How is Death of a Salesman a modern tragedy that links to the post-World War II era and modern day society?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Willy Loman does not fit the classic profile of the tragic hero, but there are some tragic elements in his character. Willy was not a great, well respected man who held a high place in society, as does the classic tragic hero, but he was a good man, even if misguided. Willy takes no actions in the play that could be characterized as genuinely evil or even deliberately cruel. He does work hard, try to take care of his family, and struggle on despite very difficult circumstances. Willy loved his boys when they were growing up and took an interest in their lives even though he frequently was working away from home. Because Willy was a decent man at heart, the knowledge of how deeply he had hurt Biff by being unfaithful to Linda causes him tremendous pain and guilt which he spends a lifetime trying to bury.

Like classic tragic heroes, however, Willy has a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall and destruction. He has a flawed values system. He believes that financial success is the measure of a man and that personality and appearance are more important than substance. Whatever it takes to succeed is acceptable in Willy's value system; lying and cheating are merely means to that end. Willy acts on his beliefs, teaches them to his boys with good intentions, and thereby destroys the integrity of both sons and his own life.

Willy's obsession with financial success can be interpreted as a reflection of the vigorous economic growth that followed World War II. The production of consumer goods exploded and systems of consumer credit were established. People began to buy what they wanted by using credit, going into debt. Advertising made Americans aware of all they could buy and convinced them to buy it. Materialism became an acceptable philosophy, creating strong business competition. Business success was measured by how much money a man earned. These values have not changed in modern life. 

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