Discuss Death of a Salesman as a tragedy. OR Discuss Death of a Salesman as a Social Tragedy. OR Is this play a tragedy?

Give your views. American playwright Arthur Miller began writing plays while a student at the University of Michigan. His first big success was All My Sons (1947). Miller's best-known play, Death of a Salesman, won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Whether Death of a Salesman is a tragedy or not has been a controversial question among the critics. Some critics regard it as a social tragedy; some others say it is not a tragedy but a sentimental play. A few other critics say that it is a different type of play so it cannot be labeled under any form of traditional drama. All discussion of tragedy begins with Aristotle’s definition of it. He says that by exiting pity and fear, tragedy brings about the catharsis of such emotions. Tragedy, by arousing pity and fear, cures the feeling, which always exists in our breast. It provides emotional relief and the spectators leave the theatre with a feeling of pleasure. In modern times, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is not widely accepted. If Aristotle is still to be regarded the God’s stamp on tragedy of all the important works of contemporary literature, not one is a pure tragedy. The standards of magnificence and truth have gone through a change in modern age. Modern critics believe that tragedy arouses not only the feelings of pity and fear but several other feelings also. Tragedy affords us pleasure by the exhibition of human endurance in the face of calamities and disasters. The beauty of language too delights the audience. According to the traditional view, the hero should be a person of high status or rank. He has either nobility of mind, or strength of character, or genius. This greatness of the hero excites our admiration and sympathy for him despite his defect of flaw. Arthur Miller’s concept of tragedy is entirely different. He rejects the Greek tragedy and calls the archaic, ‘fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly.’ He does not believe that the hero must be a man of high rank. Death of a Salesman does not stand up to face the definition of Aristotle. Its plot lacks high seriousness and greatness. Its tragic hero does not have a high stature. He fails to discover himself until the end. Willy Loman is merely a middle class sales representative. Thus, he belongs to the common people. But Miller tells us that his play should not be judged by the standards of the ancient Greeks of the standards of the Elizabethans because insurance payments, refrigerators, cars, fans etc. were unknown to them. 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. It does not matter at all whether the hero falls from a great height or a small one. The lasting appeal for tragedy, says Miller, “is due to our need to face the fact of death in order to strengthen ourselves for life.” The feeling of terror and fear can be aroused by man’s fight against the environment too. According to Miller, Willy is a brave spirit. The responsibility for Willy’s tragedy lies on the society of which he is a

member. Much of Willy’s suffering is due to the nature of American society. It is highly commercialized and competitive. Willy dies as a victim of what is called the American dream. According to this dream, a man can attain material success by means of personal attractiveness, personal charm, and personal contacts. Willy was under the illusion that his career as a salesman would take him to the top and he would face no difficulties even in his old age. Moreover, he had fancy regarding the future of his son Biff. Biff looked like an Adonis, or a god and who has proved himself to be a popular football champion. Willy had been foreseeing a fantastic future for biff but at the end of the play, he is totally disillusioned. Biff achieved nothing up to the age of thirty-four. The social law plays a great part. It says that a person who has failed in society and in business has no right to live. Willy is ill-treated by his present employer Howard. Willy had been treated fairly well by Howard’s late father, but Howard’s attitude towards Willy is most unsympathetic. Willy’s interview with Howard is one of the most important situations in the play showing the cruelty of the prevailing social system. Willy is mow sixty-three years old. He is aware of the fact that he does not have his old stamina because he cannot even concentrate on his driving. He pleads that he is unable to continue travelling job and appeals to Howard to give him an assignment that will deep him in New York. Howard is unsympathetic and refuses such a transfer. Willy lowers his demand from sixty to fifty and then to forty dollars a week for the job that he is asking. Howard grants none of Willy’s requests and casually dismisses him from the company. We here see the extremely inhuman nature of the American competitive society, which gets rid of an old employee as soon as he ceases to be a source of profit to his employer. It would, however, be wrong to say that Willy is wholly a victim of the social system. His own responsibility for his tragedy is by no means small. He knows his limitations and shortcomings and yet he chooses to close his eyes to them. He has been ignoring Biff’s thefts. When Biff fails in the examination, Willy blames the teacher whom he describes as “son – of – a – bitch”. His illusion does not allow him to listen to an account of failure. He deceives himself to such an extent that he thinks that his funeral will be a “massive” affair and will be attained by very important people in the trade. Willy Loman is a confused person when we meet him. His own weaknesses are a part of his tragedy. He has an unbalanced mind. He is weak and wavering. Although it is difficult to regard this play 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. Unlike the dramas by Sophocles, Shakespeare and Lorka, Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a tragedy set in our times. It is not perhaps very important to decide whether the play is a tragedy or not. Miller himself has said that it is ‘a slippery play to categorize.’ What matters is that the play has important things to say and does so movingly and dramatically. The fact that it has provoked much argument among critics; it is a work of art rather than a sociological study or anything else. Give a character sketch of Willy Loman OR What impression have you formed of the character of Willy Loman? Would you regard him as a tragic hero? Willy is one of the immortal characters of Miller. He is a dreamer. The most remarkable fact about Willy Loman is that he is a victim of the great American dream. According to a popular belief in America, a man can attain riches and status by means of personal attractiveness, personal charm, personal contacts, and

