This was written for AP English last year and covers a point that I personally consider interesting. I completely understand if you disagree and will not be insulted in any way should you choose to simply skim or ignore it entirely. Although reading the three books covered in this essay is encouraged it is by no means necessary to comprehend the topics covered. Also, for those of you interested in writing, this touches upon how to effectively write a tragic character. Flamefang 01:52, August 30, 2011 (UTC)
Delusions of Grandeur
At a first glance Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman appears to violate one of tragedy's oldest and most central tenets. According to Aristotle a true tragedy must showcase the fall of a 'great man'; a category protagonist and salesman Willy Loman could be no further from. Yet, in a sense, Mr. Loman is just as accomplished as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and just as powerful as Shakespeare’s King Lear; in his own mind. Here traditional Aristotelian theory appears to clash with contemporary American egalitarianism. So, do Willy’s delusions of grandeur and warped perception of reality validate his own strange form of ‘greatness’? Or, is Death of a Salesman destined to remain nothing more than a pale imitation of what Aristotle would consider to be a true tragedy.
Mr. Loman can probably be best described as a failure. His greatest aspirations in life are, and always seem to have been, to simply become ‘well liked’ and a successful salesman. Other than this Willy has no ambition; no will to transcend beyond the blue collar life he was born into. At age 63 he is on the verge of losing his dead end job which has defined his life up until this point. When this last semblance of a normal life vanishes towards the end of the play, his fabricated world comes crashing down about him; revealing nothing less than cold hard reality. His eventual downfall can be almost solely attributed to this continued misconception of himself as someone capable of achieving greatness as well as his unshakable conviction that the greatness he so desires stems directly from personal charisma and popularity.
Before we can accurately determine whether Willy can even be considered to be a “great man” we must first establish whether his character contains the prerequisites for good character detailed by Aristotle himself as this ties directly into greatness. To quote Aristotle’s Poetics: “In the Characters there are four points to aim at. First and foremost, that they shall be good” (Aristole 1369). What exactly is this “good”? Aristotle never provides a specific definition though associates it with “moral purpose” and reveals that this moral purpose is defined by what a character “says or does”. So, if we are to use Willy’s actions to define whether he is “good” or not we must define the word in this context. Only, making this more difficult is the fact that Loman is consistently inconsistent in his actions and beliefs and high minded concepts like morality often seem above him. Thus we must compare him with other protagonists from other plays which have, or would have, received the praise of Aristotle himself.
Early in the play Willy has no issue with ordering his kids, Biff and Happy, to steal sand from a construction site “Boys! Go right over to where they’re building the apartment house and get some sand … You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds a money” (Miller 50). Yet later chastises Biff for stealing an expensive pen “You took Oliver’s pen? … You stole Bill Oliver’s fountain pen!” (Miller 100-110). The only way to properly categorize this is to say that Willy is selectively moral and so, in effect, his actions aren’t moral at all. Yet, we can still say that he genuinely believes that his actions are in fact morally backed.
King Lear, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, can be viewed in a similar fashion. Lear remains inconsistent throughout the entirety of the play and often makes choices that seem irrational or immoral like his sudden condemnation, disownment, and subsequent banishment of his youngest and most loved daughter Cordelia. “Our joy, although our last and least, / to whose young love the vines of France and milk of Burgundy / strive to be interessed” (1.1.82-85). “Here I disclaim my paternal care, / propinquity, and property of blood, / and as a stranger to my heart and me, / hold thee from this forever” (1.1.114-117). Like Loman, King Lear is aged and believes himself to be far greater in power, generosity, and moral standing than he really is. In reality Lear is decrepit, prone to bouts of insanity, and can be described as “great” in little more than title. Yet, like Loman, Lear believes that his actions are moral despite what reality dictates. So does this mean that we must write off a play of William Shakespeare, the most read playwright of all time, as a badly written tragedy?
Again, Oedipus, the protagonist of a play directly praised by Aristotle in his Poetics, can be viewed in a similar manner to both Lear and Loman as, despite his position as King of Thebes, Oedipus is susceptible to delusions; believing himself to be both somewhat omniscient and utterly righteous. At the same time he is also quick to turn on those he was praising only moments ago. “Teiresias: seer: student of mysteries, of all that’s taught and all that no man tells, secrets of Heaven and secrets of earth: blind though you are … we are in your hands … What a wicked old man you are! You’d try a stone’s patience! Out with it! Have you no feeling at all?” (Sophocles 16-18). Like the other two protagonists, Oedipus believes that his actions are ultimately just regardless of what anyone else may think.
So, we can then come to a conclusion. Each of these characters can, by no means, be described as morally “good”. Nor can they be viewed as bad or evil. Instead they occupy a strange, morally ambiguous, middle ground which Aristotle actually claims to be absolutely necessary and the best form of character possible: “There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity, but by some error of judgment of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity e.g. Oedipus” (Aristotle 1467). So, then, what can this “good” possibly mean? Again, Aristotle details it as such: “There will be an element of character in the play, if (as has been observed) what a personage says or does reveals a certain moral purpose; and a good element of character, if the purpose so revealed is good” (Aristotle 1469). A good character must inherently cause the reader or audience to empathize with or at least understand the intentions of this character and thus their moral purpose is their reasons behind these intentions or this empathy. Thus a character that is utterly villainous, like Edmund in King Lear, can still be “good” as long as he possesses a moral purpose which, in his specific case, is to eliminate his brother and father so that he may take up Dukedom of Gloucester. Willy Loman’s moral purpose is to become “well liked” while Oedipus’s is to uncover and execute whoever murdered his predecessor. “Such goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in a woman or slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior, and the other a wholly worthless being” (Aristotle 1469). Every character, regardless of physical attributes or personal qualities, must be “good” in this sense. To be otherwise is to lack essential character and being. Obviously the protagonists in every play mentioned thus far certainly have this feature.
