What are some examples of realism in All My Sons by Arthur Miller?

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Realism is writing that portrays life as it really is or as it could be. In short, realism in literature seeks to emulate the way highs and lows of everyday life. In realism, the characters act and talk the way real people talk, and even the setting will be a...

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Realism is writing that portrays life as it really is or as it could be. In short, realism in literature seeks to emulate the way highs and lows of everyday life. In realism, the characters act and talk the way real people talk, and even the setting will be a time and place familiar to the audience.

Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons can be categorized as modern realism because all the elements of the play are realistic. The play’s motifs of guilt and responsibility are universal and real issues the audience will be familiar with. The play takes place in Joe Keller’s backyard. While we don’t see beyond this scene, the characters’ dialogue allows us to learn about backstories events that take place outside the year.

The dialogue between the characters and the trials they go through are also realistic. Joe worries about letting his son down and providing for the family. Chris worries proposing to his girlfriend and finding ways to help his mom get over his brother’s death. Even as the men gather in the backyard just to talk about their day and catch up on local news seems ever more realistic.

Miller’s stage directions are clear and keep the reader in the drama. As act I opens, the scene is described simply as “August of our era” and then describes a normal American backyard behind a two-story house complete with a porch and broken apple tree slumped in the corner.

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Realism is a movement in theater that started in the 1870s. It was initially associated with such playwrights as the Russian Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860—15 July 1904) and the Norwegian Heinrich Ibsen (20 March 1828—23 May 1906). In acting, a realistic style was developed at the Moscow Arts Theater and is associated with the director and acting coach Konstantin Stanislavski, whose "method" acting especially influenced the styles of Elia Kazan (who directed the initial production of All My Sons) and Lee Strasberg, who worked in New York in the 1930s.

Western drama had originated in classical Greece from religious rituals and was not intended as a realistic portrayal of ordinary people. Actors wore masks, supernatural events and divine intervention were common, elevated poetry was spoken rather than prose, female characters were played by men, and the plots revolved around heroes of distant periods rather than the lives of people like the audience. Even as theater became somewhat more realistic, in Shakespeare's time, for example, male roles were still played by women, many of the plays were set historical or in distant locales, dialogue was often written in verse, and characters were mainly aristocrats. Artificial plot structures and atypical characters remained common in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century drama, even as plays moved closer to reflecting the audiences' lives.

Miller's play, like realistic plays, though, portrays ordinary middle-class people. It is staged as though the performance space was a real home with a transparent fourth wall through which the audience overlooks a family drama. The speech is ordinary prose, and costumes and set reflect the typical lives of the audience. Psychological realism is provided in a plot in which the central element is not a great legendary story but the emotional conflict brought about by an illegitimate business activity. It criticizes the American Dream and the way it leads people to behave unethically in order to gain wealth. The characters respond to the emotional stresses of ordinary life as ordinary people would, with Joe representing a type of brazen lying and denial and Steve a sort of passive misery. The response of the younger generation to their fathers' crimes and family guilt is a typical example of psychological realism, which shows how extreme emotional stress affects ordinary people.

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Arthur Miller's All My Sons has been called an Ibsenite play because, as in Ibsen's A Doll House, the key issue is something kept secret in the past that affects the present.

  • The play is realistic because it deals with social consequences. There is a central relationship of the characters--family and friends and neighbors--and they know much of each other's history.
  • The characters are realistic because they possess a particular middle class thinking.
  • Miller's theme of the common man who suffers a tragic fall because of personal failings is very realistic.
  • The characters are realistic: Joe Keller has attained the American Dream, rising in socio-economic class as he is now a prominent businessman of some wealth.
  • The process of "destructive infiltration" is carefully worked out respective of the other characters' needs. That is, a domestic scene is infiltrated with guilt and crime, an infiltration that builds to the "critical eruption" that shocks Chris. As Kate says that “everything decides to happen at the same time.”
  • As in Ibsen's plays "a fatal secret" is revealed after being hidden in the past. 
  • The characters are round. Their personalities are made real as they engage in domestic activities and discussion. But, the war has had an effect on them.
  •  All My Sons has the realistic themes of Family and its Obligations, Memory and Emotional Loss, Guilt, Liability. 

Joe, Joe . . . it don’t excuse it that you did it for the family.
It’s got to excuse it!
There’s something bigger than the family to him.

  • The play is an example of social realism because both "the individual and society are perceives as belonging to a continuous and inseparable process."
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