personal ability. Willy is a worshipper of material success and hi thinks that he and his son Biff can attain the success by personal attractiveness. Repeatedly he speaks highly of himself and of his son Biff. He believes that he is largely responsible for the large sales of the products of the Wagner Company. He says, “I’m vital in New England.” He claims to know all the important people in his area and says that he cops will protect his car no matter where he parks it. He thinks himself to be a very successful salesman. He thinks that he can command buyers in various towns of New England. He has built up his own ego. All this is of course self-deception. However, this is the illusion, which he nurses in his heart. He thinks that in his old age (and he is already old) he will compete with the example of Dave Singleman. Similarly, he holds an excessively high opinion about his son Biff. He praises Biff because Biff has distinguished himself as a football player. Willy thinks that this distinction in sports will take Biff very far. He speaks of Biff’s spirit and personality. He believes that both his sons are built like Adonises. He compares Biff to Hercules, and then to a god. He is much pleased by the fact that girls spend their own money on Biff. He is greatly impressed by the number of Biff’s followers and admirers among his fellow students. Even when Biff fails to achieve anything in life until the ripe age of thirty-four, Willy does not give up his illusion about his son. In fact, one of the reasons for his suicide is that Biff would be able to start his career with the insurance money. He also believes that his funeral will be a “massive” affair and that it will be attended by many people. Thus, we find that Willy is blind to the realities. He lives in his own world of fantasy and dreams. It must also be remembered that occasionally Willy does become aware of the realities of life. For example, he makes confession to Linda that people ignore and laugh at him. He says that it is a disgrace that Biff remains unsettled though he has attained the age of thirty-four. He quarrels with Biff several times, though by the end of the play. Willy perceives the reality and yet chooses to live in a world of illusions. This means that he is most of the time in a confused state of mind. Willy is a confused person. He often contradicts himself and often becomes absentminded. When the play begins, he has just returned home without completing his business trip because he found that he could not concentrate on driving. Speaking to Linda, he describes Biff as a lazy man. However, within a minute or so he describes Biff as a hard worker. He asks Linda to open a window when all the windows are already open. There are almost half a dozen occasions where he behaves like an absent-minded person. Willy is greatly devoted to his wife just as he deeply loves his sons. It is true that he has been unfaithful to her but it happens in the lives of sales persons who feel lonely when they are far away from their families for long periods. Most of the travelling people occasionally indulge in a mild kind of flirtation with other women. In fact, we have no reason at all to doubt Willy when he tells his wife: “you’re my foundation and my support, Linda”, and again “you’re the best there’s, Linda, you’re a pal…” Repeatedly he feels that he has let down his wife. He carries a sense of guilt about his ‘affair’. Willy is a lover of nature. He speaks of the excellent roadside scenery that he has often enjoyed while driving to work. He says, “But it’s so beautiful up there, Linda. The trees are so thick and the sun is warm.” He is sorry about the over crowding that has been caused by construction of many apartments and he misses fresh air of the past. He recalls the time when many types of flowers like lilacs, daffodils etc. used to grow there and spread their fragrance. The increase in population, he says, is ruining the country. He is still fond of planting seeds in

