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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is an appropriate illustration of a tragedy as defined by Aristotle in his Poetics. Willy Loman is the protagonist in Miller’s famous play and has attributes that qualify him as a tragic hero. The Aristotelian tragedy entails the fall of a high esteem person such as a king or ruler as a result of their weakness also known as a tragic flaw. The tragic hero according to Aristotle is brought down by an error also known as harmatia. A tragedy is a serious play that evokes emotions among the audience who pity with the tragic hero. Aristotle also held that a tragedy ought to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in among the audience through catharsis and purge those emotions. Additionally, Aristotelian tragedy has six elements namely plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song or music. The play Death of Salesman by Arthur Miller qualifies to be a tragedy as defined by Aristotle.
Willy Loman as the protagonist could be said to be the tragic hero in Miller’s play. Unlike the classical or Aristotelian tragedy whereby the hero suffers from an excessive pride, Willy’s tragic flaw is evidenced in his obsession with illusionary vision. Willy is used by the playwright to address the elusiveness of the American dream that would forever remain nothing but an illusion to most people. The protagonist remained fixated in his vision of becoming a successful salesman to the extent that he did not see the harm he was causing himself and the others close to him. Significantly, Willy could be said to have pride to some extent in that he refused to accept reality and continued to believe in his vision.
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Willy was once an influential member of the society as a renowned businessman but had fallen from grace to a state of disillusionment and unhappiness. Aristotle regarded tragedy as a serious play with a sad or tragic ending. Miller’s play is as a tragedy emphasized in how Willy ended up committing suicide after realizing that he would never be successful. Willy could not have lived with the harsh reality that he failed from achieving his vision and that he was a terrible husband and father which compelled him to seek refuge in death. Willy left his family with nothing that they could inherit from him in addition to the grief of losing a father and a husband. The protagonist opted for death since he could not adapt to change as he continually made mistakes throughout his life.
The protagonist faces various obstacles as the play develops. Willy was his own biggest obstacle as he failed to accept his shortcomings and failure. Instead of living with the reality and striving to become a better person, Willy opted for the easy way out and committed suicide. Willy made many mistakes in his life, but the fact that he failed to admit that he was wrong gives the play a tragic element. The failure of Willy weighs down on the protagonist, and he leads a miserable life eventually committing suicide. Willy also has to deal with his failing health as he grows older but still sticks to his vision of becoming successful. Willy was no longer as effective in his work as he used to be when he was younger. “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up more dead than alive” (Miller, 1823). Willy’s thoughts foreshadowed the protagonist’s tragic ending when he decided to take his life.
Miller’s play is a tragedy based not only on the protagonist but also on other characters especially his family. The play is about the failure of a husband who drags his entire family to doom as well. Willy had two sons, but it is apparent that they would inherit his failure and also lead miserable lives in poverty. Willy’s son Biff might have become successful had he accepted to go to college and become a footballer. Willy’s wife Linda is also left in dismay since just like her sons were entirely dependent on Willy. The play is a tragedy since it ends on a sad note with the family being destined to lead a miserable life after the death of their provider. Willy’s entire family gives the play tragic elements as Miller uses the characters to create an atmosphere of misfortune, failure, despair, and tragedy. The play is also a tragedy since it arouses the emotions of pity and fear among the audience.
Miller’s playsuits the Aristotelian guidelines of a tragedy, but the playwright strives to imitate or create a new form of modern tragedy. Miller wrote his famous play in the post world war II era during which the nation was recovering from the toll of war. Miller addressed the aspect of the American dream and its tragic outcomes. Willy was used by Miller to describe the ordinary American citizens who struggle with such issues as financial challenges, parenting roles, and marriage among others. Willy was not the only salesman who led a difficult life as depicted in “… he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers and smoker… hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at the funeral” (Miller, 1814). Additionally, it is important to note that Miller’s play does not entirely fulfill the Aristotelian definition of a tragedy.
Aristotle holds that a tragic hero has to have a noble background, but Willy as the protagonist is just but an ordinary man. “I don’t say he’s 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” (Miller, 1802). However, Willy plays a central role in developing the play as a tragedy as evidenced in how he committed suicide. Lastly, Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a perfect illustration of the modern tragedy that follows the guidelines of the Aristotelian tragedy through the use of such characters as Willy Loman and his family to arouse emotions of pity and sadness among the audience.
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