The Failure of Creating Tragedy and Sympathy For the Character of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman Essay Example
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman takes place in Post-War America, in the cities of Boston and New York, in the year 1949. The play focuses on the themes of family and the dangers of the American Dream. The protagonist of the play is the highly unsuccessful character of Willy Loman, a cantankerous, burned out, delusional man at the end of his career and on a steep mental decline. A tragedy is a work in which the main character is brought to ruin as a consequence of a tragic flaw.
Catharsis is one of the main aspects to a successful tragedy, the feeling of sadness or sympathy towards the tragic hero. Willy’s delusions, bad treatment of others, very poor parenting and inability to accept his failures lead to an undermining of Miller’s attempts to create sympathy and therefore leads Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to fail as a tragedy.
Though Miller tries to establish sympathy for Willy and his family, Willy’s inability to learn from his mistakes make him fail as a tragic hero. A tragic hero has no choice in their fate. Willy has many choices throughout the play all of which he uses to create his own destiny. Both the tragic hero and audience must also learn from the plays events, Willy although given multiple opportunities to learn much rather turns the lesson into what he wants it to be. Willy fails to learn even after Charley says, “the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell” (Arthur Miller, 97). The point is made that the only thing of value left in Willy’s life is his life.
He however does not learn from this and instead fantasizes about how his family will love him for his sacrifice and not realizing that by doing so he will rob them of what they truly care about.
Willy’s failure to learn from his mistakes doesn’t just affect him; his failures as a parent directly affect his sons Biff and Happy. Willy fails as a father, in part because of his view of success and the American Dream. Willy’s sons embody two different parts of him, with Biff being the embodiment of Willy’s inner hope and try to have another go at life to make something of himself. Happy represents Willy’s sense of self-importance, ambition, and servitude of societal expectations.
Willy imposes his dreams upon both his sons and preaches popularity over integrity. Willy’s inability to cope with his own shortcomings attempts to find hopefulness in his son Biff. Willy has an affair that destroys Biff’s image of him, that image being that Willy was successful. Upon Biff discovering the affair he states, “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” This creates an emotional distance between the two and a feeling of spite from Biff within Willy.
He then focuses almost solely on Biff and neglects Happy. In order to be acknowledged Happy aims to be exactly like his father, gaining wealth and popularity over dignity and integrity. Willy’s abysmal parenting, and want to impress allows for his children to repeat the same mistakes and failures as Willy. This shows just how blindly he follows the American Dream and the hints of selfishness in his parenting, and not being able to let his kids be who they are but instead making them who he wants them to be.
The way in which Willy treats others is one of the prime factors as to why he is hard to feel sympathy towards. He always has blame to place towards someone else nothing is ever his fault in his mind. His inability to accept his failures and shortcomings and despite knowing he is a failure and being able to move on with his life he instead lives in the past when his life wasn’t completely miserable. Willy refuses to accept help from Charley on multiple occasions.
Charley is seen to be a kind individual, he even helps Willy out by giving him money so it seems like he is still making sales. Willy’s pride is the cause of Charley giving him fifty dollars a week when Willy earns nothing. Charley has even offered Willy a job in his business on several occasions, however Willy’s jealousy stops him from accepting the offer. Willy treated Charley and his son Bernard very poorly in the past with names “You want him to be a worm like Bernard?”(Miller, 40). In the end Charley is the closest thing Willy has to a friend because of his attitude and sudden angry outbursts towards others. Willy does not treat the only people in his life as well as he should, since there aren’t very many. This only adds to how pathetic and unsympathetic one feels for Willy. He has all the help in the world and he refuses to accept it out of pride and jealousy. Willy makes no effort to change, he continues to use a single measure of success and continues to fantasize.
The character of Willy Loman needs to create sympathy from the audience for the play to work as a tragedy. Miller fails at this instead creating a character that just ends up as being pathetic. If Willy was a tragic hero he would realize his tragic flaw near the end of the play, he does not and it ends up costing him his life. Some would say that the idea of him giving up his life is honourable because he did it for his son. That doesn’t translate to being honourable because there is no reason for it to happen, as it was not a necessity. Willy only focuses on the materialistic side of the American Dream; this is where he fails to see the family side of the dream. Willy’s suicide is a selfish act because he wants to prove to Biff that he mattered to lots of people even though he is doesn’t. Willy’s personal need to prove himself to Biff overtakes the fact that Biff clearly cares about him.
Willy’s inability to accept his failures, being delusional, poor treatment of others and weak parenting all contribute to weakening Arthur Miller’s attempts to create sympathy, this being the downfall of Death of a Salesman as a tragedy.