Lots of critics have debated the tragic dimension of Death of a Salesman. Two levels have often been considered: the notion of genre, by referring to Aristotle's Poetics, and the possibility of a new approach to tragedy, that would be concerned with the response of mankind to rapid technological advance.
The generic discussion (from genre) has often borne on an opposition between social drama dealing with the little man as victim of an oppressive, social and economic system, and tragedy in which the transcendental aspect is emphasized.
Miller himself has reflected on this issue in a seminal essay Tragedy and the Common Man (The New York Times, February 27, 1949). It is clear that Death of a Salesman raises the possibility of a modern tragic because unlike the absurdist theatre (Ionesco and Beckett), it postulates that 'life has meaning'.
The question of the tragic in contradistinction to social drama will be treated along three axes.
Firstly, it can be argued that Death of a Salesman is more than social document that it creates a modern myth through a central symbol: salesmanship (Eugene O’Neill : The Iceman Cometh).
Secondly, we may wonder whether or not Loman is invested with a tragic dimension.
Thirdly, is Death of a Salesman a ruthless indictment of the American Society, along Marxist or, at least radical (in the American acceptation) lines, or does it go much beyond its social and historical context to bring about tragic catharsis in the audience?
Social testimony versus tragic myth?
The contemporary absence of tragedy
According to Miller, the absence of tragedy in contemporary American drama (1949) can be explained by the fact that man's motivations are increasingly accounted for in purely psychiatric and sociological terms.
Literature tends to suggest that man's miseries are born and bred within man's mind: this is the psychological argument or, that society must be held responsible for man's distress because of the deterministic laws that govern it - this is the point made by sociologists. In each case, the possibility of the tragic is denied because tragedy stems from an individual choice to assess, then to call into question and ultimately to rebel against the order of things.
“The thrust for freedom is equality in tragedy which exalts” (Tragedy and the Common Man, p.5)
If Willy Loman is simply considered as the poor, helpless victim of capitalist big business, then he is deprived of any tragic dimension. If he is merely a cog in the gigantic capitalist wheel that eventually crushes him to death, he is denied a tragic dimension. If he's driven to madness, he has no tragic potential either.
A democratic tragedy
In our modern society, the agon (the contest, the struggle that is central to tragedy) can no longer be induced by a confrontation between the tragic hero and the Gods imposing their will on human mortals, as happened in Greek tragedy (Oedipus). The Gods have been replaced by the enslaving forces of modern society. Death of a Salesman is more subtle, sophisticated than the standard propaganda play of the 1930s, denouncing the evils of capitalism (The Adding Machines, Elmer Rice or the plays by Clifford Odets Awake and Sing).
The scene in which Loman is given the axe (p.59-66) is imbued with a certain ambiguity, a certain complexity, that make for tragic tension. It does not show a ruthless executive consciously firing the trusted employee, out of calculated mercenary motives.
The irony resides in the discrepancy between Howard Wagner and our preconceived representation of the capitalist businessman. Howard is the "nice guy", cornered into a situation that he is at a loss to handle nicely, which only makes the ugliness of it all even worse. There is no manichean opposition, it is more a case of a little man being fired by another little man (only a little higher up in the social scale).
In Howard's presence, Willy is not simply confronted to the employer, but also to the doting father, who enthuses over his beloved children. Just speaking about his daughter, Howard exclaims "she's crazy for me" (p.60) and of his son he says "five years old, Willy!" to point to his precocity and intelligence.
Both men (Willy and Howard) are not fundamentally different, at bottom, they just happen to find themselves into different social camps, at this point in time. Thus ambiguity gives tragic potential to the scene because "in tragedies and in them alone, lies the belief - optimistic, if you will - in the perfectibility of man" (Tragedy and the Common Man).
This is precisely the exact opposite to the Theatre of the Absurd, from which meaningfulness has been dismissed, and also very different from what happens in propaganda plays which set simplistic oppositions between the goodies and the villains.
The American Everyman vs Willy Tyrannos
Critics who refuse to regard Death of a Salesman as a tragedy often do so on the grounds that Willy lacks heroic stature and has no values, so to speak, to go by. Willy is said to be a victim of anomie; he's described as being unable to pursue a fixed purpose, to be passive and apathetic.
The modern tragic hero
In Greek and in classic tragedy, the chief protagonist is endowed with grandeur and magnitude. He/she far exceeds in both quality and achievements the other mortals. Oedipus, Antigone stand above their contemporaries. But then, the Greek Society, with its slaves, had nothing whatsoever to do with the America of the fifties.
What matters, according to Miller, is not so much a character’s social station as his/her deliberate decision, at one point, to change in a significant way, the course of his/her life. It is the tragic flaw, a failing or a crack in the character (the hamartia) that sets the tragedy in motion. In Greek tragedy, one particular form of hamartia was the hubris, or excessive pride (overweening pride), which pushed the tragic hero to attempt to reach the status of the Gods.
Now in Death of a Salesman, the tragic flaw would be Willy’s unwillingness to remain passive in front of what he conceives as a challenge to his dignity. With his resolution to change his life may be judged insufficient, or inconsistent, but, pushed by Linda, he strives to put an end to what debases his professional activities:
LINDA: Why don't you go down to the place tomorrow and tell Howard you've simply got to work in New York?
WILLY: I will, I definitely will.p10
Likewise, Willy is well decided to bring about some significant transformation to his relationship with his son, Biff, as things cannot be allowed to go on deteriorating:
WILLY: [with pity and resolve] I'll see him in the morning, I'll have a nice talk with him.p.11
The fact that Willy’s endeavours may seem limited in scope, hardly disqualifies him from being a tragic hero, it could enable large audiences to experience vicariously his adventure, and to establish a connection with him.
