Thesis Statement: Although Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a classic tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, it is also a biting critique of capitalism and the empty promises of capitalism's materialistic version of the American Dream.
Death of a Salesman as a Tragedy
- Catharsis of Emotion
- The Play's Organic Unity
- Reversal in Fortune
- Willy's Hamartia
- Willy as a Noble Personage
1. Waste of human potential
- The nobility of the salesman is derived from the values of capitalism.
- Ways in which Willy is a noble salesman
Death of a Salesman as a Critique of Capitalism
A. Miller Shows the Ways in Which Capitalist Values have Warped the American Dream
1. Willy's Fall is ignoble because there is no increase in self-knowledge
B. Willy's Materialism Blinded Him from his Inner Worth
Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is often heralded as the first modern American tragedy. Utilizing the American Dream as the foundation of American values and morals, Miller builds his play around the hero Willy Loman, a common man, and his family. Through the character of Willy and his family, Miller uses the play to convey the tragic consequences of unerring devotion to that dream. Although Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a classic tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, it is also a biting critique of capitalism and the empty promises of capitalism's materialistic version of the American Dream.
One of the qualities of a tragedy observed by Aristotle was the catharsis of emotion that occurred throughout the drama, and this characteristic is readily observable in Death of a Salesman (Arp 1220). Willy's relationships with all of the other characters in the play reveal a deep sense of grief, despair, and disillusionment as Willy clings to his version of the American Dream and alternately attacks and defends the people in his life. For instance, Willy contradicts himself constantly, criticizing his son Biff in one breath and defending him in the next. In Act One Willy yells at Biff, saying, "One imagines at first that Willy is focused on ensuring that his son has the best life possible according to his version of the American Dream, but as the play progresses one begins to believe that Willy's treatment of Biff, Happy and all of the characters is an expression of his need to defend his philosophy of capitalist progress. The feelings of despair, anger, and grief that come arise are all focused around this idea that if Willy's dream is false, his whole life will have been lived in vain.
One literary technique that Miller uses to convey the emotional intensity that engenders the catharsis is repetition of phrasing and words. This device can be found throughout the play, used by any character. For instance, Willy states early on, "I'm the New England man. I'm vital in New England" (Miller 4). In a conversation between Willy and Biff, Biff says, "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!" and Willy answers, "I'm not a dime a dozen! I'm Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman!" (Miller 105). Much later in the play he says, "I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground" (Miller 96). Biff, too, talks in this repetitious style, saying to his mother, "I can't take hold, Mom. I can't take hold of some kind of life" (Miller 39). In each of these instances, Miller writes in such a way that the characters repeat key phrases or words that are representative of some deeper emotional message and meaning. New England represents the promised land of plenty that Willy can never reach, the phrase "dime a dozen" represents the reality of being a common man making a meager living, and the seeds Willy does not have in the third quote refer to the necessary preconditions to success that Willy never acquired. The phrase 'taking hold' signifies the notion of success as defined by Willy throughout Biff's upbringing.
The play also exhibits the Aristotelian quality of organic unity which is to say that its events are causally rather than just chronologically related (Arp 1220). One of the primary ways that Miller accomplishes this is through his masterful usage of flashback (Abrams and Harpham 267). Throughout the play the action of the present is juxtaposed with that of the past as the audience experiences Willy, Biff, and Happy as younger, happier people as well as in the present state of despair, failure, and disillusionment. These flashbacks explain why their lives have progressed in the way they have, because they reveal the mistakes and deluded aspects of Willy's thinking. For instance, during the boys' teenage years Willy turns a blind eye to Biff's petty thefts, not realizing that these actions revealed deeper problems in Biff's thinking (Miller 26). As another example, Willy insists that Biff will be more successful than Bernard later in life because he is "well-liked" even though Bernard is succeeding in his education whereas Biff is not (Miller 20, 70). It is clear from the later events that Willy was wrong about Biff's prospects and that being "well-liked" was not the key to success. While Biff has had no career or future Bernard has become a successful lawyer (Miller 70). These flashbacks connect the events of the present causally to the events of the past and show how the hero Willy's past actions have led directly to his present circumstances.
As another aspect of the Aristotelian analysis of tragedy, those circumstances represent a reversal in fortune (Arp 1220). From the flashbacks it is clear that Willy's and Linda's lives were once far sunnier. The house they bought in Brooklyn, New York is a prime example of the changes that have occurred since they were young. The house was part of a secure and established working class neighborhood with tree-lined streets and many regular families like themselves. In the present, however, their house is the only one left standing and all of the other lots have been sold to developers who have built high rise apartment buildings in their place. Their home, where they had hoped to garden, does not even get any sunlight because of the huge shadows cast by the buildings (Miller 112). This is one of the primary symbols of Willy's change in fortune. It also points to the tragic theme that Miller portrays of how the development encouraged by capitalism has swallowed the common man, casting long shadows of its own over all of the working class (Centola 45). In this sense, capitalism has played a large part in the "waste of human potential" that one sees in Willy's demise (Arp 1222).
