All My Sons Analysis

The Play (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The first act of All My Sons takes place in the backyard of the Keller home early one Sunday morning in August. The yard is both secluded and comfortable, and its contents suggest a normal upper-middle-class American home: a small trellised arbor, some garden chairs, a table, a garbage pail, and a wire leaf-burner. A slender apple tree, cut in half by a violent wind, is the only other noticeable piece of stage property.

As the play begins, Joe Keller is bemusedly reading the classified adds in the Sunday paper. Jim Bayliss, his physician neighbor, has joined him. They are soon joined by another neighbor, Frank Lubey. Noticing the tree, Frank remembers that this is the month of Larry’s birthday. Larry was Joe’s eldest son and, as a pilot in the war, was shot down three years ago. Because his body was never recovered, Kate, his mother, hysterically clings to the belief that he is still alive. Joe informs the two men that Ann, who had been Larry’s girlfriend, has returned to the neighborhood and is sleeping in the guest room.

After Frank and Jim leave, Chris, Joe’s younger son, enters. Joe wonders if Kate has seen the damaged tree, but his musing is cut short by the excited entrance of Bert, a young boy. During a comic scene, it becomes clear that Joe has “deputized” Bert to monitor the behavior of the neighborhood children. Further, he has shown Bert a gun and convinced the impressionable young boy that the basement of the house is, in reality, a jail. The boy leaves, and Chris confronts his father. First, he argues that they should not have allowed his mother’s romantic belief that Larry is still alive to continue for so long. Second, he announces that he plans to marry Ann, that he is tired of working in his father’s business, and that if his mother refuses to accept his marriage and Larry’s death he will leave. Joe promises to help, but their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Kate.

Kate, who suspects that Ann’s arrival has some deeper significance, says that she has seen Larry in a dream. She points to the felled tree as proof that her son is still alive. Chris exits into the house. Kate immediately turns on Joe, demanding to know why Ann has arrived. Further, she threatens that if Larry fails to come home she will kill herself. She is interrupted, however, when Chris comes into the yard with Ann.

In the tense scene that follows, Ann flatly dismisses Kate’s belief that Larry is still alive. Further, she refuses to forgive her imprisoned father: Her father, Joe’s business partner, has been convicted of knowingly supplying cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. As a result, twenty-one planes crashed, killing twenty-one pilots. Joe, who was found innocent of the same charge, defends her father as a “little man” caught in a situation beyond his control. After his parents have left, Chris and Ann confess their love for each other. She asks him why he waited so long to reveal his love; Chris replies that, after the war, he could find no meaning in life, feeling guilty that he was alive when so many had died. Their intimacy is broken by the news that Ann’s brother George is on the phone. George, a lawyer, has seen his father in prison and wants to talk to Ann immediately. As Chris and Ann leave, Joe and Kate nervously await the arrival of George.

Act 2 begins in twilight. Chris is sawing the apple tree when his mother enters from the house. Kate tells Chris that she is afraid, and that she wants Ann to leave with George when he arrives. Ann’s arrival ends their conversation, and Kate exits. Chris promises to tell Kate about their plans to marry, then he, too, leaves. Ann is joined by Sue, Jim’s wife. Their private talk quickly centers on marriage, and Sue harshly demands that once Ann and Chris are married they move away. Startled, Ann defends Chris’s idealism. Sue, however, retorts that Chris’s idealism has affected her husband. Under Chris’s spell, Jim has come to see his life as shallow, believing that instead of being a physician he should be conducting medical research. Sue suggests that it is easy to be an idealist when one can live in comfort, as Chris lives a world of financial well-being secured by his father’s corrupt business practices.

Joe enters the yard and suddenly announces that he will find jobs for both George and his father. Although Chris and Ann reject the idea of Joe’s helping his former partner, Joe defends his plan by emotionally shouting “a father is a father!” He retreats into the house, fearing that he has perhaps revealed too much. Jim arrives, having met George at the station; he tells Chris not to let him enter the house, suggesting that George’s plan is to take Ann away and to expose an old secret. Chris, unafraid of the past, tells Jim not to worry and goes forward to meet George.

