Death of a Salesman is full of common literary elements that are important for students to explore. Because this is one of Miller's most famous tragedies, it is helpful for students to understand why it is categorized as a tragedy. Foremost, it centers around a tragic hero. However, Miller's protagonist is a new kind of tragic hero: “the common man”. This character differs from traditional tragic heroes, in Miller's essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man", he explains how this version differs from the classic Greek archetype.
After reading the play, ask students to read Miller’s essay on "Tragedy and the Common Man" and create a storyboard depicting Willy as a tragic hero.
The common man is an apt subject for tragedy in its highest sense since the common man is easily relatable to the audience. In this play, Willy Loman is a middle-class salesman who wants to work hard and provide for his family.
|Attribute||Miller's View||Example from Death of a Salesman|
The Flaw in the Character
|Miller believed it was the inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what the character conceives to be a challenge to his dignity.||Willy refuses to accept that success is built by hard work and determination.|
|In Miller's view, the tragic hero is “a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity.”||Willy is too proud to take a job from his neighbor, but commits suicide to ensure his family has the financial stability that he couldn't provide.|
Reversal of Fortune
|Miller believed that the hero could be displaced from fortune. Tragedy, then, “is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly”.||Throughout the play Willy refers to others around him who are more successful as having luck or charisma. He talks about the regret he has over not going with his brother to Africa, which made him rich.|
A Moment of Critical Discovery
|For Miller, the destruction of the common man comes along with the protagonist’s realization that he is at odds with the world, and his environment cannot be altered to achieve his goals.||After he is fired, Willy realizes he will never succeed in business, and that, despite his best efforts, his son's have not achieved the ambitions he held for them.|
Fate that Cannot be Avoided
|Miller says tragedy “posits a wrong or an evil in [the protagonist’s] environment.” Something is obstructing the protagonist from achieving his rightful place.||What is done is done, what will be will be. Willy is too old to change and cannot change the past.|
The Audience's Feeling of Pity or Fear After the Hero's Fall
|In Miller's view, a modern audience can relate to the common man’s “ underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.”||The audience is left with a feeling of pity for Lohman’s desperate suicide, and fear that they too may be living lives where their dreams will never be realized.|
Grade Level 11-12
Difficulty Level 2 (Reinforcing / Developing)
Type of Assignment Individual
Type of Activity: Tragic HeroCommon Core Standards
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Create a storyboard that shows how Willy can be considered a tragic hero.
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