This is not to say that Willy's problems are the fault of some other party or entity (even capitalism) because true to the tragic form, Willy's misfortunes occur as part of his hamartia. Aristotle defines hamartia as "a criminal act committed in ignorance of some material fact or even in defense of the greater good" (Arp 1220). It is important to clarify that hamartia is not related to character per se and cannot be defined as an inherent character flaw but is instead a persistent act which dooms him to his tragic end. In Willy Loman's case, the act that is his doom is also what makes him heroic. This act is is his unwavering devotion to his beliefs about the American Dream and success and his willingness to do anything to defend it.
All of his actions are built upon his faith in this dream, even though that dream bears no resemblance to the present moment or to the ways in which others are gaining success. Although this is not a criminal act, it causes Willy to defend his sons' failures, to raise his sons to look toward an uncertain future rather than face the facts of the present, and to eventually die without a legacy of any sort to pass onto his children (Miller 96). The classic Aristotelian tragedy is based on a singular unified moral code, a sense of honor and virtue that is largely absent from the modern ethos, but for Willy the American Dream was a moral code and the basis for his personal virtue (Otten 32). Nevertheless, his refusal to acknowledge the facts of the present or the lessons of the past represented his criminal act as a result of which all the rest of the events of the play occur (Centola 39).
In this sense it is arguable that Willy embodies the only unified sense of nobility that exists in American culture and that is the basis of his role as a noble personage. The characters are "noble personages, greater than ourselves" and their actions are also noble (Arp 1220). Willy is noble because he fights to the death for the American Dream even when he is faced with multiple pieces of evidence that he was wrong and that the dream is false. To be more specific, in modern industrial society, the nobility of the salesman is derived from the values of capitalism which place a high premium on success, profit, materialism, and being "well-liked" by others. Miller shows that these qualities were not the keys to success but that the usage of power by the rich represented a serious threat to the common man (Centola 45).
In Death of a Salesman this characteristic is ironically achieved through Willy's position as a salesman, because the salesman represents the greatest and most noble calling within a capitalist society. Miller himself defended Willy as a common man who was also a tragic hero, speaking of the ways in which Willy exemplified the plight of all men because he was an ordinary man who refused to acknowledge his own ordinariness (Miller, "Tragedy and the Common Man," 4). Charley, Willy's former boss, perfectly explains Willy's nobility and his seemingly irrational clinging to his dreams. At Willy's funeral he says:
Nobody dast blame this man. You don't understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there's no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out their in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling backthat's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory (Miller 111).
Through Charley's defense of Willy it becomes clear that Willy's entire career was based on hopes for the future, hopes for future profits and glory, and that these actions were necessary if he was going to carry on the tradition of the salesman and have any hope for success.
By portraying Willy as a tragic hero of the American Dream and the common man, Miller also creates a stinging commentary on capitalism and its effects on the common man. Willy is a common man, an unskilled laborer, who is swallowed by those around him who are smarter, better educated, and more skillful in the same way that his small house is dwarfed by the high-rise apartment buildings on all sides. Willy believes in the promises of capitalism - the riches, the easy life, the success, and the accolades of others but he experiences them only in short bursts throughout his life and never in a sustained way so that he could finally declare that he had achieved his dream. In this way Miller calls into question all of the ideology upon which America stands (Centola 40). Biff discovers the myth of success that is promised to the common man by the capitalist American Dream but Willy never does. Finally, Linda's love for Willy reminds the audience that Willy can never accept himself for who he is and be happy with what he has. For example, Willy ignores Linda's love and focuses his attention on The Woman instead. Willy buys her new stockings while his own wife has to darn her stockings because she does not have any new ones (Miller 94). Linda shows how throughout the play Willy never realizes his own inner worth because he is so immersed in his vision of success and materialism.
In this way Miller creates a classic tragedy built upon American values. The hero Willy Loman places all of his faith in the promise of the American Dream that a common man can become hugely successful materially and socially. The play conveys a catharsis of emotion, organic unity, hamartia, nobility of the hero, and a reversal in the hero's fortunes that inevitably leads to his death. In the end, however, Miller also implies that Willy's demise was not necessary because it was due to his deluded belief in the empty promises of capitalism rather than in the real American Dream of contentment.
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