The Tragedy of the Common Man: An Introspective into Mind of Arthur Miller “The plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man. 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”
Arthur Miller In the above quote, Arthur Miller suggests that the dramatic human tragedies we have so revered over the past centuries should make way for a more mundane morality tale based on the common man, relevant to the lives of a mid 20th century American audience. Miller enforces this idea in his 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman” where a long-in-the-tooth traveling salesman is stuck walking a thin line between his fading dreams and his aging reality. Miller uses this dilemma, via the ego, to show the tenacity and strength of the common man’s spirit and to demonstrate that his heart is the same if not stronger than of noble men.
It was Shakespeare who first showed us the power of tragedies through his influential works of human drama. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is a great example of how history has revered the tragedies which exemplify human power, success, celebrity and hubris. However, contrary to Shakespeare, Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” shows us that the tale of the common man in a modern world is as gripping as any. By portraying the protagonist as the average audience member, Miller supersedes any notion of fiction, with the thought of non-fiction or reality.
As a result, Miller accentuates the drama within the play and thus draws more emotion from the audience. These are some of the ways Miller disassociates his tragedy from more stereotypical Shakespearean tragedies. Throughout Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, there are key points where the main character, Willy Loman, speaks of high fortunes to come. For instance, during the first act Willy tells his two sons…”Someday I’ll have my own business, and I’ll never have to leave home again” (1249).
During this scene, Willy’s prognosticated betterments occur during a flash back to when his boys were younger and when Willy was relatively successful. Willy’s flash back is a result of the preceding qualm he had with his wife, Linda, about the struggles of traveling at his older age and the predicament of his apathetic adult son living at home. Miller cleverly builds the plot by using common domestic dilemmas like Willy’s qualm to establish empathy from his audience. Miller realizes that when life becomes bleak, people tend to search for a time when life wasn’t so bleak or desolate.
Because it is easy to relate to, Miller uses Willy’s frustration as a cause for his flash back. However, being able to relate to a common problem isn’t the prime reason behind Miller’s “Tragedy and the Common Man”. Being able to recognize the strength and resilience of the human spirit can also be enough to capture the heart and soul of the common man. In “Death of a Salesman”, Willy’s spirit and heart are put on display to show the immense amount of good and optimism that can arise while faced with adversities. Sometimes just the hope of affluence can change a man’s mood.
Miller took this thought and applied it to Willy Loman’s character. Even though Willy didn’t entirely realize that his best days were behind him, he still found hope for the future by looking towards his sons. Because to Willy, his sons are a beacon of success and the greatest legacy the common man can leave is his offspring. Like many fathers and career men, Willy took his work home with him. As a father, Willy tried to instill in his boys that appearance and presentation is everything. Willy wanted nothing more than for his boys to become successful salesmen, just as Willy wanted for himself.
Miller also recognizes that this belief is common among parents. For sons and daughters to grow up to be just like or even better than their fathers and mothers, I only can assume is a very proud and satisfying feeling. But unlike Willy in “Death of a Salesman”, this belief is usually seen as naive or wishful thinking among parents. However, Willy wanted so badly to be loved and revered that when he realized that he wasn’t, he put all of his expectations on his sons. Herein lays the tragedy within the play. Willy becomes so consumed in his fantasies of success that he loses sight of reality.
Willy won’t accept that his son Biff (the not so prodigal son) isn’t cut out for being a salesman or any businessman for that matter. When Biff tells his father this, Willy refuses to believe that the son who was once full of potential, is now an incompetent drifter. This is where Miller’s tragedy of the common man unfolds in his play. “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you…I am one dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it.
A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning! I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! -Biff Another way Miller differentiates his “tragedy of the common man” from other more aristocratic tragedies, is through the subtle details hidden within the play’s context. Throughout Miller’s play we see small allusions that reference the life-style of the common man. In the second act Willy says, “Whoever heard of a Hastings refrigerator? Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs” (1269). Many people can relate to this statement by Willy.
One time or another somebody has owned an appliance or car that broke down unceremoniously. In the beginning of act one, Miller also references the popular American car Chevrolet, because it was once Willy’s pride and joy. These references distinguish the “common man tragedy” compared to the more stereotypical tragedy that centers more around a celebrity figure. When the highest expectations aren’t met, tragedies arise. Miller saw this as the pinnacle of drama within the common man. Expectations in sports, school, relationships and work are all put on children as they grow up.
These expectations can all be found within any man, not just the priviledged such as in Shakespeare’s plays. Willy Loman was not a famous person nor was he rich, society doesn’t place high expectations upon people like Willy. Rather, society places those expectations upon the rich and the famous, therefore the high drama in literary tragedies should revolve around the stories of the rich and famous. However, Arthur Miller disagrees with that model by saying the common man experiences are even more dramatic and tragic because of their relevance to one’s own life.
Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” proves that the revered dramatic tragedies of our time don’t have to revolve around society’s royal and privileged characters. Miller proposes in his quote that it is time that we pay attention to the average man’s tragedy, because in doing so, we will learn more about ourselves.