Act 1 Summary

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1324

Joe Keller, owner of a factory, sits on his front porch reading the paper with his friend Jim Bayliss. Newly arriving, his neighbor Frank Lubey arrives and notices that a tree in the Kellers’ yard has blown down. The tree is associated with Larry Keller, Joe’s son, who died young.

Frank asks Joe about a beautiful young woman named Annie, who arrived the previous night to stay with the Kellers. Jim’s wife, Sue, arrives to tell Jim that one of his patients is on the phone, so Jim leaves to go talk to her. Frank’s wife, Lydia, comes and asks him for help getting their toaster to work. Lydia asks after Annie, inquiring whether she is still mourning her beloved, who died in the war. Reflectively, Lydia notes that it is strange that beautiful Annie should not be married, while Lydia herself is married with three children. Joe points out that he once had two sons, but the war stole one from him. At that moment, his living son, Chris, enters the scene.

When Joe asks whether Annie is awake, Chris tells him she is eating breakfast. Joe calls Chris’s attention to the fallen tree, but Chris refuses to look at it. A neighborhood boy named Bert shows up to ask if he can see the jail that is supposedly located in the Kellers’ basement. Joe refuses, which makes Bert suspicious. Complaining that he’s never seen Joe arrest anyone, Bert suggests that the man should arrest Jim’s son Tommy for saying a bad word. Joe tells Bert to go back out into the neighborhood and keep an eye out. 

Worried about Annie’s possible response to Larry’s tree falling, Joe suggests to Chris that they should tell her first. Chris reveals that Annie already knows, because she was outside at four in the morning, when the tree fell. After its fall, Chris relates, he saw Annie run back into the house, then heard her sobbing. Annie is acting just like she did after her lover died. Chris tells his father it was a mistake to let Mrs. Keller believe that Larry might be alive. They must be clear with her that, after three years, her son will not return. 

Chris asks his father whether he knows why he invited Annie to the house. Though Joe knows, he makes Chris say it: Chris plans to ask Annie to marry him. Confirming Chris’s fear, Joe tells his son that his wife still views Annie as Larry’s girl. Chris is tired of suppressing his own desires for others’ sake. Joe tells him that Annie may feel the same way Mrs. Keller does about her and Larry, but Chris doesn’t think so. For three years, he has been waiting for Mrs. Keller to accept Larry’s death, but he can’t wait any longer. If the two can’t get married while Chris is living at home, he says, he will move away. Joe responds that Chris would be crazy to abandon his life and business there. The young man’s response is a hard thing for his father to hear: Chris does not enjoy their family business and wants to leave it.

Kate Keller, Joe’s wife and the boys’ mother, enters to say that Annie will be out shortly. Musing on the outdoor scene, she says that events seem to be coming together to remind her of Larry: his birthday month, the tree blowing down, and Annie’s visit. Praising Annie for not getting together with another man yet, Kate criticizes the young women who did so too quickly. This worries Chris, who points out that Annie’s lack of...

(This entire section contains 1324 words.)

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a partner does not mean she still mourns Larry. His mother denies that it could be anything else. In a dream she had the previous night, she saw Larry’s plane fly overhead and heard him calling out to her. Then the tree’s snapping woke her up. She tells them that she knew they had planted the tree, a symbolic burial, too soon, while Chris instead suggests that it is time to start trying to forget Larry. 

After Chris exits, Kate confronts Joe with the question of why Chris invited Annie to visit them, revealing that she suspects her son’s desire to marry the young woman. She denies that Annie could have any interest in Chris, arguing that she is still single because she is still mourning Larry. That continued mourning gives Kate hope that Larry is still alive. If she has to accept that he is not, she says, she will die by suicide. She begs Joe to believe with her. 

Bert appears and tells Joe that Tommy has said the dirty word again and he should arrest him. Angrily, Kate tells Bert that there is no jail at their house. She insists that Joe stop talking about it, though he denies he has anything to hide. As Bert leaves, Annie and Chris enter.

Annie and the Kellers discuss old times and how Annie has changed. When Annie makes a comment about wanting to have fun like they used to when Larry was around, Kate is pleased that she remembers him. In a transparent attempt to find out about Annie’s life, Kate asks if they can gossip. Annie reveals that she is not waiting for Larry, but Kate insists that she is, because Kate’s heart tells her that Larry is alive.

Frank appears and has an awkward conversation with Annie about her father, who is in prison. Previously, Joe was also in prison, but he has been exonerated. This is the source of the rumor about the jail in his house. Joe and Kate dispute whether anyone will comment about Annie’s father, and Joe advises Annie to walk proudly into these conversations. Annie’s family should move back after her father gets out, he says, revealing that he does not resent her father testifying in court against him. Chris and Annie are angry, blaming Annie’s father for the death of twenty-one pilots who crashed because of defective parts from the factory. Indeed, Annie points out, Larry might have been one of these. Kate’s strong reaction puzzles Annie until she realizes that what she said implies again that Larry is dead. 

After Kate goes back into the house, Joe says that Larry could not have been killed by those parts, because they did not go into the kind of plane he flew. He minimizes and excuses what Annie’s father did. Indulging in bravado, he tells Chris and Annie that they are going out for steak, then enters the house. Chris takes the opportunity to confess his love to Annie, who reveals that she feels the same way. However, she is not ready to celebrate, wanting to understand the sense of shame that she felt in Chris’s letters. His experience of war changed his perception of the world, Chris says, and he felt a strangeness in surviving and coming home to a world that didn’t understand it. 

Joe reenters to say that Annie’s brother George is on the phone. After Annie exits, Chris tells Joe that the two are getting married. A distracted Joe does not react. When Chris objects, Joe explains that George was calling from Columbus, where Annie and George’s father is imprisoned. Becoming suspicious, he wonders whether their father sent Annie to the Kellers to find something out about Joe. Yet he forces himself out of this reverie to express excitement for Chris, telling him that he will put his name on the factory and build him a new house. When she gets off the phone, Annie tells them that George is on his way but does not explain why. Joe and Kate have a tense conversation about what George might be coming for, with Joe insisting that he does not care.


Act 2 Summary