Act One Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2168

New Characters
Joe Keller/Keller: a businessman about sixty years old, who rose from humble beginnings to a career in industrial manufacturing

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Kate Keller/Mother: Joe’s wife and Chris’s mother, who is about fifty years old

Chris Keller: the oldest Keller son, who is already a war veteran and partial owner of his father’s business at the age of thirty-two

Ann/Annie Deever: the beautiful, former girl next door, who is twenty-six years old and still single.

Doctor Jim Bayliss: the current next-door neighbor to the Kellers, who is a physician

Sue Bayliss: Jim’s wife

Frank Lubey: a neighbor who grew up with the Keller boys

Lydia Lubey: Frank’s wife and mother of their three children

Summary
The play consists of three acts only; the device of subdividing each act into scenes is not used. This straightforward structure extends to the plot and setting; the action begins and ends in less than twenty-four hours—from a Sunday to a Monday morning—and takes place in the sole setting of the Keller family home and backyard. We are in post-World War II America. The Keller home is large and newly painted, symbolizing middle-class success and respectability. The backyard, on the other hand, is littered with lawn furniture, household items, and even debris from an apple tree. The discontinuity between the respectable house and the disheveled yard hints at several of the play’s prevalent thematic contrasts—between success and failure, order and disorder, harmony and conflict.

In fact, multiple sources of conflict within the Keller home are revealed in act one. Larry, Joe Keller’s youngest son, disappeared during service in WWII and has been missing in action for three years. The act opens with small talk between Joe and his neighbors, Frank and Jim, that quickly turns from the daily news to Larry. The attention of the group is focused on an ominous portent of trouble: an apple tree intended to be a memorial to Larry has been downed by a windstorm during the previous night. Joe worries that this event, which occurs in the same month as Larry’s birthday, will upset his wife, Kate. Moreover, Ann Deever, Larry’s former girlfriend, has returned for a surprise visit to the Keller home. Her visit will serve only as another painful reminder of Larry’s absence for Kate. The action shifts as sparring between the two neighbors and their respective wives interrupts the conversation and takes them away from the yard.

A short interlude between Chris, the Kellers’ oldest son; Bert, a neighborhood boy; and Joe introduces new problems and complications into the storyline. Joe teases Bert about his role in a game of “policing” (the neighborhood) that the older man has started with the local children. A sinister undertone emerges in the mostly humorous dialogue when Joe insists that he will jail any offenders “arrested” by Bert (the mock policeman of the block) in his basement; he refers to his hunting gun as proof of his serious intent. The gun, in addition to the fallen tree, is the second portent of trouble in this act.

While Joe sends Bert off to detect trouble, he need look no farther than his own conversation with his son, Chris. Chris, who has survived the war to become a partner in, and eventual inheritor of, his father’s business, admits that he has summoned Ann to the family home in order to propose to her. Chris and Joe both understand that this plan will be devastating to Kate, for she clings to the slim chance that Larry will return and that he and Ann will marry. In Joe’s words, the union of Chris and Ann would be like “pronouncing Larry dead” to Kate. Although father and son agree that this pronouncement is inevitable, neither man can risk it at this time.

Unbeknownst to Chris, however, Kate already suspects his intentions. This fact, as well as her unflagging resistance to the plan, is revealed in the next segment when Kate joins the conversation. Her resistance relies on the belief that both she and Ann possess an indestructible faith in Larry’s survival, a conviction that he will return even though all evidence points toward the contrary. This seemingly irrational conviction blinds Kate to the multiple signs of doom that appear in this act, even to the obvious symbolism of a dream that links the destruction of the apple tree to a vision of Larry, falling from the sky while calling out, “Mom!”

Ann’s entrance offers a direct challenge to Kate’s convictions. Upon close questioning from Kate, Ann admits, even insists, that she is no longer waiting for Larry. Kate, however, is not yet convinced. A diversion from the topic is provided by Kate’s exit for tea and Frank’s entrance for some conversation. The discussion turns to the Deever family as Frank asks if Ann’s father might be paroled soon. The exchange that follows reveals the fact of Steve Deever’s incarceration for the first time and introduces the complex history between the Deever and Keller families. Ann expresses concern that the memory of her father’s trial and conviction might still be fresh in her old neighborhood. She is ashamed of her father, whom she imagines could be culpable for the deaths of many young soldiers, possibly even Larry. Joe, on the other hand, defends his former business partner and rationalizes the crime Steve was convicted of: the shipment of “cracked cylinder heads” destined for U.S. Air Force planes during the war. This line of reasoning, uncomfortable to Ann, ends with the sudden decision to dine out for the evening.

Ann and Chris are left alone in the yard and finally have a chance to speak. They confirm their affection for one another and kiss for the first time. Joe catches a glimpse of the couple, and as Ann exits, Chris declares their resolve to marry to his father.

