What is the impact of the ending of Arthur Miller's All My Sons?
Arthur Miller was an author of modern tragedies, plays that illuminated the frailty of both human life and, as importantly, of humanity itself. In perhaps his most well-know and loved play, Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman mourns the recent loss of her husband, Willy, a weary traveling salesman prone to delusional meanderings about what might have been. Linda stood idly by for decades as her husband quarreled with their ne'er-do-well sons, Biff and Happy, and trampled her dreams while demanding her support. Willy was not a bad person, but he was human, meaning imperfect, and his imperfections came to define him more than any successes he may have experienced. In A View from the Bridge, Eddie Carbone dies violently when stabbed with his own knife while attempting to retain what integrity he believes he has left. Eddie, however, had merely the veneer of respectability, and that was stripped by away by his essentially immoral character, just as Willy Loman had lived a lie in his presumed fealty to his marriage to Linda while concealing the secret of his affair -- a secret to which Biff was sadly privy.
All My Sons is consistent in its portrait of a deeply-flawed man, a businessman who prospered during World War II as a manufacturer of engine parts for fighters. Joe Keller, though, carries within himself the most tragic of secrets, that he was responsible for the deaths of American pilots, possibly including his missing son, Larry, and, moreover, that his duplicity and cowardice sent his business partner to prison. That Larry is presumed, based upon his letter, to have deliberately crashed his plane rather than live with the knowledge of his father's perfidy is a powerful unseen example of the play's tragic theme. As Miller's play progresses towards its tragic conclusion, the connection between Joe's actions and the consequences of those actions become more and more clear, and difficult to deny. As his wife, Kate, remarks to second son Chris in the second act of All My Sons:
“Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don’t you? Now you see.”
And so, with this mentality dominating the family's collective psyche, they inch through life struggling to deny reality. The meaning of the title, All My Sons, lies in Joe's own form of denial, in which, in Act III, he states, with respect to his responsibility to his family, “I’m his father and he’s my son, and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head.” Joe will, of course, put a bullet in his own head rather than live with his family, and his former business partner's family, fully cognizant of his crimes, both legal and moral. Joe's attempts at reconciling his actions with the loss of one son to death and the other to shattered dreams (Chris: “I know you’re no worse than most men but I thought you were better."), flounder under the weight of his guilt. Joe has been a committed father to his sons, but he knows he has failed in the broader picture. In one of the play's more famous lines, and the one to which the play's title refers, Joe acknowledges that his responsibilities extended beyond his own home and to those who flew aircraft powered by engines that incorporated his parts: “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.”
The impact of the ending of Miller's play is a powerful and poignant reminder of collective responsibility and of the emotional toll exacted by the decision to live a life of duplicity and denial. Miller's protagonists are not evil; they are representative of humanity, and, consequently, are imbued with imperfections of character. Joe's decision to kill himself is the only act left to him that may leave him with a measure of pathos, if not of dignity.