Act Two Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2008

New Characters
George Deever: Ann’s brother, who is a WWII veteran and a lawyer in his early thirties

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Summary
It is later in the same evening, and Chris finally removes the trunk of the apple tree from the Keller yard. Afterward, Chris and Kate discuss the possible reasons for George’s impending visit. Kate expresses concern that the case (about the failed airplane engine parts) will be opened again and indicates that she could not withstand the strain of another trial. Chris continues to dismiss his mother’s concerns, including the possibility that the feud between the Keller and Deever families, which occurred during the trial, will resurface, a development that would be of particular significance to his wish to marry Ann. Kate, however, still has not been informed of the wedding plans. As Kate exits, Ann enters, and she and Chris resolve to announce their engagement to Kate later that evening.

Chris exits and Sue enters to find Ann hovering near the tree stump. A discussion ensues between the two women about the forthcoming nuptials, specifically, and the challenges of married life, generally. Sue betrays her own mercenary views of marriage—that happiness is based more on the financial stability of the couple than on the presence of love. Her comments reveal deep jealousy and resentment of the Kellers, especially Chris, whom she believes nurtures an idealism that is ridiculous, in view of the financial success of his business and the social standing of his family. In fact, Sue believes that Chris is distracting Jim from his work and encouraging a frivolous desire to leave his medical practice for a career in research. The conversation becomes heated as the two women argue, first about Chris and then about the reputation of the entire Keller family.

Chris enters and interrupts the discussion; Sue exits. The scenes that follow develop the problem of merging the two families and their troubled histories. Ann questions Chris about the truth of Sue’s accusations, especially the possibility that the entire community is convinced of Joe’s guilt. Ann reminds Chris that, in effect, she has exchanged one father (Steve) for another (Joe), by assigning guilt to the former and innocence to the latter. The implication is that she wants to be certain that the reward of switching allegiance has been worth the terrible cost: the emotional pain of losing her own father and family identity.

Joe enters and continues this line of discussion. He worries that Chris, too, will eventually switch allegiance as a result of empathizing with Ann and assigning blame for the pain inflicted on the Deevers to his own family. The solution to this problem, in Joe’s opinion, can be found if the two families live and work in close proximity. Accordingly, he offers to find a position for George at a local law firm and to create a job for Steve in the factory after his release from prison. Chris objects strongly, while Joe insists that the past must be forgiven and forgotten. His protest to Chris that “[a] father is a father,” despite any wrongs that either father or son might commit, foreshadows the conflict between the two men in the next act.

Joe exits just as Jim arrives with George, Ann’s brother. The reason for George’s visit becomes apparent immediately; he suspects the engagement and directly opposes it. Tension grows as George explains his opposition to Chris and Ann’s union. He has learned during his visit to Steve, at the jail, that Joe not only condoned but also directly ordered the shipment of the cracked cylinder heads. The best evidence he can provide is an appeal to their knowledge of the character of each man: Steve’s weak will and Joe’s attention to detail. How could Steve contradict Joe, in view of his tendency to break under pressure? How could Joe possibly miss an entire shipment of parts, when he meticulously checks every other detail in the plant? George finally asserts that “everything they have is covered in blood,” which he knows neither Chris nor Ann could accept, if they would only recognize the truth.

The tone of the scene shifts with Kate’s dramatic entrance; she is dressed and coifed in expectation of an evening out with the family. George seems almost charmed by Kate as the two discuss past memories and future prospects. After Lydia briefly appears to deliver a hat to Kate, George is even teased about his failure to marry this former neighbor. Joe enters and adds his own plan for George to the conversation. The atmosphere brightens, and George shows signs of seriously considering the Kellers’ plans for him and the possibility of joining their family circle. Yet Joe ruins the mood by asking about Steve and returning to the topic of the trial. At this moment, George finally finds the inconsistency in the story that he has anticipated. Joe’s claim that a bout of pneumonia took him away from the plant on the day of the infamous shipment is contradicted by Kate’s assertion that her husband hasn’t been sick for the past fifteen years. It is obvious that Kate should remember something as serious as pneumonia (which Joe changes to the flu during the argument), and the efforts of the two to cover the blunder are unconvincing.

Frank enters with the horoscope he has been concocting for Larry, at Kate’s request. He has concluded that Larry could not have died, due to “favorable” astrological signs on the day of his disappearance. This announcement renews the argument and plunges the group into confusion. George tries to convince Chris of Joe’s guilt. Kate tries to get Ann to leave. Ann demands that her brother leave, under pressure from Chris. Finally, Chris tells Kate of the wedding plans. As Joe attempts to enter the argument, Kate slaps him in the face.

