Choose one episode from Death of a Salesman, which you feel contributes significantly to the plays overall tragic dimension. Identify how your chosen episode functions within the wider framework of the whole play. Discuss different interpretative possibilities offered by this episode. Charley is the play’s saving grace, a beacon of hope in cruel capitalistic times, he is always offering Willy escape. My chosen episode is Willy’s final visit to Charley. Within this scene Miller not only brings home Willy’s failure as a salesman and father, but the devastating effect of capitalism on the common man.
The comparison between Charley and Willy makes the play’s key moments sting even more with the realisation of their unfairness and inevitability. Within this scene Miller plays with the parallels between the two men, brutally juxtaposing them by playing Willy’s desperate wish for Biff to continue his legacy against Charley’s success in Bernard (whom he has, apparently, given little interest to). The effect of Bernard’s success on Willy is devastating, I believe it immediately adds tragedy as Willy finally admits to himself that Biff won’t succeed, and one could argue that this truly breaks Willy’s heart.
Miller turns the audience from sympathy to frustration by alluding to the events in Boston (which also has the effect of increasing tension). With Willy’s rejection of Charley’s job offers, I believe Miller is implying that capitalism has forced Willy to put his pride before his needs; he rejects this final chance of escape to satisfy his pride. One could argue that by doing this Miller is suggesting that there are no problems within the play which are not caused or increased by capitalism.
On the other hand one could argue that Willy is ignoring the perfectly good escape routes that surround him, something suggested by Miller’s original title “The Inside of his Head” which implies the problems are of Willy’s own making. With Willy’s rejection of this escape route Miller emphasises that the common man can be a tragic hero, as Willy conforms to the Aristotelian notion of a hero rejecting all chances of escape. One could argue this is the scene in which Willy’s final fate is concreted within his mind and the blame cannot be placed on anyone, or anything, else, be it Linda, Biff, or capitalism.
By bringing Boston to light Miller gives Willy more cause to question his morals. Biff is Willy’s all, he has to continue the Loman name; Miller himself calls the play a “love story” between Willy and Biff and I believe that it is in this scene that Willy realises that his love is unrequited. If ever, this is the scene when Willy realises that Biff is, as Miller put it; “a creature created by Willy”, something highlighted by Bernard’s presence (and success) and Willy’s later accusation to Biff that Bernard doesn’t “whistle” in the elevator.
Willy also realises that he has been lying to Biff, Linda, Happy and himself, evident in his revelation at the chop-house that he “doesn’t have a story left in his head”, suggesting Willy has realised that his life is built on lies. This is further accentuated when Biff calls into question Happy’s true job, calling him “practically full of it”, an attitude Willy has clearly instilled in him. Happy strives to continue the legacy Biff rejects, condemning himself to Willy’s fate. But here’s the true tragedy; Willy doesn’t even care.
He has invested so much in Biff that he completely ignores Happy’s desperately tragic attempts to gain his favour. Here Willy, as with any archetypal tragic hero, cannot face that he isn’t the chosen image he has given himself. This scene highlights the shattering of his false reality, and emphasises Miller’s argument that the common man is “as apt a subject for tragedy” as any Shakespearean prince. Within this episode Charley presents several means of ‘escape’, for instance at one point he tells Willy to “just walk away”. Just” suggests this is a simple task and Miller may be using this to emphasise Willy’s impotency, highlighting how his pride (his hamartia) has trapped him; he now finds the simple, impossible. One could also suggest that Charley wishes for simplicity, yearning to “just” paint the ceiling, this immediately puts him aside from Willy, who has these skills but neglects them, suggesting that no one is ever truly happy in a consumerist society. “Just” also suggests desperation, and through Charley’s pleading Miller may be foreshadowing the tragedy that is about to ensue.
Miller also suggests that Willy is already decided on his suicide, “worth more dead than alive”, the fact that Charley tries to prevent this suggests that he knows what will become of Willy as he has seen it before. “Than alive” implies that Willy has considered the other options and feels enclosed, unable to escape, and that the only way he can be of ‘use’ is through the financial gain of his death (which ironically will never come; there is no compensation for suicides). “Worth” suggests a man is only viewed in monetary terms, implying Willy lives in a society concerned only with humanity as a means of making profit.
