Joe Keller, a middle-aged factory owner of working-class background. He is a plain, inarticulate man with a certain peasant shrewdness. His values are simple: work and family. His purpose in life is to pass on his business to his surviving son, Chris. His moral simplicity, however, is his undoing. During World War II, he knowingly authorized the shipment of cracked cylinder heads to the Army air force; the defective parts caused the deaths of twenty-one pilots. Although imprisoned and brought to trial, he avoided conviction by shifting the blame to his hapless partner, Steve Deever. Although he is accepted by his neighbors, they do not doubt his guilt, nor did his son Larry, who, ashamed of his father’s actions, committed suicide during the war. Only his son Chris believes he is innocent. Joe is forced to face his responsibility when Larry’s former girlfriend, Ann Deever, now about to marry Chris, gives the Kellers Larry’s suicide letter. Realizing that his actions caused Larry’s death and that the twenty-one pilots are as much his sons as Larry (he refers to them as “all my sons” in his last speech), Joe shoots himself.
Kate Keller, the fiftyish wife of Joe Keller. She superstitiously clings to the hope that her son Larry, who disappeared during the war and is assumed to be dead, will return. This false hope complicates her surviving son’s plan to marry Ann Deever. To Kate, accepting the marriage means that Larry will never come back; she therefore opposes the marriage and tries to get rid of Ann. Her denial of Larry’s death is rooted in her knowledge of her husband’s guilt. In her mind, Larry’s death is linked to the pilots’ deaths; denying the reality of his death is her way of denying her husband’s responsibility for the deaths of the others. Her denial is shattered by Ann, who, to save her future happiness with Chris, reluctantly shows her Larry’s suicide note.
Chris Keller, Joe’s thirty-two-year-old, sensitive, and intellectual son. He works for his father’s company, which someday will be his. A World War II veteran whose combat experience has left him with a strong sense of responsibility for others, he is an idealist, though rather naïve. He loves his father, causing him to ignore his suspicions about his father’s guilt. He loves his mother, which casts a shadow over his desire to marry Ann. He is forced to choose between family responsibility and his moral idealism, which transcends family concerns. Unlike his father, he acknowledges obligations beyond the family. When confronted with his father’s guilt, his moral idealism demands that he reject his father, which drives Joe to suicide.
Ann Deever, the attractive, twenty-six-year-old daughter of Joe’s former partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, whom she has not seen since his imprisonment. She was once Larry’s girlfriend but now is in love with Chris, who invited her back to her old neighborhood so he could propose to her. Her desire to marry him over Kate’s objections causes her to reveal Larry’s suicide note to Kate as a means of proving that he is dead.
Jim Bayliss, a doctor and the Kellers’ neighbor. His idealism is periodically encouraged by Chris. Like Chris, he must choose between family responsibilities and other, greater, values. He would like to do medical research but cannot support his family on the salary it would pay; although he is a successful doctor, he has compromised his idealism. A close friend of the Kellers and particularly of Chris, he has guessed Joe’s guilt.
Sue Bayliss, Jim’s wife. A practical, witty woman approaching middle age, she is threatened by Jim’s stifled idealism. She too is aware of Joe’s guilt and finds Chris’s idealism shallow. She asks Ann to not live close to them after she marries Chris, so Chris will no longer encourage her husband’s interest in medical research.
George Deever, Ann’s impulsive and short-tempered brother. A lawyer, he comes to the Kellers’ home after visiting his embittered father in prison and realizing that Joe has destroyed his father. He tries to dissuade Ann from marrying Chris. He is almost reconciled with the Kellers, but Kate inadvertently reveals that Joe authorized the shipment of defective parts. He again asks Ann not to marry into the family that destroyed their family; when she refuses, he leaves.
Lydia Lubey, a onetime girlfriend of George Deever and the wife of Frank. She is a vibrant, beautiful woman who laughs easily. Her brief reunion with George at the Kellers shows how she too has settled for less than the ideal. She is a living reminder to George of what he lost when he went away to war; George is her reminder that she has married someone foolish and second-rate.
Frank Lubey, a foolish, insensitive, and balding haberdasher who is Lydia’s husband. Although only thirty-two years old, he managed to avoid military service in the war. He foolishly encourages Kate’s superstition-fueled hope of Larry’s return by presenting her with a horoscope “proving” that Larry did not die because the stars were “favorable” to him the day he was reported missing. His marriage to the vivacious Lydia during the war reveals that he, like Joe Keller, profited while others died.