How is family central to the tragedy in All My Sons?
In All My Sons, the central conflict revolves around the Keller family. First in the decision that Joe Keller made to ship the faulty cylinder heads to the military to preserve his business, he says he did it for his family. And second, because the family, Joe, Kate and the unseen Larry dominate Chris Keller's life, suffocating any possibility of happiness he might have with Ann Deever. And, the family is at the heart of the American Dream, pursuit of a nice home, financial security, a car, all is done for the family.
Joe Keller violates this creed by sacrificing everything, including his family to save his beloved factory from closing. His surrenders his integrity, his morality and breaks the law to keep the factory open during the war, he says to support his family, to be able to pass the business on to his sons.
As far as Joe is concerned, Kate's belief that Larry is coming back and is alive is enough of a reason for Chris and Ann not to get married. It is more important for Kate not to get upset about the reality that Larry is dead, three years missing in action, than for Chris, their other son, to get married, and be happy with Ann.
The family demands that Chris sacrifice his happiness at the altar in honor of his missing brother, who might someday return home. But it is more than that, Chris and Joe know that Larry is not coming back, but they make Kate believe that they support her faith in the idea of Larry returning alive.
They are dishonest with her just to keep her from falling apart, but the sham comes at a high price for Chris who wants to break away from his parents and move on into his own life, make his own family.
The family is also part of one of the main themes in the play, the American dream. The pursuit of the American dream is motivated by the desire to provide for ones family. Having a nice home, good job, financial security, all are for the sake of the family. But Joe Keller's decision to ship faulty airplane parts to the military which results in the deaths of several pilots sacrifices the family's security in the name of keeping the business from failing.
In the play there is a debate as to whether Joe Keller loves his family or his factory more, it appears that he sacrificed everything for the factory. When he finds out that his own son, Larry, could not bear the shame of his father's guilt at having committed a crime, causing the deaths of all those innocent soldiers, the pilots, Joe commits suicide. He is unable to bear the price that he paid to keep his factory running, to save his business, he lost his two sons, and then surrendered his own life to guilt and regret.
It is clear from the very start of this play that family is crucial to this play, and more particularly to the character of Joe. It is clear that Joe takes deep enjoyment in his role as father and husband - these are roles that are centrally important to him. However, the tragedy of this play is linked to Joe's idea of duty and responsibility. In Joe's mind, duty and responsibility are inextricably intertwined with the material comfort of his family and the success of his business. For him to be a good father, he has to make his business work. And of course, we know that in a moment of weakness he puts these values above wider values such as his responsibility towards his fellow human beings.
Joe's decision to commit suicide at the end of the novel comes as a direct response of his realisation that the pilots that died as a consequence of the decisions he made were "all his sons", pushing the boundaries of the traditional family much further. It is also ironic that his decision to act for his family is what estranges his relationship with his son, Chris. Joe's act of suicide at the end of the novel is tragic in a number of senses: Joe is unable to cope with the estrangement between him and his son, but at the same time his death is desgined to spare Chris any further embarrassment at what his father has done.
On a more abstract note, the concepts of family and the father/son bond is challenged by the final scene of the play in which Joe realizes that Larry must have considered all the soldiers in the war the sons of Joe (and other fathers). This idea broadens the definition of family to a realm in which we as a people are a collective family and thus have responsibilities to ensure the safety and well-being of all the members in that family. From this perspective, Joe neglected his responsibilities to his collective family by ordering Herbert to mend and ship the faulty cylinders.