Willy Loman, Tragic Hero or Selfish Individual?
Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is often referred to as a tragic hero who is forced to commit suicide to valiantly save his family from the “elusive” American Dream. The majority of critics give readers the impression that Willy was a selfless man that worked himself to death in order to support his family and ensure their success and happiness. He is portrayed as a hard worker with a life full of tribulations and challenges. However, his hard work never seemed to pay off and instead he found himself living the American nightmare. Unfortunately his true character and image is constantly being distorted and readers constantly fall into the trap of believing Willy Loman is a tragic hero, whom deserves nothing less than respect and sympathy. However, after complete understanding of the play one realizes that Willy Loman brought all his misfortunes upon himself due to his warped mindset about success, his dedication in acquiring the approval of others, and his tunnel vision that was only directed towards money and wealth.
Critic Bert Cardullo summarizes this whole play by claiming, “What is left in this play is neither a critique of the business world nor an adult vision of something different and better. Rather, it’s the story of a man (granting he was sane) who failed as a salesman and father, and made things worse by refusing to admit those failures, which he knew to be true,” (Cardullo 9). Not only did Willy Loman refuse to admit his constant failings, he also abruptly ends his own life at the end of the play, which should not grant him the title and status of tragic hero, instead Willy should be considered a selfish and arrogant salesman who’s constant failings lead him to commit suicide in order to escape from his dead end life.
Willy Loman, Tragic Hero or Selfish Individual? Essay Example
Critics across the world agree on very few issues when it comes to analyzing literature. However, critics were able to come to a common consensus in defining a tragic hero. All tragic heroes have common characteristics such as wisdom, a flaw or error, recognition that their own actions is leading down the wrong path, and a reversal of fortune. When comparing Willy Loman to the common archetype of the tragic hero he does not come close to fitting the mold all critics agree upon. Through his actions and business endeavors only realizes that Willy Loman lacks any type of wisdom. His constant failures also show that he refuses to recognize the action’s he has taken have been the wrong ones and therefore his difficulties were self inflicted. As the play begins Willy Loman appears to be a salesman hit hard by America’s capitalistic society, which leaves him with most of his unsold merchandise at the end of the day and a family that he is unable to provide for.
The fact that he must travel hours on end to attempt a sales deal, and go through many inconveniences to keep his commission-based job, and still have to borrow money from his successful neighbor, portrays Willy as a man who has no luck and is in a desperate state. However, as the story progresses Willy Loman displays a great deal of stubbornness and an irrational understanding of success. His only concern in life is to achieve the elusive American Dream. Unfortunately, “in a country with an every-man-a-king theology the delusion of royalty is a powerful drug, a dangerous dream. And Miller argued that the fall, on waking up, can be fatal, can meet the demands of tragedy,”(Corliss). The reader realizes early on that Willy did not truly understand what the American Dream meant and that he was headed down the wrong road.
Willy is in this position of desperation because he acts like he is working hard to support his family when in reality he is only consumed with acquiring wealth and status. During one of Willy’s flashbacks he says, “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him…Be liked and you will never want,” (Miller 935).
Willy is advocating that education is a waste of time. He attempts to convince his son that high marks in school may seem nice for the time being, however in the business world they mean nothing. Willy Loman is an emotionally stunted father that refuses to act his age and is setting the worst of precedents for his two sons (Thompson). How can a man with such a mindset be given the honor and title of tragic hero? All archetypes for tragic heroes mention wisdom early on the list of characteristics. If Willy had a bit of wisdom he would emphasize the importance of his children’s education. Rather he explains that success and happiness come from the approval of others. Although his job is clearly heading in the wrong direction, he does not press pause and try to turn his situation around. Instead he dedicates his time and effort to other minuscule causes such as seeking approval of his counterparts.
Willy is a salesman with high goals and expectations. It is common knowledge that success and achievement of goals is due to a definitive plan and determination. As a salesman Willy must understand that his success will only come from making sales. Rather than spending time he will never get back trying to seek approval, he must spend that time reaching out to new potential clientele and trying to convince them to buy his product.
