Hubris, or hybris, is a literary device that refers to a character’s excessive pride. It usually appears within the protagonist and becomes his or her fatal flaw. An overconfidence or pride, sometimes stubbornness, causes the character’s downfall at the story’s conclusion. In Arthur Miller’s, Death of a Salesman, the character Willy Loman exemplifies hubris through in his relationship to work. We will consider three examples that develop the theme of hubris: irrationality, arrogance, and stubbornness.
In the play, Willy works for a company and places a lot of value in his profession. Near the beginning of the story, we see his hubris on display. However, the nature of Willy’s hubris changes. Willy soon finds himself and his profession on uneasy ground, with doubts rising. Delusion begins to set in and Willy feels his age, frustration, and desperation. When considering employment, he talks with his wife, Linda. Discussing his options, Linda advises Willy, “Willy, dear. Talk to them again. There’s no reason why you can’t work in New York” (4). Willy responds, “They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England” (4). While stubbornness appears here in Willy’s refusal to take a job, what shows more is irrationality. His wife voices common sense, a good position that would provide income and a feeling of significance for Willy. But Willy’s remark expresses delusion; he thinks he’s “vital” to his current post. That they somehow need him in an essential way. Willy cannot see reality; he sees a false notion of reality due to his hubris. Here, his pride creates false notions of his position in New England.
Though his irrationality is puzzling, the next sight of hubris leaves no confusion. In a conversation with his wife and coworkers, Willy boasts: “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know and I go right through” (20). This is chest-swelling pride revealed through Willy’s words. There is no trace of tragedy, yet. Rather, we now see hubris pure and positive, considering it arrogance at this point. From irrationality to arrogance, hubris takes another form.
Charley is Willy’s neighbor and has numerous times offered him a job. Despite other themes like jealousy and the role of their sons, a dialogue between Charley and Willy shows hubris has not left our main character. Near the end of the play, Charley confronts Willy, suggesting that Willy’s jealousy keeps him from accepting a job. Willy responds flatly: “I can’t work for you, that’s all, don’t ask me why” (73). Here, Willy does not acknowledge the accusation of jealousy or any other variables regarding why he will not work for Charley. This statement may only express reticence or frustration.
We must consider the context. Willy has lost his job. Even as an unemployed man, he will not accept Charley’s job offer. Thus, in this context, Willy’s statement reveals his hubris. He may be jealous, but he is more-so stubborn. Hubris locks Willy into a single-track mode of thought, causing him to refuse an available job.
In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller places hubris in Willy Loman, a trait that transforms from irrationality, to hot arrogance, and finally stubbornness. Loman’s pride becomes excessive, and like other characters of literature, drives his downfall.
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1949. Print.