Tuesday, March 31, 2009

'Death of a Salesman' as a Modern Tragedy

In 'Death of a Salesman' Arthur Miller presents a tragedy which is different from  the classical and Shakespearean tragedies. On the basis of some unconventional rules Miller produces a tragedy, which is very modern in respects of the style as well as the subject matter. The play is mainly linked to Miller’s essay ‘Tragedy and the common man”, the Miller’s Poetics in which he redefines our notion of a tragedy. In fact he shows that a common man also can be the protagonist of a tragedy and his sufferings also touch our heart.

It does not only belong to the past ages

Tragedy is not only the property of the classical world or the Shakespearean world. Tragedy can belong to any age. But with the change of time the subject matter and the style also should be changed to fulfill the demand of the age. Arthur Miller does the very thing in the play. As we go through the play we see that he does not violet the properties of the universal grammar of a tragedy. The universal properties of a tragedy include the presentation of a serious action that is complete in itself and capable of evoking pity and terror in order to produce catharsis in the audience.

Other properties of a tragedy

Miller’s Death of a Salesman fulfills all of these requirements though in some unconventional ways. The dramatist also maintains the other properties such as the plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.


The play has a modern setting. Though the play is set in 1949 , but the times of the play fluctuate between a point in 1942 and another time in 1928. But the shift of time is greatly handled and made convincing through flashbacks. Miller as child of the great depression dramatizes the traumatic years of the Second World War. The action of the play takes place largely inside the Loman home in Brooklyn, but other places in New York and Boston are used as well, including hotel rooms, Willy’s office, a restaurant, and Willy’s gravesite. So, the setting of the tragedy differs from the setting of a classical tragedy. The setting of the play is not a royal palace but the house of poor Willy.


As per as plot is concerned Miller is almost as perfect as the classical dramatists. Structurally the play is stretched tightly like Oedipus Rex. There are no digressions and Willy Loman marches inexorably from the beginning to his catastrophic doom. Like the classical tragedy his death is also not shown on the stage keeping violence offstage, while the Requiem section functions in the manner of a Greek chorus.

Song and spectacle

In a Greek tragedy the songs and spectacle added beauty to the play and helped create environment. Here the flute playing replaces the Greek choral songs and helps create the environment of the play. The spectacle does the same thing.

Tragic hero

But the most important factor in which the play differs from the classical tragedy is the presentation of the tragic hero. According to Miller an “average man” can be an apt subject for tragedy, as exaltation of tragic action is not only for the kings or the kingly but also a property of all men. Willy, an average man, is made the hero of the tragedy. As a hero he does not fully fit into the traditional pattern, but in some respects he comes out as a tragic hero.

Good and bad

At first, Willy is not thoroughly good or thoroughly bad. He lives his family very much and also wants to see his sons in great positions. But at the same time he has a secret relation with a woman. Thus he combines both the good and bad qualities. But once again the elements are very modern in nature. The extramarital affair is certainly a modern problem.

Not noble but human

Willy has not certainly that noble birth to put him on equal footing with such heroes as Oedipus or Hamlet, but still we respond to the sufferings of Willy as we do to Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello and Lear. We respond to them not because of their birth, but because we find a kinship between them and us and can share our humanity.

Tragic flaw

Like a traditional tragic hero Willy also has a tragic flaw, which brings upon his downfall. His flaw is identified as his obsession with his dream. He always give preference to face value and takes it granted for any kind of success in this world. This wrong conception leads him to the act of suicide. His “hubris”, his arrogance, lay in his thinking that he could reach the top in that society. He has become so much part of the system of false value in a materialistic world that he dare not even deign to think of himself as apart from it. He is all the time attempting to become a part of his society. Though it rejects him, he refuses to change his view and continues his struggle upstream. His unwillingness to submit passively to the established order and values takes him down. He has a set idea in his mind about how he wants to be and the way he wants his children to be and he doesn’t go beyond it. Though at an early age he had a chance to change and become like his brother Ben, but chose not to. He is a salesman and refuses to be anything else. So, Willy dies at the hands of his tragic flaws.

Tragic feeling

It is a debatable issue whether the fall of Willy arouses our pity and fear or not. About tragic feeling Miller says “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”. Like the classical tragedy, the play also arouses our feelings of pity and fear. We cannot but feel pity for Willy. He was wrong in his approach to the life and his ability. But his fault does not deserve so harsh a punishment. We also become very fearful after seeing the tragedy of Willy. Willy not only represents the post-depression American middle-class society, but in a larger sense he is Everyman. In our daily life we cannot escape from the inescapable failures of life. After the successful production of the play in China, Miller himself said that Willy is everywhere. We feel for Willy more than a classical hero, because he is an ordinary person like most of us.We can share his feelings and understand his problems. So, the tragedy of Willy arouses our pity and fear in us.

So, we should keep in mind these considerations when we judge Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” as a modern tragedy.