Student Question

How does Miller present the role of the past in All My Sons, and its dramatic effects?

Quick answer:

The role of the past in All My Sons overhangs the actions of the key characters, with dramatic effects that include impeding Kate's ability to move forward and creating so much guilt for Joe that suicide is the only path he sees to alleviate his pain. Larry has no lines, but his character, and therefore the past, is present throughout. Joe's suicide is the most dramatic manifestation of how the past impacts the present.

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The role of the past is critical in the play and overhangs the actions of most of the key characters, with dramatic effects that include impeding their ability to move forward in some cases, as with Kate, and creating so much guilt that the only path to exit the pain in the character’s mind is suicide, as with Joe.

The action takes place post-WWII but the events of the war are very much present in the current time frame. The Kellers’ older son Larry died in the war, which is a source of tremendous sorrow to Kate, his mother, and tremendous guilt to Joe, his father.

Kate misses Larry and refuses to accept that he is gone. She clings to the notion that he might be missing in action and return to the family someday, although the likelihood of this is remote. For this reason, she tends his tree in the backyard and tries to keep his girlfriend, Ann, from entering into a new relationship. Kate cannot move on and she does not want anyone else to move on either. We see this in her dialog with Chris.

Mother: Never mind. Most of them didn't wait till the telegrams were opened. I'm just glad she came, so you can see I'm not completely out of my mind. {sits, and rapidly breaks string beans in the pot}

Chris: Just because she isn't married doesn't mean she's been mourning Larry.

Mother: {with an undercurrent of observation} Why then isn't she?

If Kate could, she would freeze time until Larry finally returns to the family and then resume from where the family had been pre-war, with Larry and Ann embarking on a life together.

This contrasts to Ann’s view of life, which is that she both wants to move forward towards a future with Chris and cannot forgive her father for the role he played in contributing to the deaths of many other young soldiers.

Although Larry has no lines in the play, the "ghost" of his character, and therefore of the past, is present throughout the action. Joe's suicide is the most dramatic manifestation of how Larry and the past impact the present in the story.

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