Unfortunately, at this point in the play, Willy has reached the age of senior citizenship and the reader realizes that he spent countless time running after a dream with the wrong game plan. Instead of focusing all his efforts on making sales and finding new clientele, he spent a large portion of his time with people who would not benefit him and chasing after selfish causes. He was completely blinded by the opportunity of achieving high status. He did not realize that status would take away from the success and advancement of his business. One would think that with age comes wisdom. Willy has been working in sales for as long as he can remember yet he was never able to recognize that his actions were taking him through a cycle of failure. He is not able to understand that success comes with hard work and dedication.
At this point Willy is at a dead end. He refuses to actually put some work and effort into his business endeavors. He is at a point where everything that lay before him was composed of difficulties, trials, and tribulations. He led himself into a state of extreme poverty and he was relying on the financial support of his neighbor to provide for his family. Unfortunately, Willy had too much pride to speak to his family about the situation he has put himself into.
He felt that eventually he would be able to work his way back up the ladder, however he was digging himself into a deeper hole with each new day. With all these difficulties the reader is compelled to feel sympathy for this helpless character which is a characteristic of a tragic hero; however he did not deserve an ounce of sympathy because a true tragic hero’s fate is much greater than what he truly deserves. Willy Loman’s fate was self inflicted. He had so many debts and a dead end job because he did not work. He would go on business trips and make a social hour out of it. His fate and situation was fully deserved.
Another clear flaw in Willy’s character was he was given an opportunity to redeem himself, erase his past, and turn his life around. His neighbor Charlie, offered Willy a job. Charlie explained to him, “You can make fifteen dollars a week. And I won’t send you on the road,” (Miller 969). For a man in desperation, this would seem to be an offer sent down from the heavens. However in the case of Willy, this offer was an insult and a direct shot at the little pride he was able to build over the years. Ultimately he rejected the job offer out of arrogance.
Willy, who felt life should hand him amazing opportunities rejected a job that would make all his difficulties disappear. A tragic hero is known to make many mistakes along his journey. However, eventually they have an awakening and attempt to make a genuine change. Willy was handed the situation where he can make a genuine change and he selfishly denied it so people would not think of him as a lesser man; Willy fails to realize that people do not even bother to think of him as a man.
Critics constantly argue that Willy Loman was left in a situation with no hope. They argue that Willy’s main concern was to keep his family happy and fully supported. Contrary to popular belief, he was a selfish and arrogant person who only cared for status and wealth. Had Willy been concerned about the state of his family and their survival, he would have jumped at the opportunity for a new job. He would not have thought twice about it and he would have accepted on the spot. This job could have turned everything around for him and his family.
He was always explaining that he was worn out and, “tired to the death,”(Miller 924). It was apparent that he was no longer in shape to travel anymore, however he denied a job offer that gave him everything he desperately longed for, leaving one to question his true intentions. Was Willy truly concerned with the well being of his family? As Willy’s life passes him by, he misses the most important aspects of it. He is not able to realize that he has something many men long for. He has a wife, Linda, who is not concerned with the amount money he makes. She says “I don’t say he’s a great man.
Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived.”(Miller 948). However even after all these shortcomings, she makes it clear that her love for him will only grow stronger with each new day. He also has two sons, yet he always ignores them and has a bad relationship with them. He does not even attempt to reconcile with his sons. His son Biff resents him because he found out that his father was having affairs with other women while he travelled. His son Happy has never been put in the spotlight, or given any attention even though he is the most successful one regardless of his position of “assistant to the assistant manager.”
