Song of the Unsung Antihero




Abstract: The sober treatment of a lowly, unheroic protagonist in Arthur Miller\'s Death of a Salesman flatters the audience. The more obvious way that it flatters us is by alienating us from the protagonist in his downfall so that we watch his destruction from a secure vantage. Less obviously, the form of the play, typical of modern American tragedy, romanticizes the protagonist through what I call the audience\'s paradox, that tension created when a serious work of literature employs an obscure and lowly character as protagonist and so makes him the center of our attention, makes him famous.
Many nineteenth and twentieth century writers seek to convey the experience of a lowly character chafing against his obscurity. But how can an author convey such an experience when the very attention of a readership confers upon the character social significance and dignity, even fame? Exactly how obscure can Jude be when he has a four-hundred page novel written about him, and written by Thomas Hardy, no less? This is a problem I call the audience\'s paradox, a special form of the observer\'s paradox. In essence, the audience\'s paradox is the tension created when a lowly character, chafing against his obscurity, serves as the protagonist of a work of literature and so becomes the center of the audience\'s attention, becomes famous.
The paradox is endemic only to post-Enlightenment tragic literature. Whereas pride stands as a pivotal human imperfection in both the Ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, the metaphysics of a debased form of romanticism valorizes pride, both hubris and narcissism, while denigrating humility. In America the roots of this tendency can be seen at least as early as Walt Whitman. The title of his "Song of Myself" signals a poem unblushing in its swelling praise of the poem\'s speaker, and even if we insist that the speaker is not Whitman the man but a cosmic Whitman joined to all humanity by a boundless love, the contempt for humility evinced by the poem is hard to ignore. Narcissism, in another form, also rears its head in the dark romanticism of Edgar Allen Poe. In both his poetry and his short stories we repeatedly encounter personas who seek narcissistic fulfillment in child brides, a romantic tendency critiqued with savage clarity in Vladimir Nabokov\'s Lolita. And on the other side of the Atlantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley already had created a poetry of unparalleled humorlessness, the need for comic deflation crowded out by the poet\'s swelling humanism.
But in the next century modern American tragedy would do even more to valorize pride at the expense of humility. Indeed, such literature reinforces the audience\'s own pride by way of flattery--both by implying in various ways that the audience is superior to the flawed protagonists and, paradoxically, by causing the audience to identify with an artificially elevated protagonist.
Arthur Miller\'s Death of a Salesman starkly illustrates this process, and his stated poetic illuminates for us why this is the case, though we need to distinguish his stated poetic from the poetic actually evidenced in his tragedies. If in creating his greatest drama, Miller actually had followed the advice he offers in "Tragedy and the Common Man," we long ago would have consigned Death of a Salesman to the second echelon of American theatre. Fortunately, the sterile poetic we find in "Tragedy" merely infects the drama; it does not govern it.
In that oft-reprinted 1949 essay, Miller tells us "the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure . . . his sense of personal dignity." So far, Miller\'s poetic seems in harmony with the history of tragedy. And it continues to seem so when he adds, "From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his \'rightful\' position in his society."1 Do the quotation marks around rightful constitute censure of the hero\'s attitude, or are they an effort to pass on to the reader the attitude of the tragic hero free of Miller\'s opinion? The ambiguity that Miller adroitly creates here strikes to the heart of tragedy.
Did Oedipus, through his hubris, deserve, even hasten his downfall? Or was he simply a noble man