According to Aristotle, the appeal of tragedy, at its foundation, is katharsis: a purgation of the emotions pity and fear (Kennedy and Gioia 1203). Although scholars do not entirely agree on his meaning, it seems Aristotle had observed something that rings true today: that witnessing a person falling from the apex of achievement, to become humbled and utterly ruined, is inexplicably pleasurable. This is seldom more obvious today than in the keen attention paid to politicians embroiled in scandal, or celebrities having public meltdowns. Like the dramatic tragedies throughout the ages, those observing cannot help but become transfixed. When observed in literature or television it is harmless entertainment, often prompting deep reflection. When played out in the real world, it becomes a guilty pleasure. It often arouses disgust, yes, but also pity and fear.
In Aristotle’s view, the protagonist of a tragedy must be someone whose misfortune could impact many, such as “a king or queen or other member of the royal family” (Kennedy and Gioia 1203). In some ways, it is inarguably it is more dramatic to witness the downfall of a person of great importance, as the resultant mess is quite spectacular. However, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is evidence that the tragic descent of the common man can be equally riveting. Moreover, if a proper tragedy should cause the audience to experience fear and pity, the ruination of an unremarkable person should hit much closer to home. Despite being separated by 2400 years, and having vastly different contexts, the tragedies Death of a Salesman and Oedipus the King both tell the story of a man doomed by too much pride and too little information.
In experiencing the unravelling of the lives of both Sophocles’ incestuous hero, King Oedipus, and Arthur Miller’s piteously vitriolic Willy Loman, the reader will almost certainly be stirred to empathy. Both men are condemned by things that they do not understand. For Oedipus, his ignorance of his lineage is his primary fault, ultimately leaving him “damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, [d]amned in the blood he shed with his own hand” (Sophocles 1235). Even with the knowledge that he was destined to kill his father and wed his mother, his ignorance of his birth is his undoing. Willy’s ignorance is less tangible: he doesn’t understand what it takes to become successful, nor does seem to have a flexible definition of what success is. His narrow view precludes him from finding work he enjoys, robs him of time with his family, and leave him alienated from his adult children. This leaves him doubly bitter at the end, as he has emerged a failure, and he hasn’t even enjoyed life along the way. While neither man is truly blameless in his troubles, it is difficult to suppress empathy for those who are ruined by ignorance. Neither man could know that he did not know.
Likewise, both men are confronted with truths over the course of the story which they failed...