Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy | Arthur Miller |

Arthur Miller’s famous drama “Death of a Salesman” is regarded as one of the most impressive pieces of work of art in the 20th century. It examines the psychological turmoil of the hero named Willy, and the competitive and commercialized society’s influence on his life. “Death of a Salesman” is called modern tragedy because it does not obey the concept of Greek tragedy or the traditional concept of tragedy.

According to the traditional concept of tragedy, the protagonist should be noble and a character of high status or rank. This dignity of the protagonist stimulates our adoration and sympathy for him in spite of his tragic flaw. But Miller’s idea of the tragedy is completely different. Miller dismisses the traditional concept of tragedy and remarks that not only kings but middle-class salesmen like Willy Loman can also be suitable for a tragedy. According to Miller, as much as pity and fear are aroused by the fall of a king, that much pity and fear can be caused by a common man’s struggle against society too. 

American Dream:

The reason for Willy Loman’s tragedy is his own society in which he lives. The cause of his suffering is also the competitive and materialistic nature of American society. In short, Willy Loman becomes a target of the American Dream. Willy thinks that wealth and worldly success can be achieved by means of personal links, contacts, and an attractive personality. Surely Willy is a failed and ineffective salesman, owing to the fact that he misinterprets the underlying idea of the American dream. Willy has completely ignored hard work which actually equals material wealth and success. If Willy had given importance to hard work, he would have taken the job that Charlie had offered and could have attained success and material wealth rather than running after his foolish perception of success and happiness.

Read More: Willy Loman as a tragic hero

The tragedy of a Common man:

In “Death of a Salesman” Miller conveys how the common man is ruined by the mistaken ideas of society. Willy’s interaction with Howard reveals the inhumanity of the commercialized American society.  When Willy asks for a post in New York Howard rejects his request and continues playing his tape recorder without paying much attention to Willy. Willy screams when he is rejected: “You can’t eat orange and throw peel away. Man is not a piece of fruit”. This suggests that in modern tragedy, it is the common man who endures and suffers while in Aristotle’s concept of tragedy kings and queens suffer. 

Read More: American Dream in English Literature

Multiple plots and more than one central character in Modern Tragedy:

Greek tragedies have one integrated and unified plot and a central character around which the entire tragedy revolved. But Modern tragedies have manifold plots and more than one principal character. In “Death of a Salesman”, we can call Willy Loman and his son Biff Loman both protagonists because both of them are running after material success and committing the same mistakes. At the same time, we can also call them one another’s antagonists because Willy’s anticipation of Biff impedes Biff from achieving his goal and Biff’s knowledge of his father’s extra-marital affairs impedes Willy to gain his self-respect or confidence. Furthermore, the drama operates more conventionally in the interplay of subplot and plot. Biff’s struggle to discover his own success outside the conventional American Dream aids the principal plot of Willy struggling to find the purpose of his existence. So Miller has rejected the Aristotelian concept of tragedy by presenting numerous plots and more than one principal character. 

Aristotle’s Poetics and Death of a Salesman:

In his groundbreaking work in the field of tragedy “Poetics” Aristotle states that the plot of a tragedy should at least have a “change of fortune”. Here Fortune denotes fate. If we see in Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, then Willy Loman’s fortune does not change throughout the play. From the beginning to the end of the play Willy is poor and dejected. According to Aristotle, a tragic should be a noble and admired individual. “Death of a Salesman” is a modern tragedy in that the hero is neither a noble-person nor an admired individual; Willy is a poor, working class salesman. Nevertheless he is a tragic character because his tragic flaw – his false ideals of what constitutes a prosperous life – put Willy down. He thinks that being admired and popular is the ultimate recipe of happiness. Willy has totally sidelined hard work which actually equals material success. This is Willy’s hamartia, causing the miserable situations which arises in the play and bringing about his successful suicide attempt. Because Willy has been self-centered and preoccupied with his own false ideals, this “suicide” would be seen as brave and heroic in his own view. This makes Willy’s story without a doubt tragic.    

Read More: Aristotle’s theory of imitation and catharsis

Use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dreams in Modern tragedy:

Unlike classical tragedies, the main plot in modern tragedies has a time span of many weeks, months, or years, and dramatists present this long time with components such as memories, flashbacks, dreams, and flash-forwards. Miller initially named the drama “The Inside of His Head”, which demonstrates that he wanted to convey to the audience what transpires in a person’s mind when his desires are not fulfilled and when he dwells in a world grounded on false ideas. Miller’s technique of going back in past and going forward in the future between the imaginary and real-life permits the audience and reader to experience how the misinterpretation of the American dream has brought about the present condition. This also reveals manifold sides of all the characters that would not have been disclosed if only the contemporary events or circumstances had been depicted. 


So Miller through his drama “Death of a Salesman” has criticized commercialized and competitive American society. In this crazy competition, everyone is busy leaving each other behind. Miller asserts that the competitive society has produced only a wearisome and anxious disruption for the common man. Willy’s tragedy perhaps best realized, in this statement of Linda: “A terrible thing is happening to him. so attention must be paid”. (Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman.) 

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