Willy Loman as a tragic hero | Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is a famous modern tragedy in which Miller portrayed Willy Loman as a tragic hero. Miller has created Willy Loman’s character to display a person disarranged and disorganized in the world of which he was a member.

It is true that Willy Loman is not like the tragic heroes of ancient Greeks or Shakespearean tragedies but Willy Loman’s struggle with his situation and the decisions he takes in his life and the way his decisions impact him and his family make Willy Loman’s character a tragic hero in the modern sense of term.

Tragedy of a common man:

The main feature of a tragic hero is that a tragic hero should be a person of great ability and responsibility. The concept behind this was that if the tragic hero is a person of great ability and influence, a monarch, for example, then their deeds and actions bear extensive consequences. But Miller thinks: “common man is as apt subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (Tragedy and the Common Man, Arthur Miller). Even though Willy is just a salesman, this is what adds totality and universality to the tragedy. In view of this standpoint, Willy may not be regarded as an Aristotelian or Greek concept of tragic hero in the modern sense of the term. 

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Sympathize with the hero: 

Another key aspect of a tragic hero is that a tragic hero should evoke pity and fear in the spectators, and the spectators should also feel sympathy towards the tragic hero. As regards to plot, this signifies that the spectators already know why a tragic hero is doing a certain act and what is going to be the result of that action. Because of this, the audience feels sympathetic towards that tragic hero. If we see Willy Loman keeping this criterion in mind, the audience can notice distinctly what Willy seeks to achieve such as reputation and material wealth. So the audience may not sympathize with Willy Loman because all the problems he faced in his life were all due to his greed or pride. So Miller didn’t want the audience of “Death of a Salesman” to show sympathy for Willy but Miller wanted his spectators to recognize the social and economic aspects of society which led to the collapse of Willy Loman.

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 Learn from mistake:

According to the Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero, the protagonist, or the other characters in the play, and notably the spectators, must take in something from the tragic hero’s error in life. This quality provides substance to their tragedy, and like a moral tale, adds utility and universality to the work. But if we read “The Requiem” portion of the tragedy, it shows that the family members of Willy have not learned anything from Willy’s mistake. Willy’s son Happy asserts: “I am not licked that easily. I’m staying right in this city, and I’m gonna beat this racket!” (Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller”).

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This statement reveals that even now Happy thinks that he can be successful by pursuing the same path that his father follows.  Linda, who is the wife of Willy Loman, comments that “we are free” i.e. free of debt. It is also an ironic statement because it conveys that only death truly emancipates a person from this materialized and competitive society. 

Willy’s flashbacks and memories:

Willy Loman, the protagonist of the “Death of a Salesman”, again and again goes back to past memories, at times even blending them with the present moment. However, these past memories are not nostalgic and emotional, instead those memories are the hidden secrets to Willy’s current condition of psychological and emotional deterioration. 

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Willy’s recollections are barely soothing flights into romanticized days gone by. Instead, they are disturbing expeditions that get to the core of his disorder. When Willy remembers about the past, he recalls shouting at Linda about the conditions of her stockings, disregarding Biff’s misconduct of young women, ignoring Happy and so on. Each and every one of these past moments discloses one of Willy’s weaknesses: his incapacity to see Biff without any prejudice, his delinquency over his infidelity, his uneven attachment for Biff and Happy and so on. If Willy’s going back to the past were completely escapist, he would be interested in the joyous times of his life. Rather, he prefers the moments at which he acted in surprisingly distasteful ways. This propensity implies that Willy desires self-knowledge. He wishes to examine how he got into his current plight and he senses that the solution must be in his past. 

Willy’s endeavors at self-examination fail not only because he surrenders himself entirely to his past; but his intense feelings are not in equilibrium by calm analytic thinking. Willy is inherently helpless of examining his own manners, and understanding errors he has made. He has numerous defects. He honestly makes an effort to understand, but the truth is that he is unable to do so. 


In the end we can say that even though Willy Loman does not fit into the criteria of what Aristotle and ancient Greeks explained as a “tragic hero.” But the way Miller showed the tragedy of a common man and the way he included social reality described by the setting, make the tragedy “Death of a Salesman a distinctive and gripping experience. 

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