Willy Loman as a Tragic Hero
Willy Loman, the troubled father and husband in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” can be classified as a tragic hero, as defined by Aristotle in his works, “Poetics.” In Aristotle’s text, a tragic hero was defined as one who falls from grace into a state of extreme unhappiness. Willy, as we are introduced to him, becomes increasingly miserable as he progresses from a dedicated, loving father, though not without flaws, into a suicidal, delusional man. The definition of a tragic hero, as stated in “Poetics,” also describes a person who is influential and is of significance to others.
Though, in actuality, Willy Loman may not possess these characteristics, he perceives himself as having them as he cares for himself, his children and his wife. A final distinction noted by Aristotle was that a tragic hero is not a bad person deserving of his impending misfortune, but instead, has made a series of mistakes leading to his downfall. We can see that Willy does not purposely create this harmful situation for himself, he is only ignorant that certain actions of his are wrong, which contribute to his self-ruin. Willy Loman thusly personifies the attributes of a tragic hero as proposed by Aristotle.
Willy, with a house, a car, a job, two sons whom he adores, and a supportive, caring wife, seems to have everything that any man could ever want. He manages, however, to alienate himself from these things that he loves near the end of the play as he slips into a self-induced state of altered reality. Willy, being “…lonely…terribly lonely” (1850) has an affair with a woman during his marriage to Linda. Even though she is not aware of this, or makes no mention of it, he is destroying his greatest source of support. Linda is the only one in the Loman family who seems to never give up on Willy, be it that she does not realize his shortcomings or chooses to ignore them, she remains faithful in every sense to her husband. His relationship with Biff and Happy also becomes strained throughout their lives.
Because Biff was the older son and football star he made his father proud, and Happy was left without the praise that he needed and deserved, as he was always second best. Biff also was the one who caught his father having an affair with the woman, causing friction between himself and Willy. More importantly, Biff is extremely disturbed by his father’s later behavior, including talking to himself, imagining conversations with various people and reacting to his memories of his children as though they were happening at that particular moment. Willy’s job also falls apart from the beginning of the play towards the end. He had been making enough money to support his family, but through his philandering and lackluster sales, he ends up losing his job, eventually.
Willy and his family live in a house, which for an unknown number of years still has a mortgage to be paid off and so, until his death, the family was not even secure in their own home once Willy was fired from his job as salesman. Finally, the family car, a symbol of pride within the Loman household, was destroyed when Willy committed suicide. This was the last example of Willy’s destruction of all that was once important to him. Willy Loman, in this regard, follows Aristotle’s suggestion that the tragic hero has “…a change of fortune… from prosperity to misfortune….” (1303)
Willy Loman sees himself as being extremely important to his family. He has definite financial obligations that go along with his family life as he pays the bills around the house. He has also had the responsibility of raising his sons to be upstanding men, either in his own image or just in terms of society’s expectations. Bringing up Biff and Happy was an important task for him, which he obviously took pride in, as he encouraged them in their athletic abilities and schooling, such as it was. Willy has also had to take care of his wife by providing for her and taking care of her. Always trying to be an example for others, he recognizes these obligations and treats them with respect. From outside their home, in a view other than what we, as readers, are given, the Loman’s may have been considered to be a very successful household, with the accomplishments of all the males in the family being observed, appreciated, and revered.
Willy is primarily a good person. He has made several mistakes in his life that had drastic consequences but, in the end, we can see that they were, in effect, just bad decisions that he has made. Willy did not have an affair with the woman for any reason other than the fact that he was lonely, and likely only seeking attention away from home. This woman did not know that Willy was failing in his life, and so he contented himself with spending time with her when he was supposed to be working. Willy also lost his job because he was not able to make the appropriate number of sales that were required. He had lost his edge, and so did not offer anything appealing to his customers, who stopped buying from him. His affair also had an effect on this as he was on business trips when he met with her, and so was not selling his merchandise. As we can see, Willy was simply disturbed in his actions, and not doing them on purpose to hurt the people in his life.
Through the actions of Willy Loman, and the reactions of those around him, we can see that his character follows the model of a tragic hero presented by Aristotle in his works, “Poetics.” Willy passes through life in a path that begins with prosperity, as evidenced by his possessions and successful family, and ends with misery, when he loses his job, has an affair and commits suicide. Willy also sees himself as responsible for providing for his family, by giving financial support, and a role model for those who need it. He believes he has an effect on people, and so always tries to present a good self-image, regardless of the fact that he does not always succeed. Lastly, we can see that Willy has indeed made mistakes in his life, and we can recognize that they are mistakes and were never intended to harm anyone, but instead to satisfy his own needs. These characteristics then, by Aristotle’s determination, make him not a “wicked man” (1303), and not a virtuous man, but “a man whose place is between these extremes”; (1303) by definition, the tragic hero.