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You were probably aching throughout this play to shove a mirror in front of Willy Loman's face and make him take a good, honest look at himself. But even if you tried, it probably wouldn't have worked. He has a lot of potential, but he also has a whopping case of self-deception paired with misguided life goals. A salesman for all of his career, Willy thinks the goal of life is to be well-liked and gain material success.
So what happens when he doesn't reach these goals? Total disaster.
Willy is a rather insecure guy. He tries to make himself feel better by lying to himself and his family. In his world of delusion, Willy is a hugely successful salesman. He disguises his profound anxiety and self-doubt with extreme arrogance. Periodically unable to maintain this image of strength, Willy despairs and pleads with successful people around him for guidance and support. Despite his efforts, it becomes clear that Willy Loman is not popular, well-liked, or even good at his job. In fact, he never was. In all likelihood, he never will be. Now an older man, Willy can no longer drive competently, pay his bills, or sell anything.
Despite Willy's evident failure to meet his (poorly chosen) life goals, he clings to a fierce belief in the American Dream and the promise that anyone attractive and well-liked can make it big. He has deceived himself his entire life and tries to live vicariously through his unwilling son, Biff. But Biff uncovers Willy's lies when he finds out that Willy has been cheating on Linda. Choosing to alienate his son rather than face reality, and tormented by his failures, Willy spirals downward.
So let's talk about all these flashbacks. Part of this "downward spiral" we keep talking about has to do with Willy losing a grip on reality and on time. Because his life, by his standards, sucks, Willy escapes into the past and also conveniently gives us, the reader or audience, the background information we need. "Escape" becomes Willy's middle name—not unlike his own father, who abandoned him and his brother when they were young.
All this escape business brings us to Willy's mistress. "The woman" gives Willy everything he needs: an alternate world and an ego-boost. Miller makes sure we are able to understand these reasons for why Willy has the affair. If we, the reader/audience, hated Willy for being a cheating jerk, we wouldn't be so upset at his death. But we don't hate Willy. We don't even call him a cheater. Why? Because we understand the psychology behind his affair. He is simply trying to escape.
Which brings us, right on schedule, to the end of the play. As we all know, Willy kills himself. But why? Well, he was clearly still harboring misguided hopes about success for Biff. It seems Willy would rather kill himself than accept the fact that really, honestly, all his son wants is some shirtless sweaty time in Midwestern haystacks.
The point is, Willy is still deluded when he kills himself. We all know the money isn't going to be used to start a business. What's sad is that Willy doesn't. That final delusion is almost worse than his death itself.
Speaking of this death, let's talk about the title of the play. Willy was always in pursuit of being the perfect salesman, and before he kills himself he expresses a wish to die "the death of a salesman." So here's the big money question: does he?
To answer that, we have to ask ourselves just what does it mean to be a salesman in this play? We know what it means in Willy's mind (if we say "well-liked" one more time…), but Charley brings up an interesting point at the funeral: part of being a salesman is having a dream. Part of being a salesman is about selling yourself. We'll let you take it from there.
If you saw Willy Loman sitting across from you on a bus, you probably wouldn't peg him for a hero. If you got to know him, it would probably seem even less likely. Still, Willy Loman is often thought of as a hero. Of course, he's a particular kind of hero: a tragic hero. The ancient Greeks were the first to write about these doomed souls. Sophocles' Oedipus is the most perfect example—at least according to Aristotle.
But how is slouchy old Willy Loman in any way similar to the heroes of Greek tragedy? Well, dear Shmoopsters, they share a little thing the Greeks liked to call hamartia. This word is often translated as "tragic flaw," but it's more accurately translated as "a missing of the mark" or a "mistake made in ignorance."
Just like Oedipus, Willy Loman goes through his life blindly, never realizing the full truth of himself. Willy refuses to admit that he's a failure. You could say that the idea of hamartia is seen in Willy through his delusional personality. Also, like Oedipus and almost all tragic heroes, Willy's hamartia causes his own downfall. In the end, Willy's delusions lead him to take his own life.
According to Aristotle, tragic heroes also have a moment of recognition, or anagnorisis. This is supposed to be a moment where the hero realizes the terrible mistake he's made and usually moans about it a lot. This happens to Oedipus when he realizes that he's inadvertently killed his father and slept with his mother. (Whoops!)
You could argue that Willy has a small realization near the end of the play. He never says it directly, but at some point—probably after Howard fires him—he must realize that he's just never going to succeed in business. If he didn't come to this realization, then he wouldn't decide to kill himself so Biff could use his life insurance money.
However, though Willy must make some small realization toward the end of the play, we hesitate to label it as full blown anagnorisis. Willy definitely goes to his death amid a cloud of delusion. Even after Biff totally lays it out for his dad that all he wants to do is be a cowboy or whatever, Willy refuses to understand.
The pitiful salesman kills himself, thinking that Biff will use the life insurance money to start a business. It becomes painfully obvious at the funeral that this is totally not going to happen, showing that Willy went to his death without coming to grips with reality. Yes, it seems that, unlike many classical Greek tragic heroes, Willy doesn't have a major anagnorisis.
Willy is also different from his tragic predecessors because he isn't royalty of any kind. Yep, Willy is just a salesman. He has no real power in the world, and not too many people really care when he dies. Unlike the legendary and powerful Oedipus, Willy is a nobody. But why would Arthur Miller try to write a tragedy about a total schmuck? Did he not read Aristotle's book or something? Hardly—we're guessing that Miller knew Aristotle's ideas better than we do. It turns out that the fact that Willy is an everyday guy is part of the whole point Miller is trying to make.
In Arthur Miller's famous essay, "Tragedy of the Common Man," he states, "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." Miller goes on to say that it's not the fact that past tragic heroes have been royal that makes them resonate with modern audiences. It's that fact that they share the same problems as we do today, the same flaws, fears, and hopes.
Some critics have said that true tragedy is impossible when your hero is a common man. They say that when an everyday guy goes down, not as many people suffer as they would if it were a king. OK, sure, but we have a question: is the size of a tragedy really limited to the world of the play? Can't we look into the life of a common man and recognize our own flaws? Can't we see those flaws in society around us? Why can't a common man's life have size and meaning?
Miller ends his essay by saying, "It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man." Preach it, Arthur, preach it.