Reading with the Times: The Tragic Hero Question (3/8)

Death of a Salesman marquee as featured in The New York Times.

I agree with Charles Isherwood’s reading of Willy Loman as a tragic hero. He contends that Willy alone does not reflect Arthur Miller’s contention that a tragic hero devotes himself to evaluating himself justly. Willy by himself cannot embrace another model of what it means to live well. He cannot recover himself and elevate the value of what he enjoys beyond what the culture values. Isherwood thinks that if the Loman family unit were perceived as a whole, then they would satisfy Miller’s definition as Biff expresses a commitment to living honestly.

Biff’s commitment to living honestly and finding value in working with his hands offers hope for claiming a life beyond the clearly alienated corporate figure that Willy represents. Willy seemed to also take pleasure from working with his hands but he rejects this possibility for his life–perhaps because it wouldn’t bring him notice; instead, he tries to embrace a corporate life that he imagines would bring him material wealth. Biff and Willy together bring the “balance between what is possible and what is impossible” that Miller thinks characterizes tragedy. Biff shows that it is possible for the Lomans to re-evaluate their dreams and have a good life on their own terms. I imagine that it might be possible for Biff to understand that Bernard’s wealth and status do not elevate  the meaningfulness of his life over those with less money and less cultural capital. Willy never seems capable of such understanding.

Personally, I have a very hard time understanding people like Willy and I also think that trying to do so, at least for me, becomes a matter of morality. I need to understand how people can remain deluded by dreams and committed to something that keeps being confirmed to them as false and untrue. My father could be this way–like Willy. He talked about almost everything in terms of greatness. The future was marked by it. He found the language of grandeur incredibly seductive. I did to until I had made some achievements and discovered that the experiences, the prizes and awards, the records and the accolades did not change the quality of my life. I didn’t experience anything transcendent in success and I had expected to. Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” was a perfect anthem for me. I felt that I was “racing with destiny” and thought that if “given just one moment in time, I would feel eternity.” I imagined these things to be at stake: destiny, eternity. Nothing transcendent happened though when I “seized that one moment of time.” Absolutely nothing…and I could not convince myself otherwise. Though my dabbles with notions of greatness involved high school athletic feats, I believed these were metaphors for other accomplishments. O.K., you win a college national championship: so what? A professional championship: so what? What really changes? How does life become more meaningful because of these “accomplishments”?

Recognizing that other people feel and think otherwise becomes a matter of morality because my own strong views make it easy for me to be dismissive. But I think it would be arrogant to do so. It would mean belittling the many voices that make a claim on the meaningfulness of greatness that they find satisfying. Unlike Biff, I never would have tried to make my father accept the limits of his dreams. As far as I could tell, there always seemed to be something very fragile in the dreamer; so I would just listen. My uncle and I had this conversation about my father because I thought that my uncle would actually talk to my father in practical terms about his dreams. I understood that a part of my father’s frustration with his brother was just that: he took his dreams seriously. But my father’s dreams did not usually stand up to real world scrutiny. My uncle would say things to my father like, “How are you going to get insurance for all of these cars you plan on renting out? How much is that going to cost? Have you thought about who your customers are going to be? How are you going to market your business?” My father would grow furious and start cursing. My uncle and I talked about this because we were both very, very aware of how many plaques and posters that my father had in his life that were dedicated to dreams and dreaming. (In fact, the day before my father died, he quoted me a few lines from John Lennon’s “Imagine.”) I told my uncle that I understood where he was coming from in practical terms about my father’s dreams but that the difference between us is that I never asked my father questions or challenged the plausibility of his dreams, I just said, “mm hmm” when he talked to me about them. I thought it was mostly harmless because he didn’t really have much follow through. I never told him his plans would work, but I never suggested that they wouldn’t work. I didn’t take his dreams seriously, which is not to say that I didn’t take him seriously. I listened to him, but I felt that I was listening to a dream and not a plan. I don’t think I dismissed my father. I listened to him. I even heard him. But I didn’t think he was doing anything beyond talking out his private thoughts. I never thought he was making a plan so I didn’t treat it as such. As I write this though, I am beginning to understand that some people understand themselves and their identity through their dreams; they are their dreams. So for them, in dismissing my father’s dreams, I was dismissing him. So I guess this is where the tension resides: How do we properly honor the role of dreams in one another’s lives?

My father was furious with me for not becoming the athlete he’d imagined I’d be, but I didn’t care what he thought because I knew the truth. I knew that athletic greatness was beyond me and I was fine with that. Unlike Biff, I didn’t feel that I needed to make my father see me for who I was; it was more important that I be who I was. As I read the play this time, I was struck by how invested Biff was in forcing his father’s recognition and I wondered why he needed it. In my case, it would have been nice for my father to have easily accepted my decision to live my life on my own terms, but it wasn’t necessary. Why was it for Biff?

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