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Death of a Salesman: Willy and Shelley are Examples of Tragic Heroes

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Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” are two American dramas that have sparked fierce debates among analysts, writers, literary critics, scholars, and even readers when it comes to tragic heroes. The major characters and central focus of the two dramas, are Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and Shelley Levene in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In watching these characters, one can perceive the disparities between a modernist tragic hero and a postmodernist tragic hero. Willy and Loman were tragic heroes in their individual capacities because they made decisions and erroneous judgements that ultimately led to their own destruction and according to Aristotle, “A tragic hero is a literary character who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her own destruction.” (1). One can bet that the arguments that ensue among critics regarding this topic in relation to Willy Loman and Shelley Levene, is because the term hero, standing alone is a positive thing. Hence the prefix ‘tragic’ which differentiates tragic heroes from classical heroes as these two characters were anything but positive.

Willy Loman was a 63-year-old fictional character in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” According to Aristotle, “he represents the normal man with whom the audience can identify, as all tragic heroes are expected to be” (1). He was an aging salesman who had worked for the same company for 34 years and had had to endure so many negative turns in events, including but not limited to a pay cut and getting fired. He was undeniably hardworking made but made multiple suicide attempts because he kept losing the battle to stay relevant and whatever foothold he held in the American middle class world. He was an intelligent salesman no doubt, with sound business knowledge but time does affect how much value you can add to an organization, as well as the strength you need to add said value. Loman was in the business of marketing products, a traveling salesman, and the forces he was combating, led him to become delusional and want to end his life as he no longer found the joy of living in such misery. It also did not help that he was surrounded by people who fueled his delusions. Loman’s idealism and his overreliance on the fruition of his American Dream should have been substantially fruitful but it ended up being detrimental to his success, hence this can be referred to as a tragic flaw, making him a tragic hero (Sickels 81). According to Aristotle, the error of judgment is a common trait among tragic heroes, and as we see in the case of Loman, his inability to accept his past failures and move on was the root cause of his ultimate downfall.

Loman was a modernist in the sense that he was anything but realistic in his thoughts and expectations. Loman assumed he was loved by the world, such as when he said to his sons, ‘And they know me boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ’cause one thing boys: I have friends’ (Death of a Salesman 56:45). He hallucinated a lot and spent more almost half the play living in his hallucinations, had tons of flashbacks, lived and thrived on daydreams, which are elements of modernists characters, whereby they relive past glories and refuse to come to terms with the present and current happenings.

Shelley Levene is a major character in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glenn Ross.” Like Loman, he is equally an insecure, desperate and struggling salesman, a low down dirty one at that, who would do anything to strike a deal with a client, including barge into a client’s house on a rainy day. In a bid to succeed at work, win a Cadillac, and avoid being fired, he caved into the pressures that welled up around him and opted to play dirty. Levene was in the business of selling real estate and was very dishonest at it and so had become a failure so to speak. Levene was once a powerful and successful salesman but time had caught up with him, hence he was now on a downward spiral plus he had a chronically ill daughter with an unknown medical condition in the hospital. He attempted to charm, coerce, threaten and even bribe the office manager, John Williamson into giving him leads because he was scared to lose his job for lack of sales generation. Levene was a tragic hero because he made several bad decisions that marred his career, such as when he sold the leads, as this cost him his job. His decision to admit to Williamson that he robbed the office and sold some leads illegally, when he said “I sold them to Jerry Graff,” (Glengarry Glen Ross 3:13) was an error of judgement that came back to haunt him later on when Williamson was ready to dish out his revenge. Also in response to Williamson’s killing of Roma’s deal, he welcomed the eye-for-eye concept by incriminating Williamson, revealing that he could not watch as realism reigned (Delaney 2). He shared similar traits with Loman, that exposed his tragic flaw, one of such being his decision to attain success through unorthodox ways.