Admittedly, the values which Willy subscribes to are denounced as shallow, philistine and fake. Yet Willy’s tragic dimension comes from his gradual awareness of the gap between the consumerist, materialistic ideology and the reality he has to live in. Willy is a dislocated character, which is another definition of the tragic protagonist.
"Had Willy been unaware of his separation from values that endure he would have died contentedly while polishing his car, probably on a Saturday afternoon with the ball game coming over the radio. But he was agonised by his awareness of being in a false position."Introduction to Collected Plays, p. 34
Death of a Salesman as a tragedy of consciousness
Death of a Salesman seems to imitate a classic tragedy in its acceptance of the responsibility of the individual. However, unlike in Greek tragedy, where the hero has to fight against external forces, the ground of the tragic conflict in Death of a Salesman is removed from the outer event to the inner consciousness.
In Aristotle's Poetics, the peripety (peripeteia) is the sudden change of fortune, or reverse of circumstances, that precipitates the hero's downfall : in Hamlet, the visitation of Hamlet's father's ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy's wheel of fortune has already turned downward by the time the play opens. So what is left for the play is to record the last remnants of Willy's already broken world as they shatter one after the other. The audiences witness the disintegration of the hero's psyche. The theatrical focus is put upon the moment of crisis within the individual consciousness. So, it is not so much action, or imitation of events that are represented as a mind in the process of falling apart.
Social protest versus tragic catharsis
Aristotelian tragedy leads to catharsis: a purification of emotions through vicarious experience. Having followed the tragic hero through his ordeals and having felt successively fear, awe and pity, members of the public have rid themselves of their internal tensions and experience relief of a kind at the moment of the denouement.
Whereas the tragedy pushes the spectators to turn back on themselves and probe their own emotions, the social drama awakes indignation and fuels anger. It eventually leads their audiences to rebel against injustices. Whereas tragedy is inner-oriented, social drama will be outer-oriented.
Basically tragedy leads to a metaphysical exploration of the necessity for man to transcend his human limitations. This is why tragedies often place their chief protagonist in an extreme situation, where Passion and Law conflict - be it the Law of the Empyrean Gods or the Law of Society.
In tragedy, the deadlock is absolute and irreversible and, ultimately, all actions prove unable to change the order of things. However, as Miller shows in Tragedy and the Common Man, the protagonist's will to struggle must be "total and without reservation", because the possibility of victory must be there in tragedy, this is what distinguishes modern tragedy from the Theatre of the Absurd.
Social suicide as opposed to ritual sacrifice
If Willy's suicide is put down to anomie, that is to say, according to Durkheim, to a feeling of aimlessness or purposelessness, induced by society's failure to fulfil its promises, then Willy's self-murder must be recorded in the list of statistics, together with other similar cases.
Tragedy can only occur if Willy's progresses from a state of initial ignorance - an absolute belief in the values of the consumer society - to enlightenment (anagnorisis: final recognition) through a cycle of suffering.
As in Classic Tragedy, the price of this painful 'Odyssey' is death, yet the ambiguity and paradox of Death of a Salesman is that this ritual sacrifice is meant to guarantee the family's posterity through money. Willy finally lays down his life for the the very values which led to his destruction, which puts into question the possibility of anagnorisis.
A 'modern key' tragic?
The notion of the tragic may nevertheless be applied to Death of a Salesman in view of the response that the play aroused all over the world. Miller, like Sophocles (Oedipus), insists on the idea that tragic catastrophe is the result of ignorance, rather than of wilful transgression.
According to Miller, moral ignorance is the most serious distress shared by humanity, at least in the contemporary, industrial, or post-industrial world. Willy, then, would be a representative example of a humanity sacrificed on the altar of philistinism and mercantilism.
Nevertheless, Miller strongly believes that the contemporary tragic myth must mirror the shape of transgression and the nature of power in our age. Willy Loman illustrates, in his own limited way, the promise of unlimited possibility:
"Complete consciousness is possible only in a play about forces, like Prometheus, but not in a play about people".Introduction to Collected Plays, p.35
When all is said and done, as American critic Dennis Welland puts it: "Willy Loman can't be an average American, at least from one point of view; he kills himself". No man embarks on the search for truth. For Miller, virtue can be gained at any moment when man is willing to risk commitment.
Miller, like the French existentialists, believes in the absolute value of incurring risk, of exposing oneself to danger. Willy starts out on a most courageous kind of Odyssey: the descent into the Self. Willy has to engage his most dangerous enemy, himself, and all his wrong beliefs and fake principles.
Release final defeat is endowed with a tragic dimension because it is also an act of love: "did you see how he [Biff] cried to me? Oh, if I could kiss him, Ben!" (107).
At the heart of Willy's act of self destruction there is also the attempt to establish the fact that life has meaning and that action is justified.
"The tragedy of Willy Loman is that he gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it"Arthur Miller, salesman has a birthday, New York Times, February 5th 1950.
In this paradox lies the tragic potential of Loman's destiny.
If the generic label 'tragedy' cannot be satisfactorily applied to Death of a Salesman, there is nevertheless and undoubtedly a tragic dimension to Miller's play. Death of a Salesman goes much beyond the scope of social drama, because it highlights an ambiguous evil, a malady which modern arts and letters have exposed as the moral sickness of the twentieth century, namely the 'disease of unrelatedness'.
Miller preserves the sense of the tragic because he does not yield to nihilism or absurdism, he continues to believe in the "indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity" (Tragedy and the Common Man), even in the most desperate and adverse circumstances.