One must certainly regard “Death of a Salesman” as a tragedy, yet it is a play somewhat removed from the genre’s traditional elements. The playwright Arthur Miller has succeeded in combining the usually great, king-like tragic hero with an ordinary person. The play is not limited to discussing the failings of one human being however, there are many other issues that are raised in this play and I will discuss them here in this essay.
The first thing that must be addressed in this assessment is whether Willy is the only human failure in the play. Willy’s sons must also be considered. Biff, for example, is said to be a “man who has not yet found himself” by his mother Linda, using this saying to describe his vast string of failures. At thirty-four years old, Biff remains rather immature, as demonstrated by his inability to hold down a job. When Biff stays at the family house, he and Happy stay in their old bunk beds suggesting a high level of immaturity in both of them. The fact that both of them remain at home well into their thirties suggests a failure in them to acquire a house of their own or a failure to become independent from their family.
Biff, for example, left the family home to try and make a living for himself but failed miserably, hence why he has returned home with no job. We later learn that a contributing factor to Biff leaving home was probably the discovery of his father’s affair. So one could argue that it took a shocking event to cause Biff to leave home and look for a career, and he did not really leave of his own accord. It becomes apparent by the end however, that Biff learns from his and his father’s mistakes, suggesting he has not failed to the extent of his father who ends up committing suicide.
Biff at the funeral says: “He had the wrong dreams, all, all wrong” as if it has just dawned on him to not copy his fathers failings. It is worth noting that Happy does not learn: “He had a good dream… to come out number one man… I’m gonna win it for him.” Willy is not the only failure in the play, Biff and Happy are also, but they are certainly not failures to the same extent as Willy.
In creating Willy Loman, the playwright creates a tragic figure of human proportions. Miller puts the ordinary man into character and suggests his achievements. In fact, the name “Loman” is probably word play on “low man”. Linda loves Willy a lot and she even refers to him as a “small man”. Linda also says: ” A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man.” This is Miller’s way of challenging previous literature that only really acknowledges the achievement of the “great”. The play greatly appeals to the audience as it elevates an ordinary man to heroic (or anti-heroic) status. The audience genuinely sympathise with Willy largely because he is an ordinary man who is subject to the same temptations and trials as the rest of us.
This is why I could agree with the statement that the play is a touching portrayal of failure. One thing that could be challenged, however, is the idea that Willy is inadequate. In the statement above, it has been suggested that Miller wishes to portray Willy as a normal man. If he is inadequate, as it says so in the title, then he is not a normal man. I believe, however, that Willy is a normal man, because we feel genuine sympathy for him that we would not feel if he were inadequate; we would believe that everything that goes wrong for Willy would be his own fault.
One could argue that Willy’s inability to accept a job from Charley is merely an example of his stubbornness and pride; these can be regarded as character traits, not inadequacies. In fact, in another situation, these personality traits might serve Willy well. Arguably, however, Willy does seem to be quite mad and deluded, with his head firmly in the good times of the past. This arguably loses sympathy for Willy but then again the audience regains their sympathy for him when they learn of the hardship he is put under and of the good times in the past; they feel he is acting rather like a normal person in the same situation.