At a Glance
- Ann Deever: returns to her old neighborhood to visit Chris.
- Chris Keller: Ann's boyfriend, who asked her to visit because he intends to propose.
- Larry Keller: Chris' brother, who dated Ann before crashing his plane in World War II.
- Joe Keller: the patriarch of the family, who knowingly sold faulty cylinder heads to the United States military.
- Steve Deever: Ann's father and Joe's business partner, who took the fall for Joe.
- Kate Keller: Joe's wife, who believes her son Larry is still missing in action.
- Jim and Sue Bayliss: the Kellers' neighbors.
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...
(The entire section is 2,246 words.)