I believe Charley makes little strenuous effort to save Willy, suggesting he is damned to an inevitable fate, justifying Miller’s challenge to the theory of Aristotle and A. C. Bradley (“It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to permission”) that a tragic heroes fate is inevitable. One can infer Miller does this to highlight the American dream’s control, eventually driving Willy to his death. With this in mind one can suggest that Charley’s aforementioned use of “just” is completely legitimate as this is a situation from which Willy can escape, but chooses not to.
Miller could also be showing Charlie’s lack of concern and limits of care, implying that to gain success you have to lose humanity. Either way there is little more tragic than a “good man” condemning himself to death. In stark contrast to the ‘Howard scene’ which it proceeds, this episode accentuates capitalism’s effect on love; it is worthless if profitless, evident in Willy’s judgement that Bernard’s friends are “good people” as they own a tennis court. One could suggest Miller uses this to show consumerisms sheer power; judging by wealth not morality.
By foreshadowing Willy’s death throughout this episode Miller highlights that once Capitalism has used you for its own ends it disposes of you (Willy’s fairly low age emphasises how little time this takes). Willy rejects Charley’s offers out of pride – as I have previously mentioned Charley is a constant reminder of Willy’s failing, playing on Willy’s consumerist need for more, excelling in everything he cannot; business, financial management and fatherhood, so why would he accept his help?
It is here that the prominence of the American dream comes to pass, instilling in Willy goals beyond his reach, because all men aren’t equal; it is not through sheer coincidence that Howard holds his father’s position. In the whole play it is only Ben, Willy’s idol, that calls him “William”. One could suggest that this is a representation of how capitalism treats you like an individual when you are anything but. Willy’s childlike name suggests he is easily influenced, and may be a comment on how capitalism preys on the weak and innocent. It does not play fair.
Another interpretation is that it is Linda that causes Willy’s tragic downfall with her insistence that Willy is “doing well”, which causes him to stay with her and not join Ben. Linda is driven by the fact that she “more than loves” Willy, and if this interpretation is correct then it emphasises that you cannot succeed in Capitalism with love. Interestingly, Willy’s other idol is “Singleman”; here Miller may be implying that the only way to true success is by disregarding all others (Willy’s love for Biff, and Linda’s love for Willy thereby stunting his success).
Ben is the epitome of capitalism; perfectly understanding the system, and telling no one else. He is also a powerful metaphor for capitalism’s effect on Willy, Ben first enters “exactly” as Willy reveals he is “tired”. One can suggest that Miller does this to reveal how quickly capitalism has worked through Willy, and how his honest attempt at capitalism can never prosper, evident in Ben and Howard. With “tired” Miller reinstates the idea that a “tired” man is no use to consumerism, foreshadowing Willy’s death.
The hindsight given by my chosen episode adds to the tragedy of these previous scenes by showing their inevitability, and emphasising how cruel this society is. Equally these earlier extracts strengthen Willy’s ego, building it up for a more tragic fall. The episode I have chosen encapsulates the play’s beating heart. Within this episode Willy sees his true self for the first time and realises he is living a lie. This scene clearly defines the play as a tragedy (revealing Willy’s hamartia to be his pride, and ensuring his death with his refusal of Charley’s job).
These combine to make this episode incredibly powerful, due to its agonizing frustration and sense of foreboding. Miller said that tragedy must follow the “heart and spirit of the average man”, and in this scene Willy Loman sees his heart and spirit stripped before him, and condemns himself to the death of a tragic hero. Willy is so desperate for Biff’s love and the American dream that he forgets the most important thing of all; “Money can’t buy you love”. Bibliography Miller Shorts Death of a Salesman Tragedy and the Common Man. http://shakespeare. nuvvo. com/lesson/4435-elements-of-a-tragic-hero-in-literature Word Count = 1,535