Yet the scene does not end on this positive note. Instead, the action closes with an unexpected phone call from George Deever, Ann’s brother and a new lawyer. George has just visited their imprisoned father for the first time. Although George’s end of the exchange is not heard, it is clear that he is upset and has important news to convey. The phone call ends with an agreement that George should visit the Keller home later that evening to communicate his concerns. Ann and Chris are not distressed by this sudden interruption in the day; they depart for an evening drive. Kate and Joe, on the other hand, are still locked in tension and conflict. The curtain falls on an atmosphere of suspicion and suspense as Kate questions Joe and admonishes him to “be smart,” presumably about the chance that he can withstand the cross-examination to come and the possibility that he finally must change his story about his involvement in the crime blamed on Steve.

Analysis
All My Sons, completed in 1947, was Miller’s second play. Its success on Broadway established his reputation as a playwright and introduced audiences to themes he would explore two years later in Death of a Salesman and in 1953 with The Crucible, both considered his best-known and most critically acclaimed plays. A prominent theme introduced in this play is that of the “common man” who experiences a tragic fall due to both his personal failings and his social circumstances. In this case, it might be argued that an entire family (the Kellers) falls because each of its members cannot overcome a fatal flaw and adapt to difficult and sudden changes in their lives. Moreover, the devices that Miller uses to illustrate their fall are adapted from elements common to the literary genre of the tragedy, such as a deadly conflict between father and son or a doomed union of lovers from feuding families. As critics have noted, the use of this genre allows Miller to challenge and critique trends in American culture during his time period—in particular, those trends that could result in such tragic consequences in everyday life.

The action of the play revolves around Joe Keller. Although he appears onstage and speaks about as frequently as the other characters do, he is clearly the most important character in the development of the plot and its primary questions and conflicts. Joe is a self-made man; he rose from an underprivileged background with little education, training, or social position to build a successful manufacturing business and provide a comfortable, middle-class life for himself and his family. He is clearly meant to be the epitome of the American dream, a vision that relies on the belief that anyone with enough determination can achieve financial and social success. Hard work is imagined to be the sole and sufficient answer to any obstacles one might encounter. Joe Keller’s fate in this play, then, offers a commentary on the possibilities and limitations of this ideal.

Although Joe asserts that his financial ambition has been motivated solely by this desire to provide for his family, his actions and claims throughout the play suggest that his motives are not wholly, if at all, altruistic. He derives a deep sense of personal satisfaction and pride from his business success; his family is as much a status symbol as a motivating force. In fact, many of the central problems in the play result from this complex relationship between family and business. The events of this act reveal that a business blunder made at the Keller plant during the war resulted in the deaths of several soldiers and a criminal trial for Joe and his business partner. Joe was exonerated, but his partner (Steve Deever) was convicted, and the reputations of both of the men, their families, and the business, were tarnished. The sudden return of the daughter of that partner, Ann Deever, to the Keller family home reintroduces the threat of failure and insecurity into a story of social and economic success that is almost perfect in all other respects. The revelation that Joe and Steve were called outright “murderers” during the trial has ominous undertones reflected in other signs of brewing trouble in act one.

The most obvious portent of conflict is news of the disappearance of the youngest Keller son (Larry) three years earlier during service in the war. The fact that Kate, his mother, will not acknowledge the likelihood of his death becomes the preoccupation of everyone around her. Her stubbornness surpasses the usual bounds of grief as she ignores multiple signs that she must let go, including a vision of Larry’s death (in a dream) that coincides with the destruction of his memorial (the apple tree) as well as the return of Larry’s former girlfriend (Ann) to marry his older brother (Chris). Kate has been paralyzed by this event; she is unable to move on, even if it means alienating herself from her husband, son, and future daughter-in-law. It is possible to understand Kate, but perhaps not to completely sympathize with her. She begins to look ridiculous, not righteous, when she confesses that she will “kill herself” before allowing Chris and Ann to marry. Kate’s obsession with Larry’s survival suggests that she is the quintessential mother, a woman defined primarily by the need to protect her children and family. It is thus fitting that her part is simply titled “Mother” in the script.

Kate’s plight offers one possible reaction, albeit negative, to the social and political changes of the 1940s. The transition from war to peace in the U.S. posed many challenges, from integrating veterans into American culture to regulating the expansion of a rapidly growing economy. It is thus not surprising that the war is an important theme in this play. Most of the young male characters in the play are veterans who struggle to adapt to life at home again, whether in their attempts to search for jobs or to make necessary psychological adjustments. Miller even alludes to the challenge, and perhaps the impossibility, of understanding the long-term cultural impact of the war. As the comments of Chris and Joe make clear, war itself has different, often conflicting, meanings for soldiers, their families, and an entire country. For Chris, service in the war resulted in a sense of loss as well as a new moral clarity. He experienced a type of honor found in neither his past nor his present life at home. Yet, as a survivor, he feels guilty for returning to and even enjoying everyday life again. For Joe, a sense of honor has only been lessened, not increased, by the loss of Larry.

Finally, it seems that the engagement between Ann and Chris might start a new “domestic” war between the Kellers and Deevers. It is clear that if the pair is to succeed in merging their lives, they must overcome the very circumstances that brought them together: the problematic history between their two families.

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Act Two Summary and Analysis

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