George accuses the absent Joe of destroying his family and asks Ann not to marry Chris. He outlines his meeting with his father, saying that he now believes his father’s plea that Joe knew about the defects in the cylinder heads but ordered him to weld over the cracks and ship them out. Chris replies that he still believes in Joe’s innocence. The entrances of Kate and neighbor Lydia reduce the tension, and George seems to be slowly emerging from his explosive and dark mood. Joe finally joins the assembled group and tries to convince George that his father has always been unable to see his own faults. For a brief moment, the group is relaxed, and their laughter suggests a more promising future. The calm is abruptly destroyed, however, when Kate says that Joe has never been sick in fifteen years. This admission is a crucial mistake: Joe always claimed that he had pneumonia the day the cracked cylinder heads were manufactured. George begins to question Joe. George then tries to make Ann see the truth, Kate asks Ann to leave, and Chris attempts to shock his mother into accepting Larry’s death. Suddenly, Kate tells Chris that if he has lost all hope for his brother then he must also give up hope for his own father. Unable to answer her, Joe confesses his guilt to Chris. Chris, lost and crying, stumbles offstage as his father tries to call him back.

Act 3 takes place at two o’clock the following morning. Alone on the stage, Kate is rocking ceaselessly in a chair, waiting for Chris to return. Jim enters, and after admitting that he had also known that Joe was guilty, tells her that Chris will return, that like everyone else, he will make a compromise with his own impossible standard of honesty and return home. As he leaves, Joe enters, wondering if Ann— who has stayed in her room since Chris’s departure—knows what has happened. Joe talks about his need for Chris’s forgiveness, threatening suicide if Chris can not forgive him. Quietly, Ann enters and confronts Kate.

As Ann shows Kate a letter from Larry, Chris returns. In an emotional confrontation with his father, Chris refuses to forgive him. Chris turns away from Joe, and Ann takes the letter from Kate and gives it to Chris. He reads it aloud. Written moments before Larry’s final mission, it tells Ann that he has read of his father’s arrest. He is convinced of Joe’s guilt and tells Ann that he is going to kill himself during the mission. Joe suddenly realizes that to Larry all the pilots who died were Joe’s sons. Joe goes into the house, and moments later a shot is heard. The play closes with Chris cradled in Kate’s arms: her final words are “Forget now. Live.”

All My Sons Dramatic Devices (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

All My Sons is a carefully crafted realist play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen, and it contains many of the elements that would become the familiar hallmarks of his most successful plays: the strained language, the minimal and delicate use of symbolism, the use of a small cast of characters, the tight structure, and the depiction of a “little man” caught between a fraudulent present and a wasted past.

One of the most successful features of the play is its sharp and realistic dialogue. In the opening scene, the leisurely talk between Joe Keller and Jim quickly becomes strained and tense when Frank enters. Frank’s comments about Larry force Joe out of his bemused mood, and his changed speech and behavior begin to reveal his inner tension. At other times, Miller’s dialogue achieves a remarkable naturalness. The scene between Joe and Bert, the young boy, illustrates Miller’s skill at writing natural, witty dialogue. The language creates an immediately recognizable real world, while providing glimpses of the hidden forces which threaten to erupt at any moment.

Another feature of the play is Miller’s use of symbolism. The spare set economically conveys the relaxed atmosphere of a secure family, yet within this normal scene Miller has placed a felled apple tree. A symbol of the dead son, the ever-present tree becomes a metaphor for the eventual destruction not only of the myth of the son’s survival but also of the entire family. Another example of Miller’s quiet use of metaphor is Joe’s imaginary use of the basement. By telling Bert that the basement is really a jail, Joe not only reveals his inability to escape the past but offers some evidence about his guilty conscience. Rarely is the stage crowded with characters; Miller structures his play around a series of two-or three-character scenes. Each scene is a carefully observed moment in the private life of each character. As the play quickly moves to its startling conclusion—Joe’s offstage suicide—Miller adds more levels of tension as the characters try to keep the hidden truth a secret.

The device most responsible for the play’s success is Miller’s characterization of Joe Keller. He is not a one-dimensional figure; Miller has made him complex and contradictory, and the audience is asked to be both sympathetic and disgusted. They can understand, perhaps even praise, his fierce loyalty to his family, yet they cannot accept his efforts to dodge the crucial issue of responsibility. Joe is the “little man” whose own personal tragedy symbolizes the greater corruption of society.

All My Sons Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Keller’s backyard

Keller’s backyard. This setting represents a family having achieved the American Dream, but the dream is realized by unethical profiteering during the context of the recently completed World War II. Keller’s backyard is a place where members of the family socialize, recall pleasant memories of younger innocent days, and interact with neighbors. However, it is also a place where secrets are revealed, such as Larry’s suicide, Annie’s desire to marry Chris, and Joe Keller’s guilt about manufacturing faulty airplane parts. A broken tree in the backyard symbolizes the breaking of the family.

This setting underscores the typical upper-middle-class home in which American affluence presumes American moral superiority. However, in this place the truths that are revealed transform it from a haven of moralization to the place of Keller’s demise. Thus it fulfills playwright Arthur Miller’s intention of suggesting that all Americans who put business above personal integrity demonstrate a lack of moral integrity.

