In Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, Joe Keller feels guilty because he carries within himself the knowledge that he was responsible for the deaths of twenty-one pilots during World War II, the knowledge that he was possibly responsible for the death of his son Larry, a pilot who disappeared during the war and is presumed dead, and because Joe’s former business partner is rotting away in prison.
Joe’s guilt is the theme that runs throughout All My Sons. The title itself is a reference to a statement Joe makes near the play’s end. Arguing with a now-accusatory Chris, the younger of Joe’s two sons, regarding Joe’s responsibility for the deaths of the pilots and, possibly, of Larry, Joe is increasingly distraught and inching closer to the suicidal act that ends Miller’s story. The character of “Kate/Mother,” Joe’s wife, is holding firm to the notion that Joe holds no responsibility for the deaths and, even if he does, that returning to prison will not bring back Larry, their son. To this, Joe replies, “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him [meaning Chris and referencing the dead pilots] they were all my sons.”
The Keller family has stood by Joe throughout the ordeal involving the pilots’ deaths, the newspaper stories about Joe’s involvement in shipping defective cylinder heads to the military, and Joe’s subsequent imprisonment and exoneration. Ann, Larry’s girlfriend who is now set to marry Chris, has harbored intense resentment against her imprisoned father, believing that he was the guilty party. As the play develops, Joe’s guilt becomes increasingly apparent and his attempts at defending his former partner more and more pathetic. In the following exchange, Ann struggles to understand Joe’s refusal to demonize Steve, Ann’s father, while Joe poses as a humanitarian, attempting to morally exonerate his former partner:
Ann: (surprised) Don't you hold anything against him?
Keller: Annie, I never believed in crucifying people.
Ann: (mystified) But he was your partner, he dragged you through the mud.
Keller: Well, he ain't my sweetheart, but you gotta forgive, don't you?
Joe’s decision to take his life rather than return to prison and carry the stigma of having murdered twenty-one pilots during the war represents the culmination of a protracted process of attempting to bury the past while prospering in the post-war world. His final attempt at explaining his actions in allowing defective aircraft parts to be shipped represents a tortured assessment of a difficult decision incorrectly and criminally made:
Keller: By the time they could spot them [the cracks in the cylinder heads] I thought I'd have the process going again, and I could show them they needed me and they'd let it go by. But weeks passed and I got no kick‐back, so I was going to tell them.
Chris: Then why didn't you tell them?
Keller: it was too late. The paper, it was all over the front page, twenty-one went down, it was too late. They came with handcuffs into the shop, what could I do? (He sits on bench) Chris ... Chris, I did it for you, it was a chance and I took it for you. I'm sixty-one years old, when would I have another chance to make something for you? Sixty-one years old you don't get another chance, do you?
Joe’s lament that he did this for Chris’s sake is a classic justification for knowing right from wrong but choosing the latter. Joe is guilty of the deaths of the pilots, probably of Larry (as suggested in Larry’s letter to Ann, read by Chris), and of the imprisonment and ruin of Steve. Joe Keller feels guilty because, inside, he knows that he is guilty.