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Is Willy a Tragic Hero in Death of a Salesman? Essay


"The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. In Death of a Salesman Willy strives to reach the American Dream as he states that before its all over were gonna get a little place out in the country, and ill raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens Willy dreams of success and a wealthy life for himself and his family, he strives to do this and eventually fails, this poses the question, is he a tragic hero?

Going all the way back to the time of Aristotle, there has been a tendency to discuss tragedy in terms of form. This is to say, that one believes that all tragedies must have a certain structure and must portray characteristics common to all tragedies. Aristotle wrote that tragedy is "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament... in the form of drama, not of narrative, through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions." Tragedy must tell of a person who is "highly renowned and prosperous" and who falls as a result of some "error, or frailty," because of external or internal forces, or both. External forces include fate, fortune, the gods, and circumstances. The internal forces include "error or frailty." Aristotle thought, however that only people of high birth could be tragic heroes, since for a lowly born person to come to grief would not be so moving. To be a tragic hero in Aristotelian sense, Willy would have to be a man of obvious virtue who has a tragic flaw that leads to a terrible end. In order for Willy to be a tragic victim, in this sense, however, he must also be admirable and potentially worthwhile, so his death can be seen as a waste and therefore tragic.

When Linda declares Attention must be finally paid to such a person, she is making a plea to recognise the tragic quality of the play. Linda is a woman in an awkward situation. She knows that Willy is suicidal, irrational, and difficult to deal with; however, she goes along with Willys fantasies in order to protect him from the criticism of others, as well as his own self-criticism. Linda is Willys champion. She gently prods him when it comes to paying the bills and communicating with Biff, and she does not lose her temper when he becomes irate. Linda knows that Willy is secretly borrowing money from Charley to pay the life insurance and other bills. She has discovered the rubber hose behind the heater and lives in fear that Willy will try to asphyxiate himself. She is also aware that he has attempted to kill himself several times before. Despite all this, Linda does nothing, afraid to aggravate Willys fragile mental condition. In fact, she even throws Biff and Happy out when their behaviour threatens to upset Willy. In many ways Willy is like a small child, and Linda is like a mother who anxiously protects him from Biff, Happy, and the rest of the world. We tend to view Willy as a tragic hero when we extend our views on tragedy; shouldnt tragedy include the man who failed in life despite his enormous efforts? Is that not a tragedy? Willy worked for nothing, ultimately his life lacked meaning and he could never make ends meet. However

Willy's life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy's father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither money nor a legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely as a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. We feel empathy for Willy Loman, and we note his hard work to live up to his fathers and brothers standards, so he could be considered a tragic hero as he never gets to reach this goal. Willy's father found success in Alaska and his brother, Ben, became rich in Africa; these exotic locales, especially when compared to Willy's dull Brooklyn neighborhood, crystallize how Willy's obsession with the commercial world of the city has trapped him in an unpleasant reality. He tells his children, The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich! Whereas Alaska and the African jungle symbolize Willy's failure, the American West, on the other hand, symbolizes Biffs potential. Biff realizes that he has been content only when working on farms, out in the open. His westward escape from both Willy's delusions and the commercial world of the eastern United States suggests a nineteenth-century pioneer mentality that Biff, unlike Willy, recognizes the importance of. These motifs emphasize Willys error and frailty and the high hopes he had for Biff, hopes that Biff didnt share.

His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, who Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy's ambitions for him, when he finds out about Willy's adultery. Biff's ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank's Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cusp of greatness, Biff shatters Willy's illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.

In Willy's mind, his suicide takes on heroic proportions. He believes it renders him a martyr, since he believes that the insurance money from his sacrifice will allow Biff to fulfill the American Dream. Additionally, Ben's final hymn of The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds turns Willy's suicide into a metaphorical moral struggle. Suicide, for Willy, constitutes both a final ambition to realize the Dream and the ultimate selfless act of giving to his sons. According to Ben, the noble death that Willy seeks is not like an appointment at all but like a diamond, rough and hard to the touch. In the absence of any true self-knowledge, Willy is able, at least, to achieve a physical result with his suicide. In this way, Willy does experience a sort of revelation; he understands that the product he sells is himself and that his final sale is his own life. Through the imaginary advice of Ben, Willy ultimately believes his earlier assertion to Charley that after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive. Here again we see Willys positive values and his selfless act, here he can be referred to as a tragic hero. Nevertheless it is arguable that it is not heroic to kill oneself in the hope that his ambition will be realized.

Arthur Miller, in his play Death of a Salesman argues for a broader definition of tragedy which would encompass Willy Loman. He states that the common man may also gain size by his willingness to throw everything he has into the contest. On the other hand, it is arguable that nowadays tragic heroes are fully responsible for their actions. An Aristotelian tragic hero is overcome by external forces, but Willy clearly has the option of rejecting them.It would be tragic if someone with good intentions died because he mistook the means of realising them, but not, perhaps, if a man with the wrong ideas fell foul of them. Biff said that Willy had the wrong dreams, and thus the tragic fate might be deserved. Willy doesnt die because he realises he cannot succeed in a great life, but because death is the way he will succeed in his mind. Nobody makes Willy commit suicide. However Willy Loman can be viewed as a tragic hero as he is aware of emptiness and a need in his life which his actions do not fulfil, this is to say that he doesnt have a clear path ahead of him, because if he did, he could avoid his tragic fate.

To conclude, it is arguable whether Willy really is a tragic hero. Factors such as his selflessness and his enormous efforts to financially keep his family can be viewed as heroic. Willy wants the best for his sons and wife. He strives to be successful to give his family a good life; this is mirrored in his hard work, even at sixty three years of age. Nevertheless some factors lead us to believe that Willy is not so heroic, as he contemplates and eventually commits suicide. He also commits adultery and doesnt teach his sons important morals and values. He encourages stealing, cheating and adultery. We recognize his immense efforts and pity him when he makes statements such as a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man. Willy Loman can be seen as a fighter, the man knew what he wanted and fought for it, he tried to keep his job, he says that You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit. We tend to argue that Willy failed in fulfilling his dream, to make it big; however Biff points out that "He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong."

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