A mood of tension and conflict grows after this sudden outburst of violence. In a desperate attempt to defend herself, Kate declares to Chris that Larry must be alive, “because if he’s dead, your father killed him.” She exits and Chris questions his father. Joe is cornered and can only protest that he had no choice but to comply with the demands of his military contracts or lose his business. He insists that the choice, then, was made not for himself but for the well-being of his family. Chris does not accept this rationale and flees into the night. The curtain falls.

Analysis
Act two brings together many of the problems from act one in order to set a sequence of tragic events into motion. The key device for developing the action is the brewing feud between the Keller and Deever families over the engagement of Chris and Ann. It seems that the union of the couple depends on the confirmation of both Larry’s death and Joe’s innocence, for a marriage based on deception is in constant danger of dissolution. If Larry is alive, Chris will have betrayed his brother. If Joe is guilty, Ann will have lost her father, as a result of believing in his conviction and severing ties with him after the trial. In either case, the lovers will have forsaken the honesty and trust so important to their present relationship and future marriage. Ann’s marked anxiety over switching allegiance to the Keller family and Chris’s determined insistence on his father’s innocence indicate that these values are indeed central to their future together.

Despite many efforts to help the couple, however, circumstances still pull Chris and Ann apart. Even Joe joins in the cause in this act, with his offer to find employment for both George and Steve in the local community. He hopes to merge the daily lives of the two families to such an extent that future conflict will be impractical and, thus, impossible. A sense of hope emerges as Kate endorses the proposal and George momentarily entertains the possibility of accepting their help and joining the family. Yet, such efforts are all the more tragic for their futility. As Joe contradicts a key detail in his alibi, Kate blurts out his guilt, and the budding relationship between the two families unravels. The confusion that follows—from Kate’s violent attempt to silence her husband by suddenly slapping him to Chris’s struggle to win approval from his mother and obtain the truth from his father—promises only more, not less, conflict in the future. A vision of harmony, for the couple and their families, cannot withstand reality in this act. This sudden reversal in mood reminds us that these characters will not escape the tragic fate already assigned to them in the play.

Furthermore, the doomed engagement is important not only to the plot but also to the themes of All My Sons. The conflict surrounding the couple implies that business can destroy love. This possibility is reiterated in many minor scenes throughout the play. In this act, Sue complains that Chris has distracted her husband from his medical practice with idealistic dreams; Jim, on the other hand, laments his wife’s greed but fails to change. Likewise, Kate protests George’s pursuit of a legal career at the expense of love and marriage; despite his obvious professional success, even George expresses regret at his missed chance with Lydia, who married Frank instead. Marital happiness rarely coincides with financial success in this play.

The effects of Joe’s business deal, however, suggest that business can destroy many forms of love and types of relationships, including but certainly not limited to romance and marriage. Joe is so motivated by greed that he betrays Steve and kills soldiers in the war (even if unwittingly). The decision to ship the cracked cylinder heads ranks a desire for profit above a concern for friendship, for the future of the two families, and most directly, for the lives of the soldiers. The marketplace, then, fosters antisocial behavior maladapted to human cooperation and even survival. Chris states this point directly by comparing his father’s decision to that of an animal’s to “kill [its] own.” Joe’s repeated insistence that he acted on behalf of the family only emphasizes Miller’s suggestion that the marketplace perverts human decency and dignity.

Admission of the crime is the catalyst of a moral conflict that finally consumes the family in act three. In fact, the end of act two both introduces the moral dilemma and develops the family drama. Miller offers clear evidence that the Kellers will fail on both accounts, to withstand a test of their values and to hold their family together. This failure can be attributed not only to difficult circumstances but also to specific decisions made by each member of the Keller family. In fact, the fate of the family can be blamed on tragic character flaws. Kate reveals Joe’s guilt but still cannot accept Larry’s death. She asserts instead that “God does not let a son be killed by his father.” Her faith remains irrational. Joe admits his role in the crime but does not accept full responsibility for it. He continues to justify his actions and deny his true guilt. Chris struggles to forgive Joe but concern for the family reputation makes reconciliation impossible. He puts his own idealism before duty to and love for his father. The common factor amongst these reactions is a lack of empathy; it is an inability to understand and thus reconnect with others that ultimately limits the moral capacity of this family.

Ironically, the Kellers are too righteous to be moral. They cling to a rigid set of beliefs that blinds them to the truth about themselves and one another. Chris’s sudden departure at the end of the act suggests that dissolution, not reunion, of the family offers the only means of resolving their problems. In short, the tragedy of separation, experienced by Chris and Ann, is extended to the entire family.

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Act One Summary and Analysis

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Act Three Summary and Analysis