Why is Joe Keller a classic tragic hero?

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Aristotle defines a tragic hero as a good person, no better or worse morally than most people, who suffers a reversal of fortune due to an error in judgment and excessive pride. He is relatable, allowing the audience to identify with him and thereby making his downfall more pitiable. Joe...

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Aristotle defines a tragic hero as a good person, no better or worse morally than most people, who suffers a reversal of fortune due to an error in judgment and excessive pride. He is relatable, allowing the audience to identify with him and thereby making his downfall more pitiable. Joe Keller, the father in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, is an outstanding example of this literary type.

We meet Joe as he reads the paper in the backyard of his home. He is portrayed as the average American father who engages in good-humored chats with his neighbors and banters with his wife and son. We admire him for his success as a factory owner who began with lucrative defense contracts during World War II.

But his success did not come easy. During the war, some of the cylinder heads his plant manufactured cracked, causing twenty-one fighter pilots to crash and die. Joe and his partner were charged with selling faulty parts to the government, but Joe was exonerated, while his partner went to jail. Joe tells his son’s fiancé how he bounced back from this experience and regained his good name.

Keller: So I get out of my car and walk down the street. But very slow. And with a smile ... I was the beast ... the guy who sold cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. The guy who made 21 P-40s crash in Australia ... I walked ... past ... the porches. Result? Fourteen months later I had one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again, bigger than ever.

When the audience hears this story, they initially admire his guts. He is the honest businessman who weathers a storm and goes on to even greater success. Our sympathy is also aroused when we hear of the great tragedy of his life—the loss of his elder son, Larry, in the war. Life has given this man a raw deal, but he has not been defeated.

But soon we realize that what once appeared to be dignity in the face of adversity is hubris, or extreme pride. Although his partner was convicted of selling the faulty parts, we learn it was Joe who gave the order. He made the judgment call to cover up the cracks and ship the parts, knowing they were dangerous. He attempts to justify his decision to his son by explaining his plan to prevent the business from suffering a setback.

Keller: ... You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away? (his voice cracking) I never thought they’d install them. I swear to God. I thought they’d stop ‘em before anybody took off.

Joe learns from a letter Larry sent to his fiancé that he did not die in battle, but rather killed himself out of shame. Larry cannot recover from the thought of his father being responsible for those plane crashes. This knowledge leads Joe to realize that his poor judgment makes him to blame for the deaths of those twenty-one pilots, and he decides to turn himself in to the police despite his wife’s protests.

Mother: Why are you going ... Larry was your son too, wasn’t he? You know he’d never tell you to do this.

Keller: Then what is this if it isn’t telling me? Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons.

But the weight of his guilt makes turning himself in, and even the death of Larry, inadequate punishment. Joe completes his tragedy in Aristotelian style by paying the ultimate price through suicide.

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The most important attributes of the tragic hero that Arthur Miller gives the character of Joe Keller are having a tragic flaw and being oblivious to that flaw. Joe is ultimately responsible for his own downfall; the underlying reason is his greed. In modern American drama, the concept of fate that drove the Greek tragedies is not generally applied. However, the idea persists that punishment will be inflicted for a deed that was motivated by wrong reasons.

Joe justifies his behavior because he was working for the war effort and under tremendous time pressure. However, the initial error of shipping faulty products was not the main problem. Joe was motivated by greed more than patriotism, and this factor clouded his judgment. Joe did not accept responsibility but allowed Steve Deever to be blamed, and he did not intervene even when Steve was sent to prison. It seems that Joe does not consider himself responsible—up to the end. Thus, a confirming element of the tragic hero is the epiphany that comes too late to change the course of events. Larry is dead, Joe must finally admit. When he accepts that reality and locates himself within a larger sphere of responsibility, he is overwhelmed to the point that life becomes unbearable. Joe is also a tragic hero because the play is a tragedy, in which death comes at the end.

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A tragic hero is defined by several factors, he must have a character flaw that prevents him from seeing the truth.  There is a reversal of fortune due to his mistaken judgement.  He usually loses his life at the end of the work of literature, having had a tremendous realization about how wrong he was in his judgement, but it is too late to change anything.  His death is usually seen as a necessary result of his own tragic mistakes, sacrificed for his sins so to speak.

Yes Joe Keller is a tragic hero. He fits this description in all ways.  He is not an ordinary man, he is a man who has worked his way up from the bottom to be a business owner.  His accomplishments make him extraordinary, but he has a blind spot in his judgement.  He suffers from a sense of self-righteous pride which prevents him from seeing right from wrong.  He makes a huge mistake which results in a tragic occurrence which results in his downfall. 

Joe Keller makes a decision to ship faulty airplane parts to the military which results in the death of several pilots and his own son.  When he realizes that he killed Larry, that he caused his suicide, his self-awareness is raised and he cannot bear to live with his guilt.  He dies as a result of his tragic mistake, his character flaw, his refusal to recognize the bare truth.  

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