In All My Sons, to what extent do you hold Joe responsible for what happens to him? What was Joe's business, in terms of his responsibility as a provider for his family?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are different approaches to responsibility in Joe's characterization and the ethical responsibility for his actions.  Miller creates a construction in which the American Dream and the pursuit of material wealth at all costs is partly to blame.  Joe is a decent man, an everyman, who succumbs to the all encompassing social expectation of "The American Dream."  This condition is one where material comfort is valued above all.  Miller makes a clear argument that such a condition creates the realm where bad decisions are made.

However, it is clear that Miller's work acquires tragic dimensions because Joe is responsible for what happens to him.  Joe's business revolves around manufacturing airline parts to be used for plans in the war.  He was charged with manufacturing and distributing faulty aircraft engine cylinder heads to be used in bomber planes during the war.  These faulty parts contributed to the deaths of 21 pilots in the war.  Joe's business dreams might have been motivated to provide for his family and to create a business for his sons to inherit. However, it is clear that he is responsible for placing blame on his partner and lacking the moral structure to speak out for what he knew was wrong.  Miller creates his character as one who rationalizes his actions in light for his family, as seen when Joe speaks to Chris:  "All right, but … but don’t think like that. Because what the hell did I work for? That’s only for you. Chris, the whole shootin’-match is for you!"  It is clear that Joe feels responsible for his family.  Joe feels that everything he does is for them and that his role as a provider is one that can cover most, if not all, of his actions. It is in this way that Joe feels that "there's nothing wrong with the money." This is where Joe seeks to evade responsibility for his actions.  However, it is Miller's genius that such an idea is precisely where guilt for Joe's actions likes. Joe values everything in terms of money and all his actions are reduced to it. It is only in the end, when he realizes that he has failed "all my sons," that he is aware of a calculus that lies beyond material wealth.  This revelation is what helps propel him to his natural end, the final act of responsibility in making right what he has done wrong.