the small garden behind his house. Willy has a lot of self-respect and a sense of personal dignity. He refuses to accept a job from Charley, even though he needs it badly. Willy’s reply to Charley’s offer is: “I don’t want your goddam job!” this self-respect is laughable but even here we find a contradiction. Willy has been borrowing fifty dollars a week from Charley in order to pretend to Linda that he is still getting salary. Willy’s pretence does not turn us against him. On the contrary, it deepens our sympathy for him. Now it is as clear as day light that Willy is a complex, pathetic, muddle-headed character. He is the representative of every modern man living in the world of cut-throat-competition. Willy Loman is a low man. He is a sales man who sells not goods but his ‘self’. He is so many things at a time – a father, a husband, a salesman, a member of society, an item of human psyche, a tragic hero. To use Miller’s words, “Willy is a baby, Willy is a victim…” He represents the whole mass of American civilization. Give a character sketch of Linda Loman. OR What impression have you formed about Linda Loman? A Devoted Wife: Linda Loman is a devoted wife. She shows a constant wifely care and kindness about Willy. This is her most important characteristic. This trait appears in the opening dialogue when Willy has unexpectedly returned after having left in the morning. Linda worriedly asks him if he had an accident with the car. Perhaps the steering wheel caused him some trouble. Perhaps he needs a change of glasses. When all these guesses prove to be wrong, she says: “well, you’ll just have to take some rest, Willy, you can’t continue this way.” She then suggests that he should ask his company for a job in New York so that he should not have to travel. She next offers to make a sandwich for him. She is worried that he should eat something and tells him that there is some cheese in the refrigerator. Willy is fully aware of Linda’s devotion to him and acknowledges this fact in the following words: “You’re my foundation and my support, Linda.” As A Mother: Linda is a very affectionate mother too. She is quite generous towards her two sons. She requests her husband not to loose his temper with Biff. Both Biff and Happy have a high opinion about their mother. Biff often addresses her as his ‘pal’ and does not want her to feel unhappy. Happy thinks that his mother is a woman of ‘character’. Although she loves both her sons, she is not crazy about them. She asks Biff why he is so ‘hateful’ towards his father. She goes on to say: “Biff, dear, if you don’t have any feeling for him, you can’t have any feeling for me”. She tells him that her husband is “the dearest ma in the world” to her. Even when Biff tries to prejudice her against Willy by saying that Willy has never had eve an ounce of respect for her, she continues to defend Willy. She says, “I don’t say he is a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.” She tries to make both her sons feel ashamed of their indifferences towards Willy. She reminds them of the great love he has always borne for them and of their worship of him in the bygone days. Later in the play, when Willy has been treated by both the boys disgracefully in the restaurant, Linda looses her temper with them and says: “You’re pair of animals!”

Her Weaknesses: But with all her good qualities, she has black spot too. She can never abolish her faith in Willy as the great salesman. She is somewhat timid and passive person. She falls so much under her husband’s influence that she becomes a sharer of all his illusions. In other words, she becomes an unthinking partner in his fantastic dreams and unrealistic hopes. In being a good wife, Linda has extended her devotion to an extreme that has destructed not only her husband but also her sons. In her overwhelming devotion to Willy, she has helped build a doll’s house around him. Thus Linda Loman is Miller’s mouthpiece. She has been identified with all the hest values in American society-care, love, courage and humanity. She is a good mediator between her husband and sons. She constantly pleads for harmony and understanding.

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