These major errors, made by the Loman and Levene led to a very significant turn of events and misfortunes, in their respective lives, which according to Aristotle, is another fundamental commonality among tragedies. Loman’s adamancy and inflexibility rendered him poor and unable to sustain his family. He was caught up in his anticipation of the American Dream, to which he refused to put in the work to achieve. Harder work, less talk, and less expectations could have yielded better results but instead he did nothing towards the realization of the goals. He got overly dependent on his obsolete ideology of how things should be done and went on to place more importance on irrelevant things. One of such being his years of loyalty to his company, while also prioritizing his reputation over gaining current knowledge and keeping up with the fast paced world and ever changing ways of doing things. A world where information and technological know-how is increasingly dominating every field, especially business related industries such as the one Loman was in. Knowledge, which Loman seemingly despised, is the backbone of efficiency. Another error of judgement he made was to live in the past and turn himself against the world leading the world to in turn, turn itself against him. He himself acknowledged that there was nothing left for him in the world when he tried to take his life and said, “I am doomed in the modern world” (Death of a Salesman 1:45:34).

Another occurrence in the plays, was what Aristotle referred to as tragic pride or “hubris” and this manifested itself in the two main characters. At different points in time, when the respective characters attained some level of achievement, they became arrogant and forgot their basic moral obligations hence given room for tragic flaws. In the case of Loman, he failed to humble himself to his wife despite the love and care that she showers upon him. He treated her poorly severally, even to the extent of cheating on her with Miss Francis (Death of a Salesman 1:12:36).

In the case of Shelley, we see his pride, when he attained some fraudulent but substantial success in his salesmanship, he was quick to brag about it to Williamson who eventually shut him down by saying “those leads enjoy talking to salesmen” (Glengarry Glenn Ross 2:11). The flaw there being that it was his breaking point and final straw. Just like all other tragic heroes, “their fate will eventually be as a result of their actions” (Aristotle). Both characters are real tragic heroes because they come face to face with several fates that overwhelm and shed even more light on their flaws.

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In the end, Loman gets a lot more than he deserves, though true that he failed to make the necessary adjustments to better his situation, under normal circumstances, the eventual fate that befell him may have been reversed or altogether different. He had a chance at a good life, even though part of what pushed him was the jealousy he felt towards his brother Ben, who was doing way better than him in the diamond mines. His son Happy, perhaps not Biff who was estranged, could have come through for him as even Howard asked him to rely on his sons. His final resort to death was unnecessary, unwarranted, and undeserving. Every financial and emotional issues that his family faced were typical to any regular family; thus, committing suicide was not the best option. When it comes to Levene, even though death was not the final straw for him, he lost his job for sure after the stunt he pulled with the leads burglary, hence he is not at all innocent, his fate was not the most befitting, considering his situation and that of his counterparts. Miller explains in his critique of tragedies, that the hero must be a person that does not accept the realities presented by the status quo (Miller 1). As with Loman, he did not accept the realist world but instead relied on an idealist American Dream, like many other Americans in the real life world. Levene, too, was a go-getter who was willing to go extra miles to achieve his dreams.

One of the recurrent themes in both Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is capitalism. It presents itself in several occasions throughout the plays, and the two main characters handle the concept differently, though some convergent positions still exist. The two plays were set in the twentieth century, a time when capitalism was overwhelmingly popular.

Miller’s play is evidently a modernist work which critiques capitalism of the early twentieth century. Particularly through the story of Loman, the influences the capitalist society has on the citizens of America are clearly evident in the plays. The America we perceive in this play is one we can relate to, one where industrialization and globalization are gaining astronomical growth with the wave and era of new information and technology. The world is currently facing several ups and downs as well as imbalances in the economic, social, and political aspects of todays world. The modernist elements were embraced and popularized in this era and according to Sickles these characteristics were very substantial in influencing the kind of fate Loman faced (82). In examining the height of capitalism in America in a more relevant way, Miller couples his criticism with a sense of idealism. His favorite character for this cause being Loman, who is presented with a modern idealism whose perceptions of life are that of optimism but overly founded on profound illusions and imaginations. He draws most of his ideas from past reflections, especially from a capitalist uncle who became rich upon visiting West Africa to undertake the infamous diamond trade, a true reflection of the American Dream coupled with idealistic notions of success.

Focalized through Loman’s consciousness with a fazed perspective, Miller rejects the traditionally accepted norm and expectations of plays in his modernist critique. Particularly on idealism and realism, the play embraces multifaceted premises held by several characters like Happy, Loman, and his wife. Loman was facing psychological and social problems which stemmed from fierce capitalism, as they were prevalent during the era of a growing and thriving society. He became somewhat alienated from the society due to his sense of reasoning being overwhelmed by capitalism and the zeal to live the American Dream.

In Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s superior skills on the postmodernist critique of capitalism became evident. He exudes concepts of private ownership and consumerism are incorporated throughout the play and growing competition as well as jealousy thrives. For example, each of the four salesmen are ready to do anything to ensure that they emerge as victors in the game of salesmanship, including but not limited to committing deplorable crimes. It is only in the postmodernist culture that you find die-hard sellers who would throw their morals under the bus and are even willing to go the extra mile, such as utilize threats, stealing, bribery, and flattery, empathy, among other unethical deeds all in a bid to outwit their competitors and win the favor of the clients and employers.

The play is significantly founded on the concepts of the current capitalism where there is a generalized universal industrialization. It mirrors into our present day world, as it shows rhow real estate firms which have formed sects operate. Levene is a victim of the postmodernist capitalism because all he had wished for was the expansion of his business prospects and profits. He is no different from a present day realtor trying to rope one in to buying a house or leasing. Unfortunately, the ramifications and rewards of his overreliance on advanced capitalism caught up with him and did him in eventually. Mamet’s play coincided with the era of capitalism and served as a mirror into the heart and soul of what really goes on as an effect of postmodernism culture. Mamet’s play shows figuratively, the truth, according to the models and illusions of postmodernism, which projects the inadequacies and downsides of capitalism in our postmodern world. The bottom line and lessons learned from the play, are the weaknesses of capitalism and how it triggers envy, greed, jealousy, nd lethal competition (Delaney 4). Impliedly, it is either you have money, or you are doomed, there is no inbetween. Millions of lives are wasted in the pursuit of happiness and quick money. People like Leven, Roma, Aaronow, and Moss almost lost their souls in this race a race defined mainly by money, then jealousy, deceit, bribery, and vengeance among other wicked vices. Postmodernism becomes evident in the play through the embracement of a forgiving voice by the author. Mamet believes that these salesmen, in spite of their moral inadequacies, are wonderful people at heart and should be treated with pity, empathy, and acceptance. He does not capitalize on their pride, unscrupulousness, and nerviness. It is only postmodernism that understands these as faults of advanced capitalism and forgives the perpetrators.

Overall, capitalism is a theme that helps in the development of the plots of both Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” The stories reflect on the implications and adverse effects of capitalism on the society, as well as on the tragic heroes whose lives have been wasted in the pursuit of material and temporary gains. Modernism and postmodernism have many similarities when it comes to the discussion of capitalism. However, postmodernism seems to have lost the fight against the idealism and realism established by modernism as globalization and consumerism continues to prevail.

Works Cited

  1. Aristotle. The Tragic Hero http://www.bisd303.org/cms/lib3/WA01001636/Centricity/Domain/593/10th%20english%20Fall/C%20-%20The%20Tragic%20Play/Antigone.Medea/Definition%20of%20Tragic%20Hero.pdf
  2. Delaney, Bill. Critical Evaluation: Glengarry Glen Ross. Masterplots, Fourth Edition; November 2010, p1-3
  3. Mamet, David. Glengarry Glen Ross: A Play. Grove Press, 1984.
  4. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman.
  5. Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man .” www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/12/specials/miller-common.html
  6. Sickels, Amy. ‘Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: History of Criticism.’ Critical Insights: Death of a Salesman (2010): 76-91.

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Death of a Salesman: Willy and Shelley are Examples of Tragic Heroes. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-a-salesman-willy-and-shelley-are-examples-of-tragic-heroes/
“Death of a Salesman: Willy and Shelley are Examples of Tragic Heroes.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-a-salesman-willy-and-shelley-are-examples-of-tragic-heroes/
Death of a Salesman: Willy and Shelley are Examples of Tragic Heroes. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-a-salesman-willy-and-shelley-are-examples-of-tragic-heroes/> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2022].
Death of a Salesman: Willy and Shelley are Examples of Tragic Heroes [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Dec 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-a-salesman-willy-and-shelley-are-examples-of-tragic-heroes/
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