“Death of a Salesman,” written by Arthur Miller, is often considered to be one of the greatest tragedies in American literature. The central conflict of the play is Willy’s fatal flaw: he does not have the courage to accept the harsh reality that his wife and sons do not respect him as a man, and he cannot handle the truth when it is revealed to him. This leads to his ultimate downfall. Death of a Salesman has all the elements that encompass a tragedy: protagonist with tragic flaw, conflict that sets into motion the plot (tragic actions), and final realization or death of the protagonist.
Death of a Salesman serves as an example of how life for many Americans during The Great Depression was very different from life at present; Willy Loman’s mindset is still relevant today as it demonstrates how difficult accepting failure can be to someone living in modern society. Willy Loman, being sixty-two years old, looks back on his life after finding out his business is going down the drain. His boss, Howard Wagner, tells him that there is a new system in place and that he is not a part of that system because Willy has “something missing up here” ( Death of a Salesman ).
Despite being told this several times throughout the play, Willy fails to see his own lack of importance within his company. This self-delusion leads to his downfall as he struggles with what he believes he deserves from life: respect from others, success in work, and most importantly, for Biff and Happy to have good lives.
Again though, when Mr. Wagner calls Willy into his office to inform him they are giving somebody else an opportunity at advancement rather than giving it to Willy, he responds by saying “I don’t understand! I was in Florida and it’s all arranged…What about my trip to Puerto Rico? What about the order in Illinois? All our markets! My God – if we lose Illinois we’ll be ruined. You can’t do this to me… I won’t let you do it. It’s not fair! It’s… Oh, Howard, Howard…” ( Death of a Salesman ).
Willy is too afraid to accept that his career is over and that the company has no need for him anymore. This fear leads him to believe that his success in life relies on what he does at work; he believes everything will fall apart once his job has been taken, but in reality, he has destroyed his entire life by having an affair with another woman.
This tragic flaw of Willy’s, being the fear of failure, leads to the final turning point in Death of a Salesman , which is when Howard Wagner finally fires him. Having just been informed that all Willy’s years at work have gone down the drain simply for being unable to understand “the way things are now” ( Death of a Salesman ), he comes home only to find out that Biff and Happy do not respect him for what he did to their family—in Biff’s case, this meant abandoning him after getting caught stealing from the company; in Happy’s case, this meant getting him kicked out of school.
Willy’s fear of failure was at its peak when he had to face his family after hearing about all the mistakes he has made in life; it is blatantly obvious that neither son cares for their father anymore, and in turn, Willy becomes very angry that everything in his life “has gone wrong” ( Death of a Salesman ). Death of a Salesman takes an interesting twist at this point because usually the conflict only continues to escalate to the point where it finally ends with the death of the protagonist.
However, ironically enough, Willy Loman does not die—he suffers from an immediate heart attack instead. This sudden illness plays into Miller’s hero theme because Willy Loman experiences what others would deem as failure but does not realize this until his death. Death of a Salesman ends with Willy’s friends and family coming to visit the funeral, all of them mourning over their past interactions with him and how he has affected their lives.
Death of a Salesman is an excellent example of how tragedy can begin at any point within a story; even though it may seem that everything was going well for Willy up until Howard Wagner fired him, this is not true. He already had plans in place to commit suicide before anyone called him into the office: “I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t go crazy. We start out in the spring feeling good as new, and by the end of the year we’re all finished. We sit around and think about dying, dying… Death of a Salesman is not only an excellent example of tragedy, but also because it shows how man can be destroyed by his own actions.
How Death of a Salesman follows the criteria to be considered “tragic”: Death occurs (Willy Loman’s death) – Willy has always had something missing up here; he wanted respect from others. He was told this several times throughout the play, but failed to see it until Howard Wagner fired him (he was afraid that everything in his life would fall apart once he was no longer allowed to work). Death occurs as a result of someone’s character flaw or error in judgment (Willy’s Death) – Death of a Salesman was not all about Willy, but also his sons.
Biff and Happy were out to fulfill their dreams, while their father had always held them back. Death occurs due to the tragic hero’s own character flaws (Willy’s Death) – The protagonist is responsible for what went wrong in the play; he did nothing right by trying to better himself at work. Death occurs unexpectedly or abruptly (Willy Loman’s Death) – There are several ways that the death could have occurred; it happens when Willy finds out about everything that has gone wrong with his life because of his mistakes.
Death sets the tone for events later in the play (Willy Loman’s Death) Death is followed by a reversal of fortune for the survivors (Willy Loman’s Death) Death provides instant consequences or reactions from other characters in the play (Willy Loman’s Death) Death reminds us of an important lesson, theme, or message within the story (Willy Loman’s Death). If death occurred at the end of the story instead of at its beginning, would this make Death of a Salesman more tragic? Why or why not? : No. Tragedy can occur any time during a piece of writing; just because it happens closer to the end does not change that fact.