet made a fortune. But Charley is an exception. The law of success has a powerful grip on the majority of Americans, and it is this grip which is responsible for the tragedy.
Death of a Salesman is, then, a social drama. But, because it is a social drama, one critic refuses to describe it as a tragedy. In other words, this critic believes that tragedy and social drama cannot co-exist. This is how he puts it:
“The tragedy destroys the social drama; the social drama keeps the tragedy from having a genuinely tragic stature.”
The theme of this social drama, according to this critic, is the little man as victim. Man is here too little and too passive to play the tragic hero. The theme arouses pity but no terror. The tragedy and the social drama, this critic goes on to say, actually conflict with each other. In an interview, Miller himself thus emphasized his tragic intention:
“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.”
Important as this idea is in Miller’s later plays, it is confusing when applied to Death of a Salesman .This play, says our critic, shows that Willy Loman’s sense of personal dignity is too precariously based to give him heroic stature.
Tragedy implies values. To the complaint that Willy had no values, Miller replied that Willy did have values and that the fact that those values could not be realized had been driving him mad. Willy did have values but Willy’s values were the wrong ones. Rightly does Biff remark at his father’s funeral:
“He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.”
Willy’s suicide itself implies some recognition, even though limited, of his wrong values.
One critic finds the same basic pattern in each of Miller’s mature full length plays up to the time of A View from the Bridge. Each play matches ordinary, uncomprehending people with extra ordinary demands and accusations. At the centre of each play is the tension between little people and big issues, and each play confirms our belief that little people cannot live up to big standards. Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is even labelled a little man by his name; he is society’s “low man“.
Each of these plays is constructed to expose a pattern of guilt, to find out who is guilty and to impose the penalty of death. Death of a Salesman is also to a degree constructed as an investigation. Willy Loman hunts the secret of his failure; he wants to know the right path. His mistake is that there is no right path. There is, however, a wrong path and Willy has travelled along it for most of his life. He asks his brother Ben and his neighbour Charley for the secret of success; they cannot tell him, and he cannot guess that it does not exist. But although Willy makes a considerable personal contribution to his own misfortune, the main burden of guilt is to be borne by the dominant forces in society, and in this case these forces are summed up in the phrase “the American dream“.
This does not, however, mean that there is no good in society. The forces of good in this play are represented by Charley and his son Bernard. Both Charley and Bernard are always anxious to help the Lomans. Charley gives money to Willy, while Bernard was willing to supply the answers to Biff in the examination. The good to be found in these two persons is deep and instinctive; it rarely finds any verbal expression. The good people have no theories, no ideologies, except for their goodness. Their practice and their faith are the same, doing good.
Although it is difficult to regard Death of a Salesman as an example of a high tragedy, yet it would be only fair to admit that it is a successful work in the light of Miller’s own view of tragedy. In the modern parlance, the play would definitely be regarded as a modern tragedy. Willy Loman certainly shows an intensity of commitment to his view of “success” and his fate certainly arouses our deepest sympathy.