Having established that Willy Loman is a “good” character we can now finally return to the topic at hand: discussing whether Willy Loman can be classified as a “great man”; the likes of which Aristotle claims are essential to tragedy. Again, any progress is hampered by the fact that Willy’s opinions, not to mention his mental state, are constantly inconsistent. Again, we must compare with the great works of Sophocles and Shakespeare. It would be best to keep in mind Aristotle’s actual definition of the greatness we seek: “Those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity” (Aristotle 1467).
Of all three characters Oedipus is by far the greatest in these terms. As the King of Thebes he has literal political, legal, and military powers at his command. As the slayer of the Sphinx and protector of the city his reputation is by no means wanting. “O mighty King, we turn to you: Find us safety, find us remedy … A king of wisdom tested in the past … Noblest of men, restore life to your city … you brought us fortune, do the same again … No man questions your power to rule the land! (Sophocles 5). Yet as anyone who has finished Oedipus Rex knows, Oedipus actually committed paternal regicide as well as incest with his own mother. He knows nothing of this until the play’s climax however, and so his ignorance of his own past is equivalent with Willy’s denial of his future.
King Lear is somewhat closer to Willy in that he can be similarly described as mentally unstable, old, and something of a failure. He lacks a reputation and when he cedes power to his two daughters little is left but his title. Yet Lear certainly never stops thinking of himself as a king. Even when he enters “mad and bedecked with weeds” he proclaims his royalty. “Ay, every inch a king. / when I do stare, see how the subject quakes” ( 4.6.107-108). Apparently this is enough for Gloucester to say: “O, let me kiss that hand! (4.6.132). As long as some of his subjects consider him to be king we can accurately call him a great man.
“I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me” (36 Miller).This line effectively defines Willy’s predicament; his constant attempts to over exaggerate his exploits and abilities whenever possible, and the contradictions inherent in these claims. He seems to blur both the past and present; shifting between both within seconds without even realizing it. Perhaps this contradiction, and many others like it, is actually the result of past memories resurfacing and taking hold. Once upon a time Willy Loman could have been liked by everyone, maybe, when he was younger. Yet clearly he is in decline. He makes next to no money and so perhaps while he is whole heartedly trying to convince himself of his own prowess this illusion is, in part, supported by his memories of a younger and more successful self. Yet, to him, what we know to be delusion seems more real than reality itself as he is in active denial. As the play progresses and the reader learns of his failed, and later successful, attempts at suicide, we can see just how far Willy Loman has fell. Loman has finally come to the realization that over the course of his life he has achieved next to nothing and the illusions he has built and maintained himself, telling of his own prowess as a salesman, are finally shattering under the sheer weight of reality.
Before we conclude it is probably best to ask why Aristotle claims a plot tracking the fall of a great man is so essential to tragedy. The protagonist of a tragedy needs to be someone the audience can sympathize with and a great man, despite whatever vices he may have, has the most to lose. A great man has forged an empire for himself; a literal one in the cases of Oedipus and King Lear, and one of illusion and self deception in the case of Willy Loman. Now it should be noted that a son born into the richest family in the world isn’t necessarily a great man. A great man can accurately claim to have “enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity” (Aristotle 1467). The hypothetical rich son is in possession of the latter but ultimately lacks the former. To build a reputation one must struggle to change the world around them, to shape it to their own desires. Willy Loman does exactly this but his shaping, and the results of his work, exist only in the mind. To Loman prosperity isn’t necessarily the possession of riches but instead possession of popularity. The great man must have a great rise so that he may have the propensity for an equally great fall. Tracking the misery of a man in the gutter falling further into the gutter holds neither the promise of excitement nor the essential elements of tragedy outlined by Aristotle himself.
So, despite his social class, collapsing family, and insignificant death, Willy Loman can be classified as a great man. Albeit, something of a pseudo-great man. By witnessing his fall through his own eyes and the eyes of those around him in play form we gain a view into the world he lives in and so are able to see him as the great man he believes himself to be. As a good character with the moral purpose to become, and remain, “well liked” Willy is certainly an idealist. This moral purpose serves as the impetus behind the creation of his mental delusions and later acts as a barrier against what he cannot accept. By building this barrier Willy has effectively made himself the “great man” that Aristotle describes, but in doing so has set himself up for an inevitable fall. At the end of Death of a Salesman we learn just how little Willy actually built. Despite all his claims of national recognition, fame, and fantastic salesman abilities he has left a broken, indebted, family. In showing us what he has built, and struggled to maintain, towards the beginning and middle, and then displaying the tragic result at the end we bear witness to one who has worked to create nothing less than an empire, and died, in vain, with next to no one at his funeral. Only a great man can fall so far.