Can 'Death of a Salesman' be Described as a Tragedy?

Authors Avatar

Can Death of a Salesman be Described as a Tragedy?

Aristotle first defined a tragedy in literature as a story where the main character is a hero – a very brilliant person – except that he has one major flaw which leads to his downfall, namely, death. Shakespeare then expanded on this and produced his world famous tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet. In all of these plays, the main character is a person of high social standing and exceptionally talented, however each has a very serious flaw as well. For example, Romeo is of Italian nobility and is very efficient with a sword and dagger – but he is a fool for love and falls in love with Juliet as soon as he sees her, despite already being in love with Rosaline beforehand. That is the flaw which eventually leads to his demise. This definition has over time become the benchmark for a tragedy.

Arthur Miller was an immigrant to the USA and can be seen as the opposite of Willy. Willy, however, is a proud born and bred American and holds to heart the very fundamentals of the American Dream – a very capitalistic ethos. Miller, on the other hand, had communist beliefs which eventually landed him in trouble with the government. Both Death of a Salesman and another of Miller’s plays, All My Sons both have the foundations of the American Dream and also both secretly criticize the capitalistic belief. In Death of a Salesman, Willy dies just trying to live the American Dream and he never gives up on it – an indication of his extreme optimism in all things – despite how blatantly unrealistic achieving the American Dream was for him.

 The characterisation of Willy Loman is also quite interesting. He strives to be like a very old, successful salesman he met that worked from home, who when he died, numerous people he knew went to his funeral. He is someone everyone can relate to and make us love him, but he also has qualities that we all loathe and make us hate him at times. This is purposefully done by Miller to only make it more shocking when Willy dies in the end – despite it is made quite obvious to readers it is inevitable. His name is also carefully planned out by Miller – Willy is an average name and nothing special, but his surname is a clear reference to what he is. ‘Loman’ – ‘low man’ is clearly meant to show how ordinary he is, despite just how much Willy strives to be the opposite. Willy’s main character flaw is that he is just too proud. For example, when he is offered a job by Charley – his neighbour – after being fired, Willy straight out refuses and is quite offended as he sees it as giving up and asking for help. This is shown by when Willy says, “I don’t want your goddam job!”, after Charley politely offers him a good one. Willy’s strong beliefs in the American Dream are also shown when he says, “A man can’t go out the way he came in, Ben, a man has to add up to something”, by ‘coming in’, Willy means when a man is born and by “going out”, Willy means when a man dies. Also, “adding up to something” must mean being rich in Willy’s context. This follows the American Dream in that a man makes something of himself from nothing. Willy’s greatest fear has always been dying with nothing – exactly what happens in the end. A use of dramatic irony by Miller, Willy willingly fulfils his own utmost fear. That quotation is also foreshadowing Willy’s death – another intentional device by Miller. Besides his pride, another flaw of Willy is very poor and deteriorating mental health and he is subject to random flashbacks and hallucinations – often of his dead and once very successful older brother, Ben, someone Willy idolizes. An example of one of his hallucinations is when Willy says, “Ben, I’ve been waiting for so long”, despite Ben being dead at this point.

Join now!

The play is also cleverly structured by Miller. Music – for example a flute – plays in the background during some scenes for an added dramatic effect. This flute is heard in both the opening and ending scene. The play also makes heavy use of flashbacks, but sometimes a flashback scene plays on stage at the same time as the scene set in the present. This technique is seen in Act Two, while Willy is in the restaurant with Biff and Happy. On the whole, the structure is skilfully used to make the storyline more immersive to the audience. Although, ...

This is a preview of the whole essay

Here's what a star student thought of this essay

The structure here is impressive. There is a clear introduction which poses a strong argument, and the conclusion comes to a justified judgement. I do feel that the fact they've gone for a balanced argument makes the conclusion weaker. Instead of saying it depends on how you define it, argue that it is a tragedy based on the definition you introduce. The style here is superb and allows for a convincing argument. This essay has excellent craft, and spelling, punctation and grammar are faultless.

The analysis here is good. I really liked the definitions of tragedy, as this allows a cogent argument. I would note that Arthur Miller wrote an essay on the tragedy of a common man, and it seems foolish not to cite this in an essay regarding his play! Language and structure are coherently analysed. I liked how music was discussed, and I would've taken this further to look at Miller's use of mobile concurrencies of past and present. It's nice to see analysis beyond imagery and language, as structure is another key part to the tragedy. I would've liked to have seen a bit more focus on the audience response, allowing an exploration of why Miller chooses to have Willy become a tragic hero. Such discussion would show a deep understanding of why techniques are chosen, allowing the top marks to be awarded. Context is weaved in well, and it is very sophisticated how this essay links in tragedy with Shakespeare's texts and others.

This essay engages superbly with the question. There is a sustained focus on the question, which means the argument is convincing. It was nice to see there was still a good level of analysis, as a question like this can often confuse candidates into simply asserting and commenting. Analysis needs to be the foundation of any essay, and this essay manages this well. I have one problem with this essay, and that is the way it poses both sides of the argument in a balanced way. In English Literature, it's not good enough to say "both sides present a convincing case". If I were answering this question, I would've picked a definition of tragedy which clearly shows Willy is a tragic hero and stick to the argument. To strengthen the essay, I would've added that other interpretations can be read, but they aren't as strong and explain why. This would've meant the essay was more succinct and concise.