The Tragic Existence in Life and Death of Willy Loman
Definitions of the protagonist, conflict, and dramatic question in Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman has been called the first American tragedy by critics, and is widely regarded as Miller’s greatest literary achievement. Written at the intersection of the 1940s and 1950s during the capitalistic postwar rise of materialistic values, Death of a Salesman is a commentary on the tragedy of the lost American Dream. The play is told largely from the perspective of Willy Loman, a career traveling salesman aging into a state of disillusionment as he reminisces about his life and the things which were never achieved during it. His wife, Linda, is a motherly figure, but has never really loved him as a wife. Willy’s oldest son, Biff, was a football star in high school, but never managed to find himself in the workforce and winds up moving back home, while his younger brother Happy has a steady job and his own home. In this surrounding, Willy reminisces about his many years working for the Wagner firm, being disloyal to his wife while on the road, and finally being fired from his job. Willy is the major protagonist of the play, who is suffering because of the internal and external conflicts in his life, and he is finally faced with the dramatic questions that broach the nature of the disintegration of his family.
The main protagonist of Death of a Salesman is Willy Loman, a traveling salesman. He represents the common American man and is a symbol for every person who has put faith into the American Dream and been betrayed by it. Willy is a ritual head of his family, though his family may or may not actually respect and love him as the husband and father. Willy is the personification of the values that are held in the utmost importance by the civilized men of the twentieth century, being dedicated to his long-standing employer despite unfair treatment, holding materialistic values to prove success to himself, and wanting good things for his football-hero son. Willy is seeking meaning for the events of his life, trying to interpret a design and pattern to life when it seems the most illogical and the most chaotically paradoxical. Willy experiences his life as a whole, not in a linear and separated form, and the way in which events of his life interact as independent entities is both an expression of his removal from logic as well as a force which disrupts reality as he understands it. Willy’s ideals are unattainable, for he wants to please everyone all of the time, he wants to be successful in a way that is not possible for him, and he wants to make an impression on the world in a way that a traveling salesman simply is not destined to do. When Willy realizes that he has failed at reaching the American Dream, and that he is not capable of attaining the material things he thinks are vital to proving his personal worth, he projects his own desires onto his son, and sees Biff as a way to redeem himself despite his failings. Unable to provide for his family in the way he sees fit during life, Willy martyrs himself so that his family can receive life insurance benefits, and his son, as a replacement for himself, can reach the American Dream with the money.
Willy suffers from the consequences of the internal and external conflicts in his life. One of the antagonists in this story is the false promise of the American Dream, not another person per se. Willy is unable to become rich and show his family his own worth through material possessions, despite his hard work and perseverance, which is a conflict to him because he believed that would happen. He believes that the company he has been employed by for decades will promote him, but instead he is fired. He has worked hard and struggled to provide for his family, yet his sons reject him. Willy learns that the truths he has believed in life are actually false promises. These conflicts are all caused by the antagonist of the play, and losing his job and income and therefore perceiving himself to have let everyone, including himself, down are his external conflicts. Willy is also conflicted internally, which he shows through examples such as his paradoxical opinion about his car, which goes from being the best car in the world to being useless. He is conflicted internally because he is trying to maintain an identity as a successful father, a providing husband, and an effective salesman, all of which do not coexist in harmony.
With Willy as the major protagonist of the play, he himself practically states the dramatic question of Miller’s work out loud. When Biff returns to his parents’ home, Willy asks why he is there.
This is the essence of the dramatic question, which is what caused the father and son relationship to fail between Willy and Biff, and can their separation be reconciled? This of course applies to the major theme of the play, which is about the failing of the American Dream for the common man. Other characters also have their own lesser dramatic questions in the work. With Linda in mind as a minor antagonist, her own dramatic question might be whether or not she can help Willy overcome his irrational need to be a success so that he can actually be a person to the family?
In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman watches as his favorite son does not live up to his expectations, as his beloved employer betrays him, and as his marriage falls apart, all the while seeing himself as a failure because of his inability to get rich and famous as a salesman. Willy reminisces about all of the mistakes he has made in his marriage, with his mistress, for his children, and on the job, and finally becomes entirely aware of the fact that he has not achieved his goals in life. Unable to attain it himself, Willy kills himself so that the American Dream will be available to his son. His sacrifice is not appreciated or recognized, as no one attends his funeral, and this is part of his role as a somewhat untraditional tragic hero. Willy is the most obvious protagonist in this plot, despite or because of his tragic flaws, and his internal and external conflicts become obvious as he downward spirals towards his own death. The dramatic question of why Willy’s family has fallen apart, and additionally why the American Dream has failed him, are approached with a flair of social commentary that secure Miller’s place not only as the playwright of the first real American tragedy, but also as a master of the tragic paradox of American existence.
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