Literary Analysis: Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Age Recommended: 14 and up

This was one of the more recent books that we read in my English 11 class. While the play is praised as one of the best in American literature, my teacher warned us that there would be some people that it would profoundly impact while others would remain confused as to why such a play had gained so much attention. I admit to being the latter, but still acknowledge that the play is extremely well-written and has a lot to offer with a fresh perspective.

Here is my literary analysis for the book! *Warning: spoilers ahead!*

The Use of “Kid” as A Derogatory Term towards Willy (the father) in Act 2 of Death of A Salesman

While reading Act 2 of the play, one thing stood out to me in particular. In Act 1, the word “kid” was only used when Biff was speaking to Happy (twice) or when Willy was speaking to his wife (twice). However, in Act 2, in the short span of 30 pages, Willy is spoken to and referred to as “kid” about 10 to 15 times, and all of these times are by people younger than him. The most significant of these is the scene with Howard (pages 67-73) when Willy is asking him for a job change and he ends up getting fired.

What’s significant about this particular scene is that Howard is almost an entire generation younger than Willy, which we know because Willy brings up the fact that he helped name Howard, and this fact goes undisputed. The interaction between these two characters begins with Howard consistently cutting Willy off mid-sentence when he begins to talk about the purpose for his visit, and escalates when Howard seems to dismiss everything Willy says, from his anecdotes to his need to be able to provide for his family. And he does all of this while referring to Willy as “kid”.

This seems especially derogatory for Howard to be using, not only because of the age gap between him and Willy but also because from what Willy says, we learn that he’s “put thirty-four years into this firm” (page 71), which is significantly more than anything Howard could have contributed. And this isn’t the only place where we see this pattern. Several characters, including Bernard, who is the same age as Biff, and Charley, who still appears to be younger than Willy, refer to him as “kid” in later scenes (pages 80 and 83).

All of the characters who refer to Willy as “kid” are younger than him and their use of the word seems to consistently be in a derogatory manner as if they are acknowledging that he’s going old and senile and have begun to treat him differently. Willy begins to lose respect from the people whose opinions he values in his community. First his boss (Howard), then the next door neighbor’s kid (Bernard), and finally one of his closest friends (Charley).

This inevitably sets Willy up for what I would argue is the tipping point of the book, page 95, when he realizes that Biff no longer respects him either. Biff, Happy, and Willy are having an argument about Biff’s future when Biff brings up the balls and pen that he stole, while referring to Willy as “kid” (page 95). This escalates the argument between father and son that basically ends when Biff says “Why did I go? Why did I go! Look at you! Look at what’s become of you!” (page 95) and Willy shuts down and forces himself into another flashback.

From there, we see Willy remembering the moment that Biff found out about his affair and it appears that at that point he realizes that he never actually had Biff’s respect. Furthermore, it’s evident that everyone whose opinion Willy cares about now has little to no respect for him and Willy has finally realized that. It takes only a few more pages for this revelation to completely sink in for Willy and for Willy to kill himself.

If you would like to read this book, you can purchase it here: Death of a Salesman (Penguin Plays)

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