The place of tragedy in modern literature is immense

Tragic literature holds a significant place in modern literature, as it is one of the most popular among readers and playwrights. All readers love the tragic hero because he lets the audience perceive and experience the depth of the dilemma presented in the sad literature. There are many words dedicated to discussing tragedies; nonetheless, Aristotle's and Miller's views of tragedy are the most thorough. The current study focuses on the tragedies Death of a Salesman and Oedipus the King. despite the 2400 years difference between the two tragedies, both comprise common features of the tragedy, depicting suffering and life of the major characters, belonging to different époques, however, having similar moral problems.

Aristotle’s and Miller’s understanding of tragedy

As per Aristotle, tragedy purifies the passions through compassion and fear. Aristotle focuses on compassion and fear as the main experiences of the audience of tragedy. These emotions, in his opinion, call a surprise and fracture. For example, in Oedipus the King by Sophocles, the messenger comes to Oedipus to tell him who he really is, and thus relieve him from the fear, but in fact, he achieves the opposite. Fear can be caused by assuming that the tragic hero is not too different from the viewer (Reeves, 1952). Compassion can only be produced by the hero who suffered unjustly, so in the tragedy of change, a turning point in the fate of the hero must lead not from misery to happiness but from happiness to misery, while the cause of this must be the depravity of a man, his big mistake (Reeves, 1952). Aristotle is sure that only this action can cause fear and compassion in the hearts of the audience, as readers identify themselves with the tragic hero. The poet of the tragedy provides the audience with pleasure, derived from compassion and fear through imitation.

Arthur Miller provided another concept of tragedy and tragic hero. According to him, tragic hero is a common man, with his own problems. Therefore, this is the major difference from the tragic heroes of the old times. Modern tragedy depicts the life of a common man, preoccupied with his problems, which eventually lead to his tragic end. Miller is sure that an ordinary person is an appropriate subject for tragedy in its highest sense; as usual people are easily relatable to the audience (Miller, 1949). In his work, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a middle class salesman, who wants to work and provide his family. Unlike Aristotle, the character of Miller is simple person with the usual problems, while Aristotle’s Oedipus is a king, who loaded the burden of the whole state on him. In the work tragedy for a common man, Miller stated that the major source of tragedy of the tragic hero is his inability to find consensus with the world. Therefore, it is better for him to leave this world. In view of Miller modern tragic hero differs from the antic one, Modern tragic character is full of pride and selfishness, who is unable to take assistance from other people (Miller, 1949). This is the major reason if his tragedy, as he is refused by the world, because of his own lack of desire to be saved.

Oedipus the King and Death of Salesman as tragedies

These two tragedies are bright representatives of the tragedy as a genre, as they comprise all the elements of tragedy, as depicted by both, Aristotle and Miller. The first tragedy Oedipus the King presents a standard genre of tragedy and depicts tragic hero, who has found themselves in the world of injustice. This piece ancient literature can be considered a tragedy, as it depicts tragic events in life of the major character, Oedipus. The readers see the tragedy in his life, sympathize him and follow his final personal crush. Aristotle, who says that Greek tragedy is the tragedy of two emotions, fear and compassion, writes on Oedipus the King that anyone who reads it, will experience two emotions at the same time: and fear of what happened with the hero and sympathy. It is true. When reading about the events in life of Oedipus, the audience is afraid of such destiny, however, we experience sympathy and desire to help. Sophocles’ tragedy lies in the depiction that the destiny of the person does not always depend on himself, since there is higher power, God, who controls our lives:

"if a man's contemptuous, and goes along with acts and speaks without respect for what is right and doesn't revere statues of gods, then let a sorry fate destroy him - for this perverse pride - since he unjustly reaps rewards, does not respect what's godly." (Sophocles, 2010, Line 883).

Oedipus is tragic hero, as he has appeared under the influence of the fate, which had eventually destroyed him. His destiny is a tragedy itself, as there is hardly a person, who would like to face with the same choice as Oedipus did. In search for the answer on the question: who runs the destiny of people, Oedipus left his native city, almost dooming himself to death. The gods have predicted him to kill his father and marry his mother. This choice is the hardest in his life. Moreover, this is the tragedy that ruins the person and instills fear in the audience.

Another character of the tragedy is Willy Loman, the major hero of Miller’s tragedy Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller presents a tragedy, which is somewhat different from the classical understanding of tragedies, presented by Sophocles or Shakespeare. Miller’s tragedy is modern in terms of both, the style and the subject matter. Although, his play is related to famous Miller’s essay ‘Tragedy and the common man”, it is possible to find the traces of common tragedy in his novel. Together with Aristotle’s depiction of a tragedy, which instills fear and evokes empathy, Miller shows a common man also can be the protagonist of a tragedy, while his sufferings can also touch hearts of the audience. Miller’s Loman is able to evoke different feelings, such as pity, fear, empathy and disgust, thus creating a tragedy around him. Since he is a modern character, his life and events, depicted by the author, are more comprehensive to modern readers. Loman’s life becomes a tragedy. Willy is not only a representative of the post-depression American middle-class society; he is an everyman, the life of whom is a tragedy, with which everyone may face:

"I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (Miller Act 1, Part 8, p. 40).

Loman’s life finishes tragically, leaving the trace of pity and sorrow in the hearts of readers.


Although, the plays Oedipus the King and Death of Salesman were written in different periods, they have common features and depict tragedies of their major characters. As Aristotle stated, tragedy must evoke fear and empathy in readers, so both plays managed to create a mix of these feelings in hearts and minds of the readers and audience. Although, both characters belong to different époques, they face with the same dilemmas and choices, which lead to their tragic end.


Sophocles and Grene, D. (translation) (2010). Oedipus the king. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press

Miller, A. (1976). Death of a Salesman. NY: penguin Books.

Reeves, Ch. (1952). “The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero”, The American Journal of Philology, 73 (2): 172-188

Miller, A. (1949). Tragedy and the common man. Retrieved from New York Times website

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