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Tragic Characters

Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman and Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King are both tragic characters because they are men who want to be good (though one is an adulterer and the other a murderer) but who are caught in situations beyond their control because of their ambition and pride. Both have made decisions in the past which have sent their lives in directions which fated them to disaster. They are both largely unaware of their true situations in life and the roles they have played in bringing those situations about. On the other hand, at least one major difference sets them apart---Willy is a small-time salesman, and a failure at that, while Oedipus is at the top of his power and influence as king. Despite the latter difference, stark as it is, Willy qualifies as a tragic figure as much as does Oedipus. Like Oedipus, Willy is a good man and is trying to do the right thing, but because of choices he made long ago (to sell, to chase the American Dream), and because of circumstances beyond his control, he meets a disastrous end, physically and spiritually: "I am tired to the death" (Miller 1477).

Sophocles accepts the Aristotelian tenet that the center of a tragedy must be "a person of 'high estate'" (Kennedy 1147). Miller holds that "the common man is as apt a subject of tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." Specifically, Miller argues that what is important is not the station in life of the tragic figure, but his or her "emotional situation" (Miller 1726). Emotions are what tie play and character and audience together. Miller argues that all tragic figures (Oedipus and Willy included) are trying to find, keep, or recover their "'rightful' position" (Miller 1726). What makes Oedipus and Willy even more tragic is their self-deception with respect to their "rightful position" in the world. Tragedy seems more than anything else to be the story of humanity's failure to see that life itself is a tragedy, ...

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Tragic Characters. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 20:02, June 19, 2019, from