Willy tries to convince himself that his family is the most important aspect in life, however he never truly tries to be there for them both physically and financially. All these problems cannot be blamed on capitalistic America. Instead there is no one to blame but Willy himself. He was not interested in the well being of his family; if he was, he would connect with his sons and he would rebuild his relationship with them. Willy’s actions are contradictory to the dream he so desperately appears to be chasing. He is having troubles maintaining stability within his home and therefore uses his business as an outlet to get away. He hits the road pretending to make sales when in reality he is after an unclear dream, status and pleasure.
Willy brings all these problems upon himself causing his own hopelessness. Eventually all these problems begin to cause regret and denial in Willy. Instead of accepting the job offer from his neighbor he begins to think of other ways to get his family back on their feet. He realizes that he has no choice but to kill himself. He felt that he was, was worth more dead than alive (Miller). Willy was so pompous, he would rather end his life and provide his family with his insurance policy instead of taking a hit to his pride and admitting his wrongs.
He did not want to be judged by others and therefore he rejected a perfect job opportunity, although nobody would judge a man that was trying to make a genuine change for the wellbeing of his family. He convinced himself that the only resort would be killing himself. He thought his suicide would show him in a more positive light and would allow him to pay off his debts, causing others to consider him a righteous and respectable man. He was willing to take his own life for the sake of some recognition, which he never received after he was gone. Arthur Miller put Willy Loman in such a situation because,
“He was grieving for mankind, for man’s inability to connect with his fellow man, maybe for the need to dream. Miller saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream” (Corliss). This play is not supposed to instill sympathy in the reader, proving that Willy was not created to be a tragic hero. Instead, he is supposed to be used as an example of how not to go about achieving your dreams and goals.
One critic goes on to claim that Miller’s true intentions were to, “identify the sins of the father, of all the fathers who grabbed for too much, who didn’t care enough,” (Corliss). Willy made mistakes which are human and acceptable, however he was given multiple chances to redeem himself and he rejected them out of arrogance. A person in despair should not be embarrassed to seek assistance and should accept advice from the wise people that surround him. People need to learn to connect and work with each other. Embarrassment and pride, similar to Willy’s case, will only lead to downfall. Critic Bert Cardullo summarizes the end of Willy by stating, “In fact, he [Willy] kills himself for money. Because he confuses materialistic success with worthiness for love,”(Cardullo 9). In conclusion, Willy Loman’s pride and delusions led him to commit suicide. Willy did not die the death of a hero he died the death of a man who was too full of himself.
His actions would have been understandable if he was cornered and had absolutely no other choice to financially support his family. However, one opportunity after the other was thrown in his direction to redeem himself and his precious pride caused him to reject them. He felt his suicide would make all his problems disappear and bring his family happiness. A hero does everything in his power to fight until the end, yet Willy saw no hope and therefore saw no reason to continue living. Willy left his wife grieving over his grave, questioning why he would leave his family and causing them to endure all this pain. His entire life was based on working towards the American Dream and achieving the approval of others, but we see how far that got him when no one attends his funeral. Willy Loman did not truly desire the American Dream.
He was in the pursuit of a warped version of success. He spent countless hours and business trips seeking the approval of others and sexual pleasures. His death and journey were not one of a tragic hero. Willy never admitted to his flaws and never attempted to turn things around. Simply put he was a selfish and self consumed individual. When he realized how deep the hole he dug himself into became, he arrogantly ended his life as an escape. He did not think twice about what he was leaving behind. Willy only cared for wealth and status, and when he realized he would never attain either, he no longer found a purpose for his life. Critic, Bert Cardullo, proves this point in his journal entry in the Columbia Journal of American studies by writing: “In fact, he kills himself for money. Because he confuses materialistic success with a worthiness for love,” (Cardullo).
Willy’s perception of status and wealth being the epitome of success blinded him from the true purpose of life and the true American Dream. Such a character is an ill to society that does not deserve the honor to be classified as a tragic hero. “Willy Loman is an aging and mediocre salesman who will not grow up, but who will instead remain an impulsive and “mercurial” boy groping ineffectually for success in a world that pays him no heed,” (Thompson 245).