Keller’s house

Keller’s house. Throughout the play, characters enter the house to avoid the intensity of the discussions and potential revelations occurring in the backyard. The interior of the house thereby becomes a place in which secrets are nourished, while the backyard is a place of revelation.

Prison

Prison. Offstage location. Annie’s father, a former business associate of Joe Keller, is in prison for his role in making faulty airplane parts. Though offstage, the prison exists prominently in the minds of the characters, prompting justification on the part of Joe Keller and denial on the part of his wife. It also represents the place to which Joe Keller will go, once the truth about his own complicity is discovered and he is expelled from his comfortable house and yard.

*New York City

*New York City. The American city suggesting wealth and business, it is seven hundred miles from the setting of the play. Its distance and prominence as a great center of American business contrast with the suburban life of the Kellers. It is also the place in which Annie and her brother choose to live after their father goes to prison, so it serves as a temporary escape from the scrutiny of the neighbors in their former neighborhood.

All My Sons Historical Context

In March of 1947, President Harry S. Truman presented the Truman Doctrine to the U.S. Congress. The Truman Doctrine was an anti-communist...

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All My Sons Literary Style

Climax
All My Sons has a very traditional dramatic structure, with carefully orchestrated action that reaches a...

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All My Sons Compare and Contrast

  • 1940s: In the aftermath of World War II the industrialized world divided into two armed superpowers: the Soviet bloc...

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All My Sons Topics for Further Study

  • Research the problem of profiteering during both World War II and the Cold War. Was it a prevalent phenomenon? What forms did it take...

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All My Sons Media Adaptations

  • All My Sons was adapted as a film in 1948. Chester Erskine wrote the screenplay. Directed by Irving Reis, the cast included...

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All My Sons What Do I Read Next?

  • Aristotle's Poetics offers a descriptive definition of ancient Greek tragedy. For some theorists, it is the...

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All My Sons Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Atkinson, Brooks. ‘‘The Play in Review,’’ in New York Times, January 30, 1947, p. 21.

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All My Sons Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Drama from a Living Center.” In Arthur Miller, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Initially discusses All My Sons as a play of moral didacticism and then probes a subtext that explores the guilt of the idealist. Maintains that the play has a well-constructed plot development and contrivances.

Blumberg, Paul. “Sociology and Social Literature: Work Alienation in the Plays of Arthur Miller,” in American Quarterly. XXI (1969), pp. 291-310.

Corrigan, Robert W. “The Achievement of Arthur Miller,” in Comparative Drama. II (1968), pp. 141-160.

Driver, Tom. “Strength and Weakness in Arthur Miller,” in Tulane Drama Review. IV (1960), pp. 45-52.

Gross, Barry. “All My Sons and the Larger Context,” in Modern Drama. XVIII (1976), pp. 15-27.

Hayman, Ronald. Arthur Miller, 1972.

Hogan, Robert. Arthur Miller, 1964.

Huftel, Sheila. Arthur Miller: The Burning Glass. New York: Citadel Press, 1965. The chapter dedicated to All My Sons provides a significant overview of the play along with a careful analysis of the main and peripheral characters. The influence of Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist, on Miller is discussed, as is All My Sons in relation to Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People (1882).

Miller, Arthur. Introduction to Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays. New York: Viking Press, 1957-1981. Miller devotes many pages to All My Sons, explaining that it is a social play of relationship and responsibility. He discusses the inspiration for the drama and gives context for the play’s underlying philosophies.

Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller, 1967.

Murray, Edward. Arthur Miller: Dramatist, 1967.

Nelson, Benjamin. Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright, 1970.

Stambusky, Alan A. “Arthur Miller: Aristotelian Canons in the Twentieth Century Drama.” In Modern American Drama: Essays in Criticism, edited by William E. Taylor. DeLand, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1968. The first part of this chapter discusses classical tragedy and Miller’s adherence to the literary archetype. Stambusky argues that All My Sons falls short of tragedy in plot development, dialogue, and characterization.

Welland, Dennis. Arthur Miller, 1961.

Wells, Arthur. “The Living and the Dead in All My Sons,” in Modern Drama. VII (1964), pp. 46-51.

Williams, Raymond. “The Realism of Arthur Miller,” in Critical Quarterly. I (1959), pp. 140-149.

Wood, E. R. Introduction to All My Sons, by Arthur Miller. London: Heinemann, 1971. Probes the relationship between commerce and war. Explicates the play’s dramatic qualities and the three main characters’ motivations and actions.

Yorks, Samuel. “Joe Keller and His Sons,” in Western Humanities Review. XIII (1959), pp. 401-407.