Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244
It is early morning of the following day. Jim stops by the Keller home after a late-night house call to find Kate rocking compulsively in a chair on the porch. He learns that Chris has discovered the truth about Joe and reveals that he has always known himself. Jim’s comments on the moral compromises made in his own life due to monetary greed underscore the importance of this theme to the final act and to the play as a whole.
Joe Keller enters as Jim exits. Joe and Kate discuss strategies for winning Chris back as they await his return. Kate believes that Joe can prove his remorse by offering to go to jail; she suggests that Chris will then forgive his father but not actually insist on his imprisonment. Joe, on the other hand, continues to claim that his decision was justified as a means to maintain his business and provide for his family. According to this logic, his only crime has been to love his family too much. Yet Kate reminds Joe that their son does not share these values. Joe can only reply that if this dedication to his family is wrong, he will “put a bullet in [his] head.”
While Joe and Kate continue to talk, Ann enters and proposes her own solution to the predicament. She demands that Kate finally admit to herself and her family that Larry is dead; then, Chris can start a new life with Ann without feeling either regret or guilt. As might be expected, Kate refuses to enter into this new bargain and banishes Joe from the yard, presumably so that she can settle the matter with Ann once and for all, without interference from anyone else. Yet Ann reveals a surprising piece of evidence that derails Kate: a letter written by Larry on the day of his disappearance. Kate becomes visibly distressed while reading the letter.
Before the contents of the letter can be shared, however, Chris rejoins the group and proposes yet another plan of action. He will depart immediately and leave his current life behind him, even Ann, whom he claims would surely grow to hate him over time for his association with the man and business that destroyed her family. He will neither open the case again nor jail his father. It seems that Chris has become, in his own words, too “practical” to enforce his own ideals. His claims are put to an immediate test as Joe reenters and engages his son in a final confrontation.
A tragic chain of events now commences that no one can halt, despite any prior claims or plans. As Joe and Chris argue, Ann shares the letter with Chris, who reads it aloud. The play reaches its dramatic climax at this moment. The letter reveals that Joe did, in fact, kill Larry, but not in the way that had been imagined. Larry, distraught over the news of his father’s guilt, resolved to commit suicide on his next mission and asked that Ann not wait for his return. Upon hearing this news, Joe finally realizes that the soldiers lost due to his faulty engine parts were “all his sons,” as the title of the play suggests. This realization so devastates Joe that he takes his own life by exiting into the house and shooting himself (presumably, with the gun mentioned in act one). Ann departs to seek help from Jim; Chris investigates by running into the house. He returns onstage and mutters to Kate, “I didn’t mean to.” Mother and son cling to one another as the curtain falls.
The long-awaited confirmation of Larry’s death seals the Kellers’ doom in this act. Like the revelation of Joe’s guilt in act two, the news results only in new confusion and pain, rather than resolution and relief, for the characters in act three.
It is not merely the fact of Larry’s death, but the way in which he died, that destroys his family. Ann finally produces the last letter from her (former) lover, which reveals Larry’s determination to commit suicide on his next mission after learning of Joe’s conviction for the deaths of fellow soldiers. Because the letter corresponds so closely to the circumstances of Larry’s disappearance, its accuracy cannot be denied. Even Kate accepts its truth. The outcome foretold by a series of signs—especially by the ominous fall (in act one) and removal (in act two) of the apple tree—is confirmed. Larry will not return.
Moreover, Joe is to blame, a fact that he is able to recognize only in this moment. An admission that the murdered soldiers were “all his sons,” just as Larry suggested in the letter, speaks to the seriousness of his crime. Although he might speak the words, it soon becomes apparent that Joe cannot live with this fact. It is simply too much for him to bear, and he reacts by fulfilling the promise he made to “put a bullet to [his] head” if the rationale for his actions were ever proven wrong. After all, the results of his actions could not be more counter to his intentions. Joe fulfills the conventions of the tragedy by failing to survive his tragic flaw: an inability to accept the full consequences of his greed.
Joe’s failure, however, is both personal and cultural. He fails himself and his family. Yet, the American dream fails him; the pursuit of wealth, and the success and happiness it promises, cannot save Joe Keller from disaster. Hard work results in a middle-class lifestyle that causes him more pain than joy. He must labor constantly to maintain his present status and reputation. The pressures of doing so breed new desperation and greed. These emotions, and the choices that result from them, finally destroy that which they were intended to protect: the Keller business and family. As Chris suggests, this system holds less “honor” even than the battlefield; at least a man who “acted like a dog” was punished in the war. Instead, the business world rewards men like Keller who act selfishly and inhumanely in the struggle for money.
Many critics have attributed the critique of market capitalism in All My Sons to the political beliefs of the playwright, who was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. This committee, formed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, held trials in the 1950s aimed at identifying and punishing supporters of communism in America. The trials were later condemned. Despite the uncertainty surrounding these accusations, it is clear that Miller is at least skeptical, if not openly critical, of the benefits promised by American capitalism in this play. After all, a system that can inspire a man like Joe Keller to sacrifice human lives for increased profits is certainly corrupt. The evil effects of this crime—from the deaths of Larry and his unnamed comrades to the destruction of both the Keller and Deever families—make the need for awareness and reform quite clear.
Miller highlights the need for change by using an open ending; he does not conclude the action neatly or clearly. Instead, the last act closes while the characters are still in motion, reeling from the surprise of Joe’s suicide. The final message of the play is left open to interpretation. This play demands that we sustain more humane values and functional communities, but the exact method for doing so is left to us.
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