Death of a Salesman Essay
Discuss the importance of the scene in which Howard fires WillyHow far and in what ways does it develop your understanding of him as a tragic figure?
In my opinion, the scene in which Willy is made redundant by Howard greatly develops the understanding of Willy Loman as a tragic figure. Throughout the scene Willys warped beliefs and values are portrayed to us, helping us to develop a deeper understanding of his emotional and mental anguish; and although the play shows only a short section of his life, we get a clear view of Willys rapidly descending mental state. In being enabled to have such access, we easily view the sharp distinction between the crazed, ignorant fantasy world in which Willy finds himself frequently placed, and the harsh reality of the society in which he lives. We see how Willys opinions and thoughts on himself differ from how he is viewed by others both at home and in the workplace. Therefore the scene in which Willy is fired is crucial in developing our understanding of him to show us how Willy can be viewed as a tragic figure.
In Aristotles era, a tragic hero was described by him as someone great or of importance, who had fallen from grace, someone whos fall from grace was a fatal flaw that came from the person themselves, making them responsible. Although Willy Loman does not fit this description of a tragic hero as he was not a man of great importance, I would argue that his far-fetched beliefs and obscure views are the reason for his downfall.
Another way of defining a tragic figure was the authors beliefs on what a tragic figure was. Arthur Millers thoughts on tragic figures show how he believed that the common man is just as apt a subject for tragedy as kings are. As far as this definition goes, Willy Loman fits this description. We view Willy as a common man, as during this scene Howard refers to a new voice recorder he had purchased, and marvels at the cost, saying it was only a hundred. Willy is in debt and obviously cannot afford it, yet he lies because he is too proud or possibly too ashamed- to admit this, telling Howard I think Ill get myself one. Willy becomes a common and a figure which can be related to in saying this, as he represents the common man who, unlike Howard, could not afford such luxury items. This allows the audience to sympathise with Willys position.
Willys warped sense of reality shows us that he honestly believes he is well liked and that he is well known by people all across the country in the sales business. He also seemed to genuinely think that all these things are what contributed to his success, when in reality as far as his own values went, he was a failure. I personally believe this greatly contributes to what makes him a tragic figure. His refusal to accept the truth is his own fault that leads to his downfall, making him a tragic figure.
The fact that Willy tells Linda that he is coming back with a New York job from his meeting with Howard portrays that he is openly confident in himself, however, when he gets to Howards office his faade quickly evaporates as he meekly says like to have a little talk to you Howard. This pushes the audience to see that his mind is rapidly declining.
During the scene in which Willy goes to visit Howard, we are shown how he is treated in reality. Howard ignores him, dismisses what he is saying, and even tells him to shut up! at one stage, thus showing his lack of respect for Willy. When Willy is trying to speak, Howard says Shh, and continues to admire his new voice recorder. This shows that to Howard, Willy was less significant and nowhere near as important as a machine. This certainly expands the understanding of Willy as a tragic figure, as he is clearly dubbed unimportant in the one place he holds dear and considers to be most important. This reveals that Willy is NOT as important as he tells people he is. Matthew Roudan voices the opinion that Willy does not fit in with the industrialised world, and in my opinion I believe he was right in saying so, ad it is obvious that Willy does not belong in the line of work he so much loves.
The fact that Howard matter-of-factly asks you didnt crack up again, did you? shows how little he values Willys declining state of mind and that he has little concern about the issues with his escalating mental instability previously in the workplace. This truly shows how little he is thought of in reality compared to how he portrays himself to his family and friends. Howard states once he has fired Willy - Business is business, a harsh,thing to say to a man who has worked in the sales industry longer than he himself had lived. Willy quickly replies to this saying but just listen for a minute almost as if to demand that his voice be heard. His demand was not met, yet another sign that he is not as well respected as he has convinced both himself and his family he is.
In his twistedly unreal way of thinking, Willy is under the impression that people view him they way he wishes to be viewed. He seems to think that he is 'popular or well liked, boasts about this on a regular basis; although his desperation shines out to the audience as he saysI have friends repeatedly in the script, as if not only to convince others...but to reassure himself. Once again, this makes his mental instability apparent.
We are also able to see the lack of respect from Howard to Willy before they even start conversing, when Howard says Sorry to keep you waiting. and then, as though the apology was just a formality he continues Ill be with you in a minute. This shows quite clearly the little respect Willy is given at work, as Willy has clearly been there a while. This indirectly points the audience to believe that Howard will show just as little respect regarding how long willy has been working for the company he inherited from his father.
Eleanor Clark wrote It is, of course, the capitalist system that has done Willy in, which points us to believe that Willy is but an unfortunate victim of the society in which he grew up and became engrossed in. In this scene, we see a Willy drop his constant pride, beg Howard If I had forty dollars a week- thats all I need.In doing this, he helps us with our understanding of him as a tragic hero, as we see his vulnerable side. Willy also tells the story of why he wanted to be a salesman, and how Dave Singleman was an inspiration to him, saying I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.
Howard ignores this deeply personal memory, as Howard and people in his line of work believe, and Howard stated business is business. He then fires Willy. Willy refuses to listen to Howard at this point, almost shouting in anger as he says you cant eat an orange, and throw the peel away; a man is not a piece of fruit! , and this quote displays Willy's anger and frustration at Howard's dismissal of all the work he had done over the years. Is Willy to blame for his own downfall here?or is he just a cruel victim of society's reality? Willys sad yet persistent attempt to achieve the 'American dream' strongly suggests he is a victim of a consumerist society.
However, it could be argued that Willy is to blame and should take responsibility for his own downfall, as he relied too heavily on his beliefs, values and morals. In this way we can view him as a tragic hero. In this scene he DOES let down his walls to beg Howard for a job, but immediately, almost by reflex he tries to defend himself stammering Im just a little tired. Once again his pride gets in his way of his other emotions.
In conclusion I believe that Willy Loman cannot be to blame for his own downfall solely based on his actions. Although he has too much pride, and refused to give in and bend his morals, I believe that it is also partially to do with the society he lives in, and the career in which he worked so lovingly despite the lack of respect he was shown. Several aspects of the play and this scene contributed to my understanding of Willy as a tragic figure, as did the opinions of the others which I have quoted. His morals could be the sole reason for his downfall, but on the other hand it could be argued it was the society in which he grew and thrived teamed with the stress of his career. The play fully displays Willy's slow downfall, despite only showing a segment of the history from which came his mental instability, and in my opinion, Miller uses the entire play from the beginning to create a fond sympathy for Willy Loman, and his eventual demise.
(Word count : 1553)
Blooms guide Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman, Chelsea House Publications; annotated edition (January 2006)
Arthur Miller, "Tragedy and the Common Man," from The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller (Viking Press, 1978)
The play/script of Death of a salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)