Subject Stars: Year 12 Literature
Jacques in year 12 has written a great essay about tragedy. It is about how Tess and Willy, the protagonists in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Death of a Salesman, lose their identity and a sense of who they are. The focus was on the tragic form, so students had to link to many of the key features of the tragic story. We interviewed Jacques teacher, Mr. Dixon, and he said, "Jacques wrote extremely fluently in his essay and constantly referred to the question. He also used loads of quotes which shows just how much he remembers about each text. Jacques has been working extremely hard and he has made great progress in his essays and should be extremely proud of this piece of work."
We next interviewed Jacques and first asked him what he is studying in English. He said, “My work in English involves three texts: Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Death of a Salesman, and Othello. These are the set works I'm currently studying as part of my first year in A Level English Literature, and most recently my class was required to write an essay on the theme of identity loss in tragedy using Tess and Death as a means of analysis."
We asked him if he was surprised to be chosen and he said “I'm completely surprised at my work being selected - in fact, I didn't notice until Mr Dixon told me himself, urging me to check my emails! While I was writing this essay in particular, I was convinced that I was writing horribly, that it wouldn't work and that I would fail. That just goes to show that we're our own biggest critics - you shouldn't doubt your writing."
Well, let's now see this brilliant essay by Jacques. Here it is below in full!
"The protagonist's loss of identity is the most harrowing aspect of tragic texts." To what extent do you agree?
The loss of identity experienced by the tragic protagonist is often the most harrowing aspect of tragedy, as portrayed by Miller and Hardy’s representations of their heroes. Both Willy and Tess are robbed of their identity and judged by society, their role as exceptional characters within their respective works forcing them to be cast out and eventually become a martyr to the corruption of their surroundings. This, for the audience, is without a doubt the most harrowing part of both tragedies – we see the protagonist’s world crumble around them as their downfall inevitably comes closer, forcing them towards their eventual demise.
Tess being robbed of her innocence and purity exemplifies the tragic loss of identity in the novel – juxtaposed to the title of Phase the First, “The Maiden”, Phase the Second has Tess branded a “Maiden No More”. Following the rape that Tess was “doomed to receive” at the hands of Alec, completely vulnerable and exposed to Alec’s “barbarism”, Tess views herself “an anomaly”. She becomes an outcast from society due to her lack of purity, which is solely blamed on her own actions despite “sleeping soundly” while the fateful event took place – with even Tess's own mother believing that the rape is “natter, and what pleases God”. The loss of her identity as a virgin is devastating to both Tess and the reader, who sees Tess demonized and reified by the “accusatory horror” of society due to her burden. While it can be argued that Tess escaping the “engirdled and secluded” Blackmoore gives her some respite from her loss of identity, being “as happy as she ever would be” with Angel, Tess’s past rapidly catches up to her “hunted soul”. She is reminded that “in the background shapes of darkness were always spread” and feels the urge to “snatch ripe pleasure” before her loss of identity can return to haunt her – she is rapidly denied this happiness when Alec learns of her impurity and stops seeing Tess as a “visionary essence of women”, abandoning her for her “grotesque prestidigitation”. Tess experiences a second loss of identity in the eyes of her love, Angel, which renders the tragedy all the more harrowing for the reader. Through this portrayal of Tess’s rejection at the hands of society, eventually leading to her death, Hardy accentuates the plight of the rural poor in Victorian England, urging his more affluent readers to act in preventing more fates to finish like that of Tess.
The destruction of Willy Loman’s façade of success and fame is the most harrowing aspect of “Death of a Salesman”, exemplifying the protagonist’s loss of identity throughout the play. He instils in both his family and himself the belief that he is “well-liked”, holding a position that is “vital in New England”, while struggling to earn any money to support them. Willy continuously indoctrinates his sons to his own beliefs, telling them that “a man’s gotta add up to something” and to “never leave a job til you’re finished” - he forces himself to work “to the death” to support his family, foreshadowing his inevitable downfall – upon the realisation that he is “a dime a dozen”, Willy decides that he is “worth more dead than alive”, and kills himself for the insurance money to finally aid his struggling family. Even following his death, the audience continues to be haunted by the unraveling of Willy’s identity – his belief that the “funeral will be massive” is buried along with him when Linda asks, “Why didn’t anybody come?”. For his entire life, Willy is a victim to the delusions of the American Dream, believing that he has a chance of success and viewing himself as a great salesman – once he loses this identity, exposed as a “phony little fake”, he is brought ever closer to his demise. This removal of his façade is harrowing to the audience, who view the consequences of capitalist America through the lens of Miller’s play – millions like Willy Loman are blinded and manipulated by the false promises of the American Dream, with Willy’s inability to contribute to society causing his death.
A second identity is similarly stripped from Willy within the play, in the form of his role as a husband. In the opening scenes, Willy views Linda as his “support and foundation”, with Linda treating him with infinite patience as “the dearest man in the world” to her. However, as Willy’s affair with The Woman is uncovered, offering her “stockings” while Linda continues in the “mending” of her own, the reader is exposed to the deception and corruption of Willy’s identity – he betrays his own wife, as well as the rest of his family, for the sake of sexual and egotistical self-validation. He is denied the identity of a loyal husband, only viewed as the “saddest, self-centredest man”. From this point in the play onwards, Willy’s marriage, and therefore his identity as a husband, begins to come apart – he repeatedly demeans and neglects Linda, telling her to “stop interrupting” and denying her of any voice within family matters, despite her continuous support and defense of his actions; he is “still human” in her eyes, representing his vulnerability as a “little boat looking for a harbour”. This power imbalance between Willy and Linda, his cruelty juxtaposed with her ceaseless loyalty, completely denies Willy of any identity as a dedicated, kind family man. The audience is exposed to the harrowing spectacle of Willy losing everything: his wife, sons, and livelihood are all taken from him, leaving him isolated and broken. In the eyes of American society, Willy is no longer worth anything – he cannot provide for the economy nor for his family, denied his identity as “a salesman” and as a Loman. It is this devastating loss of self that draws Willy ever closer to his suicide, ending the tragedy of his life.
Overall, the two protagonists are repeatedly exposed to a loss of identity, gradually being robbed of everything that they possess in the outset of their works. Both Hardy and Miller, through this portrayal of tragedy, question the concept of identity itself in the eyes of their heroes and of society judging them – Tess is continuously victimized by her Victorian contemporaries for her impurity, blinding Angel as to her other virtues, including her kindness and beauty. Similarly, Willy spends his life focused on obtaining an identity of popularity and success, this illusion forced upon him by the American Dream, while being oblivious to what should truly be precious to him: his wife and sons, who continue to love him until his death. We are forced by the writers to reconsider our own definitions of identity and realise what is truly important in our own lives.