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 realistically. Keller places his family’s well-being above the lives of twenty-one innocent pilots, and Chris’s loyalty to an abstract idealism is ultimately destructive. Although he proclaims that the truth will set them free, Chris makes several choices in the play that reveal his unconscious knowledge of his father’s guilt: his difficulty in proposing to Ann, his rejection of the company’s new name, and his dreams of leaving the area and making his own way in the world. Both father and son are problematic characters. Their choices, neither corrupt nor noble, allow Miller to explore the results of their actions rather than the causes.
The other characters in the play are less well-defined; nevertheless, they support what some believe is Miller’s idea for survival: to face the often ugly reality of life. Ann and Sue, Jim Bayliss’s wife, negotiate life on an everyday basis. Sue points out the contradictions and dangers inherent in Chris’s idealism: “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.” Kate, the sentimental mother who keeps alive an ideal image of her dead son, is not as successful as either Ann or Sue. Knowing the guilt of her husband, she has retreated into a world of horoscopes and memory. Jim, the weary physician, has abandoned his dreams and yielded to practical demands. These tensions and conflicts give depth to Miller’s play, allowing the playwright to explore both the human and social dimensions of its central moral crisis.