What is the function of the newspaper in the first act of Arthur Miller's play All My Sons?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Much of the opening dialogue in Act I of Arthur Miller’s tragedy All My Sons involves the newspaper Joe Keller is perusing as the play opens. There must be some meaning to the newspaper, but it is by no means immediately obvious. Miller was normally pretty meticulous with respect to his stage directions and character and setting descriptions, yet the newspaper is just sort of a prop. As we read further into this opening act, however, we begin to see Joe’s trepidation with respect to the news, as opposed to, say, the “want ads,” which he reads closely, explaining that he likes to see what people want to buy. Joe, and his neighbors Jim Bayliss and Frank Lubey, are relaxing on a Sunday afternoon while discussing, among myriad topics, the felled tree in Joe’s backyard—a tree that had been planted as a memorial to Joe and Kate’s oldest son, Larry, a fighter pilot whose plane crashed during the war and whose remains were apparently never found, thereby allowing Kate the slimmest of hopes that Larry may still be alive.

What does Larry’s fate and Kate’s obsession with it have to do with Joe’s newspaper, a newspaper he and Jim repeatedly express a lack of faith in with respect to the accuracy of the stories it contains? Even Frank, when offered the paper by Joe, responds, “What’s the difference, it’s all bad news. What’s today’s calamity?” To Joe and his friends, the newspaper represents misinformation and recitations of all the ills that befall mankind. The symbolic importance of the newspaper, however, lies in its potential for telling the truth. Joe, as the reader/audience learns, is a troubled man, concealing beneath a veneer of respectability the awful truth that he is responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots during the war, and for the wrongful imprisonment of his former partner, the father of the dead Larry’s girlfriend who is now Chris’s girlfriend. Joe, it could be argued, fears the information that he, and everyone else, may find in the newspaper. Later in Act I, talking to Chris about Kate’s obsession with astrology and the possibility that Larry is still alive, Joe says, “The trouble is the Goddam newspapers. Every month, some boy comes up from nowhere, so the next one is going to be Larry . . .” Newspapers hold out the possibility that Joe’s secret will be revealed, and that he will be held accountable.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The newspaper helps to demonstrate Keller's detachment and denial of current events, signifying his guilty withdrawal from "the news" and the world. 

While Keller has not become a recluse or withdrawn completely from social life, he has chosen a path of denial. He does not read the actual news oriented news sections of the paper. Instead he reads the sections that relate to entertainment. 

By the end of the play we can see that Keller pursues a line of moral denial as he persists in defending his decision to sell the faulty airplane parts to the military. Keller's choice not to read the news pages of the newspaper symbolize this denial.