Arthur Miller states in his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” ” . . . we are often held to be below tragedy–or tragedy below us . . . (tragedy is) fit only for the highly placed . . . and where this admission is not made in so many words it is most often implied.” However, Miller believes ” . . . the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were” (1021). It is this belief that causes Miller to use a common man, Willie Loman, as the subject of his tragedy, Death of a Salesman. Miller redefines the tragic hero to fit a more modern age, and the product of this redefinition is Willie.
Miller states, ” . . . the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life . . . to secure one thing, his sense of personal dignity” (1021). Willie is no exception. Willie’s sense of personal dignity is primarily found in his family, most notably his son Biff. Willie transfers his dreams of being great onto Biff and, when Biff is a failure in the world, these dreams affect Willie’s self-image and sense of personal dignity. To regain this personal dignity, Willie must make Biff great. In the end, it is the love for his son and the belief that his insurance money will make Biff “magnificent” that give him the needed excuse and cause him to end his life.
“Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly” (1021). It is the nature of man to make evaluations of himself based upon his peers. Willie’s peer with whom he evaluates himself is Charley. Willie and Charley are about the same age, their children grew up together, and have been friends for many years. Charley has achieved what Willie has dreamed of for so long. Charley’s son is a successful lawyer, whereas Biff is a loafer. Charley is successful in business, whereas Willie has “washed out.” As mentioned before, for Willie to be great, Biff must be great. Willie has failed his job in making Biff better than Charley’s son, therefore he fails his evaluations of himself.
“The flaw . . . is really nothing . . . but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity . . . ” (1021). Willie’s dignity is also challenged by his lack of success in business and in the raising of his son. Willie’s “unwillingness to remain passive” manifests itself in his desire to kill himself. Willie believes that once he kills himself his son will be great, therefore so will he. His refusal to remain passive makes him the modern-day tragic hero, according to Miller’s redefinition.