Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
All My Sons concerns the conflict between a pragmatic father and his idealistic son. Joe Keller, the father, is a “blue-collar” industrialist, a self-made man. Motivated by an extreme sense of loyalty to his family, Joe allowed the defective airline parts to leave his plant, an action that killed twenty-one pilots and led to the arrest and imprisonment of his partner and friend, Steve Deever. Joe seeks to escape the past, to deny the fateful series of events that threatened his business, his family, and his freedom. On the other hand, Chris, his son, finds it impossible to escape the past. During the war, Chris discovered a unique brotherhood among the men who sacrificed their lives for each other: “A kind of—responsibility. Man for man.” On his return home, he finds “no meaning” in the shallow upper middle-class concerns or in the consumerism of post-war America. Chris even thinks the past a liberating agent; he judges the lives of his friends and family and, more important, “truth” against the standard of his combat experience.
This conflict operates on two levels: the human and the social. On the social level, Miller’s play explores the need for the individual to accept social responsibility. On the human level, the play reveals the tragedy of a common man. Joe Keller is not a coward, nor does he act from base self-interest. Chris is relentlessly honest, a loyal son. Yet both are destroyed by their failure to see life...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
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In a sense, All My Sons is a critical investigation of the quest to achieve material comfort and an improved social status through hard work and determination. In the Horatio Alger myth, even a disadvantaged, impoverished young man can attain wealth and prestige through personal fortitude, moral integrity, and untiring industry. Joe Keller is that sort of self-made man, one who made his way from blue-collar worker to factory owner. However, Joe sacrifices his integrity to materialism, and he makes a reprehensible decision that sends American pilots to their deaths, something he is finally forced to face.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Paradoxically, Joe Keller's suicide at the end of All My Sons is both an act of atonement and an escape from guilt. It stems from Joe's realization that there can be no real forgiveness for what he had done. The alternative is confession and imprisonment. Death offers Joe another alternative.
Forgiveness must come from Kate and Chris. The letter written by Larry reveals that he deliberately destroyed himself during the war, profoundly shamed by his father's brief imprisonment for fraud and profiteering. It is a devastating irony that Joe's initial attempt to do right by his family—resulting in fraud and the deaths of twenty-one fighter pilots—leads to destruction of his world.
Choices and Consequences
(The entire section is 851 words.)