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6. MORTALITY VERSUS IMMORTALITY
All creatures must die; most leave nothing behind them. It is human to fear this mortality and to wish that instead of vanishing anonymously we could leave a monument of our work and suffering. Arthur Miller wrote of the "need to leave a thumbprint" as being as strong a need as hunger or thirst. Willy wants to make an impression, to be remembered after his death, to "give something" to Biff, and his inability to do any of these haunts him. His life has been futile: he is old, poor, scorned by his peers and his sons. His final attempt to make a legacy for Biff is his suicide, which he feels will earn the $20,000 of his insurance policy.
The question of why Willy commits suicide is of course central. The title Death of a Salesman raises it even before the play begins. Though you will form your own opinions of the forces that drove Willy to kill himself, here are some reasons to consider as you read: escape, from the empty and bitter reality of his life; revenge, for his sons' disrespect and resentment; power, in taking action when everything seems hopeless; courage, to lay down his life; victory, finally being able to make a profitable deal, and, by redeeming his life insurance policy, giving his son a fortune, understanding, that he went wrong, but at the last minute knowing that his son loves him anyway.
8. A TRAGIC HERO
Critics have hotly debated the questions of whether Willy is a tragic hero or whether Death of a Salesman is a tragedy. Dramatic tragedy was invented and defined by the Greeks. Aristotle said a play has to have four elements to qualify as a tragedy:
1) noble or impressive characters;
2) the main character's discovery or recognition of a truth about himself;
3) poetic language; and
4) the ability to arouse and then soothe the audience's pity and fear. Some critics consider that Death of a Salesman is debatable on all four elements, while others think the play meets all these criteria. Arthur Miller argued that times have changed-we no longer live in an era dominated by kings and queens-and so maybe our definition of tragedy should change, too. (See the section of this guide on Influences for more on this subject.)
Though he is a common man-Low-man-Willy was later described by the author who created him as "a very brave spirit who cannot settle for half but must pursue his dream of himself to the end." Though Willy did not have great intellectual powers, Miller claims he did have a self-awareness-otherwise he would not have killed himself when he realized his life was meaningless.
The difference between Willy and his salesman neighbor Charley is that Willy is intense and passionate and cares about his dream enough to sacrifice his life to it. A tragic hero is someone with the dedication to die for a belief, but also someone who has a tragic flaw or limitation that defines him as a character and makes the tragedy happen. He has alternatives, but he chooses to live in a certain way that brings about his downfall. All of this is true of Willy.