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Common Man Tragedy In Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman

1849 words - 7 pages

The idea of dramatic tragedy is a classical one, discussed in Aristotle's Poetics. Before it can be established as to whether Miller really has written a tragedy or not, the very concept of tragedy must be investigated. Aristotle asserted, 'Tragedy is a representation, an imitation, of an action.1? He went on to outline the common features tragic drama must have. Tragedy has six elements, which, in order of importance, are: plot, character, thought, music, language, and spectacle. The plot requires peripeteia, anagnorisis, and cathartic effect. It must take place in one day, in one setting, with a unity of plot (i.e. all tragic, no comic subplot). The character must be ?good? (there is some debate as to the vague nature of this word), be 'true to type', be consistent in behaviour, be a great man (that is, to be representative of a whole society), and have one single tragic flaw. Thought is exactly that; the ideas that the speakers express in language. Music is also self-explanatory. As for language and spectacle, the development of these is the perpetual instinct of drama to struggle closer and closer to real life.

Willy Loman's character does adhere to the tragic hero guidelines to a certain extent. Rather than being a man who is a representative of a society, he represents society. His allegorical name of 'Loman' or 'Low-man' allowed Miller to twist the formula somewhat. He is true to type in that he dreams the American Dream, and subscribes to the desire for money and material possessions in capitalist society. Whether Willy is a 'good' man is debatable; his affair would indicate that he is not, his wife dotes on him, and Biff is crushed by the discovery of the mistress, so much so that he loses all faith in his father, and eventually rejects his way of life (although with good reason).

In terms of plot, Aristotle?s definition of peripeteia is somewhat different than the dictionary definition. By his peripeteia, Aristotle means the tragic effect of human effort producing exactly the opposite result to its intention, the irony of human blindness4. The character of Willy Loman is appropriate to this meaning; his intention was to make his fortune, and thus, by his own values, become a success. He devoted his life to the belief that popularity and loyalty were the keys to achieve this end. Miller has relayed this to the reader via the use of ?flashbacks? from Willy?s already ?failed? life. The reader is therefore able to see how Willy?s faith was misplaced. He didn?t realise that his beliefs were outmoded concepts, and that materialism reigned, despite the fact that he himself was a victim of that materialistic world (the refrigerator, the awe at the tape recorder, Biff?s sneakers, even his own success ethic). Willy clung to the idea of Ben [his brother] as the personification of success, but he didn?t hear what Ben was telling him about success5. Willy believed it to be a matter of personality:

Willy: ?It?s not...

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