Common Man as Tragic Hero in Death of a Salesman
What is tragedy? While the literal definition may have changed over the centuries, one man believed he knew the true meaning of a tragic performance. Aristotle belonged to the culture that first invented tragic drama – the ancient Greeks. Through this, he gave himself credibility enough to illustrate the universally necessary elements of tragic drama. In The Poetics, Aristotle gives a clear definition of a tragedy, writing that it is “an imitation, through action rather than narration, of a serious, complete, and ample action, by means of language rendered pleasant at different places in the constituent parts by each of the aids [used to make language more delightful], in which imitation there is also effected through pity and fear its catharsis of these and similar emotions.” Basically, Aristotle thinks a tragedy should be witnessed rather than related, use poetic imagery instead of dry language, and have a logical flow with an inevitable conclusion at the end that evokes a heightened emotional response from the audience.
Ever since Aristotle applied logic to art in The Poetics, playwrights from all time periods and cultures have attempted to prove him wrong. Utilizing intuition and writing from the soul, many have succeeded and many have failed. However, the most commercially successful theatrical performances have tended to follow Aristotle’s rules of drama.
Aristotle maintained that all tragedies be driven by plot and that the characters simply be plugged into the story line. Leading the charge is the Tragic Hero, the man (not woman) who ultimately suffers the tragic fate. As defined in The Poetics, the Tragic Hero is, “the man of much glory and good fortune who is not [too] superior in excellence and uprightness and yet does not come into his misfortune because of baseness and rascality but through some inadequacy or positive fault.” When speaking of a character of “much glory and good fortune,” Aristotle was referring to kings and nobles, whose lives were highly revered. The fall of a king or a man of great power served as the basis for Aristotle’s perfect tragedy. As centuries have passed, however, the world has evolved into a place with very few kings, but does this mean the modern experience is devoid of tragedy?
With his 1949 play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller proved such was not the case. The story of traveling salesman Willy Loman, his feeble relationship with his eldest son, and his professional failure demonstrated that tragedy could be translated into the modern world. Although Death of a Salesman holds true to many aspects of the Aristotelian ideal with its linear plot and ultimate resolution, Arthur Miller did successfully challenge the definition of one of the philosopher’s tragic elements – that of the Tragic Hero.
The character of Willy Loman is true to his allegorical name. He is a “low man.” He is far from being a king or a nobleman,...