Oedipus is perhaps one of the foundations of Greek tragedy writing, but he also comes with controversy. Despite the timing of its writing and the way in which it fits Greek tragedy, the question is still raised among literary circles as to whether he is a tragic hero. Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman” certainly has elements that appear to fit the mold on first glance, but the controversy definitely makes its presence felt as well, and it is a much more difficult case to make.
Willy Loman is an entirely different kind of character, though it is those differences that makes him more relatable to the reader. When reading and critically analyzing both stories, however, there is no question that, while you can easily confirm Oedipus’ status as a tragic hero, Willy Loman simply does not fit the mold, though he has many of the characteristics necessary. There are simply too many glaring omissions to make the assertion.
Before a true comparison of the two characters Oedipus and Willy Loman can be made as to their labeling as tragic hero, we must first determine what, in fact, a tragic hero is. What qualities does he possess? What events must take place in the story in order for this label to be attached to a character?
According to Aristotle, the character must be of some form of nobility, suffer from some form of error in judgment, go through a period of reversed fortune, and finally recognize that the error was actually caused by his own actions. Often times that flaw is actually a direct result of the tragic flaw (McManus).
The Hero also often discovers that his fate was, in fact, determined from the beginning of the story, and that he caused his fate, as opposed to it being decided by the actions of others or happenings out of his control. Furthermore, his nobility must be such that the audience is still able to relate to him. That is, he is not so far and above human feelings, happenings, and regular events.
According to this definition set forth by Aristotle, are the characters then tragic heroes? Obviously, in order to determine such, one needs to highlight specific events of each story and ensure that the events required have, in fact, taken place. In doing so, one will be able to find if one, both, or none of the characters fit into the category of tragic heroes, as well as find specific similarities and differences in each character.
Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman” immediately has his life changed early in the story. We are quickly introduced to his wife, who seems to make excuses for his lack of motivation, concentration, or ability to focus for any period of time. We are immediately introduced to what appears to be a pattern of nonchalant behavior as Willy’s wife calmly asked if he has wrecked the car. He tries to admit his own shortcomings, but she quickly makes excuses for him. She is, in a sense, his enabler.
That is, she is almost ignoring the bleakness of his behavior. Willy’s life quickly takes a strange turn as he finds himself out of a job after seeking a new assignment to limit his traveling. The reader notices that Willy has been barrowing money for an extended period from his friend, and actually refuses a good job in New York.
Willy’s scenario becomes even bleaker when we see that Willy has actually been suffering from illusions. From a scene at a restaurant to a conversation with his already dead brother at night, Willy is obviously not thinking clearly. Willy’s end result is indeed a tragic one of suicide and general regret, but we find that he is actually quite relatable to the average reader.
According to Harold Bloom in his book Willy Loman, “He was the kind of man you see on the subway, decently dressed, perfectly integrated with his surroundings excepting that unlike other people he can no longer restrain the power of his experience from disrupting the superficial sociality of his behavior.” Willy was actually quite like the average person of his time, but his delusions set him apart without totally alienating him from the reader.
The word “Hero” is often subjective, and it can at times be attributed to anyone with great influence, no matter how small the audience or sphere of impact. However, even with the most liberal definition, it would be exceedingly difficult to classify Willy Loman as a true classic hero. He is not of any form of nobility, nor does he recover from his quick, dramatic downfall. He enters the pit and never leaves.
Perhaps the strongest case for Loman’s status as a tragic hero is that his demise is a result of almost entirely internal struggles (Wakefield, 27). He has frequent struggles with his own reality, and with his mind often makes a new one to conform to and deny his current situation. In a sense, Willy is much like many people in both America and general society, the main difference being that his secrets, his life, and his downfall are all manifestations in a physical manner because of his delusions.
Despite all of Willy’s secrets, lies, deception, and lack of self-realization and purpose, Willy Loman is actually a selfless character. In his own way, he honestly believes that his committing suicide will help his wife lead a better life in spite of her obvious suffering. “This act is an act only found in someone who demonstrates qualities of a tragic hero” (Bloom, 33). In that way, Willy is a hero whether or not you agree with his motives, reasoning, or methods.
Though you cannot make the case for Willy Loman as a tragic hero, he definitely has elements that make him a viable candidate. However, his lack of nobility and lack of a verifiable “good” make it hard to justify. That is, by the time we see Willy Loman in this work, he is already well on his way to his end, and though that is also a characteristic of a tragic hero, we see no evidence of a time before his delusions or lack of self awareness, as at least some of this behavior has been going on for weeks.
Oedipus’ character is, for all intents and purposes, at least a tragic figure if not a hero simply by the circumstances through which his demise was achieved. His fate is completely foreshadowed early in the play as the blind prophet warns him of all to come. He claims that he will be blind, but that a marriage of an immediate family member would take place (Knox, 16).
This accurate picture of future events is one of the key elements of a tragic hero as explained above. We already know through the introduction of the play itself that Oedipus is the King of Thebes and that he is on a quest to find the murderer of a past king in order to rid his people of the plague, which puts him squarely into a story cycle that resembles other tragic heroes. He is, in this case, very comparable to Beowulf, who was on a mission of his own to defeat Grendel.
Oedipus, desperate to escape what has been foreshadowed of him, is pleased to learn that his father has died of old age. In his eyes, the prophecy he received is now worthless, but he is still exceedingly worried about the part of the prophecy detailing an incestuous relationship with his mother (Miller, 155). However, Oedipus is eventually distressed that his path has caused him to marry the woman who turns out to be his mother and murdered his father to do so. “Oedipus gauges out his eyes as a symbolism for his incestuous sin, thus fulfilling the prophecy laid down” (Miller, 155).
Despite the fact that many of Oedipus’ actions are done out of ignorance, they are still a matter of his own choice and tragic flaw, making him a prime example of a tragic hero. Clearly, his desire to know and unwillingness to heed to credible advice turned out to be a fatal aspect of his personality, eventually leading to his death.
Though each characters’ demise is a direct result of their own flaws and their ends are very similar in that they result in their tragic ends, it is clear that Willy Loman and Oedipus are extremely different, ranging from their origins to their circumstances. Willy Loman is, as discussed, not a true tragic hero, but rather just a tragic figure from whom others can learn. Clearly, there are similarities, but there really isn’t much of a comparison on the level of tragic heroes in literature.
Bloom, Harold. Willy Loman: Modern Literary Criticism. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Knox, Bernard. Oedipus At Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time. London: Yale UP.
McManus, Barbara F. “Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy.” Nov. 1999. 12 Oct. 2007 .
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Wakefield, Thaddeus. The Family in Twentieth-Century American Drama. Vol. 39. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.