All My Sons Themes

The main themes in All My Sons are responsibility, death, and the American dream.

  • Responsibility: Chris learned about personal responsibility in combat, whereas Joe allowed his financial obligations to his family to overwhelm his morals.
  • Death: Both Joe Keller and his son Larry commit suicide out of guilt for Joe's actions. Joe's suicide is figured as an act of repentance, a way for him to accept responsibility for the deaths he caused.
  • The American Dream: Joe Keller is a self-made man who allows his greed to lead him astray. His suicide represents the often self-destructive nature of the American Dream.

Themes

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Last Updated on March 6, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851

American Dream
In a sense, All My Sons is a critical investigation of the quest to achieve material comfort and an improved social status through hard work and determination. In the Horatio Alger myth, even a disadvantaged, impoverished young man can attain wealth and prestige through personal fortitude, moral integrity, and untiring industry. Joe Keller is that sort of self-made man, one who made his way from blue-collar worker to factory owner. However, Joe sacrifices his integrity to materialism, and he makes a reprehensible decision that sends American pilots to their deaths, something he is finally forced to face.

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Atonement and Forgiveness
Paradoxically, Joe Keller's suicide at the end of All My Sons is both an act of atonement and an escape from guilt. It stems from Joe's realization that there can be no real forgiveness for what he had done. The alternative is confession and imprisonment. Death offers Joe another alternative.

Forgiveness must come from Kate and Chris. The letter written by Larry reveals that he deliberately destroyed himself during the war, profoundly shamed by his father's brief imprisonment for fraud and profiteering. It is a devastating irony that Joe's initial attempt to do right by his family—resulting in fraud and the deaths of twenty-one fighter pilots—leads to destruction of his world.

Choices and Consequences
All My Sons employs a pattern that is fundamental to most tragedies. Protagonists in tragedy must, in some degree, be held accountable for their actions. When faced with a moral dilemma, they often make a wrong choice. Joe, at a critical moment, elected to place his family's finances above the lives of courageous American soldiers.

The revelations that lead up to Joe's tragic recognition of guilt and his suicide, the final consequences of his choice, are essential to All My Sons. There is a sense of anake, or tragic necessity, that moves the work along towards its inevitable moment of truth and awful but final retribution.

Death
The key in the tragic arc of All My Sons is Kate Keller's refusal to accept the death of her son, Larry. Initially, prone to false hopes, it seems that she is in denial; finally, it is revealed that her need to believe that Larry is alive allows her to avoid the terrible consequences of her husband's deeds. She realizes that if Larry is dead, then Joe is responsible for his death—something Larry himself confirmed in his letter to Ann. All along, Kate knew her husband's guilt but desperately avoided it, knowing that it would destroy her family.

Duty and Responsibility
Joe Keller's sense of duty and responsibility is to the material comfort of his family and the success of his business. At a weak moment, under pressure, he puts these values ahead of what should clearly have been a higher duty, his obligation to human life. His fear of losing lucrative government contracts—essentially his greed—blinded him to the murder he was committing.

Ethics
Joe's decision to send defective parts is not merely a result of skewed values, it is a serious breach of ethics. Joe does not fully comprehend how serious a breach it is. To him, success is more important than anything else, including human life and the good of his country. By setting up this ethical situation, Miller clearly questions the implications of a value system that puts material success above moral responsibilities to others.

Guilt and Innocence
In All My Sons, there are hints that Joe is troubled by his guilt—even before his eventual suicide. His suspicions of Ann and George Deever reveal his fears of being forced to face the truth. Even when he attempts to atone for his guilt by helping his former partner, Steve Deever as well as Deever's son, George, his offer seems rather lame given the enormity of his guilt. There is no way he can atone for the deaths of the American fighter pilots, however, something that he finally realizes.

Punishment
Joe's death at the end of All My Sons is paradoxically both punishment and escape. In one sense, Joe can do no less than pay for his crime with his life. It is not an empty gesture. It is made abundantly clear from the play's beginning that Joe is a man who is full of life and cherishes his roles as both husband and father.

When the truth comes out, Joe has to face not only a return to prison but also the alienation of his remaining son and the destruction his family. Death offers the only escape from that pain. It may also be seen as a sacrificial act, one which saves Joe's son, Chris, from further humiliation.

Revenge
Fueled by his anger over Joe's guilt, George Deever comes to the Keller's house seeking revenge and retribution. He is a major catalyst and intensifies the emotional tension of the play. For a moment, Kate's friendliness and warmth placate him. When, towards the end of the second act, Kate inadvertently confirms the probable truth of his father's accusations, George's anger returns. Joe is then forced to reveal his fraudulent and deceitful actions.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

All My Sons concerns the conflict between a pragmatic father and his idealistic son. Joe Keller, the father, is a “blue-collar” industrialist, a self-made man. Motivated by an extreme sense of loyalty to his family, Joe allowed the defective airline parts to leave his plant, an action that killed twenty-one pilots and led to the arrest and imprisonment of his partner and friend, Steve Deever. Joe seeks to escape the past, to deny the fateful series of events that threatened his business, his family, and his freedom. On the other hand, Chris, his son, finds it impossible to escape the past. During the war, Chris discovered a unique brotherhood among the men who sacrificed their lives for each other: “A kind of—responsibility. Man for man.” On his return home, he finds “no meaning” in the shallow upper middle-class concerns or in the consumerism of post-war America. Chris even thinks the past a liberating agent; he judges the lives of his friends and family and, more important, “truth” against the standard of his combat experience.

This conflict operates on two levels: the human and the social. On the social level, Miller’s play explores the need for the individual to accept social responsibility. On the human level, the play reveals the tragedy of a common man. Joe Keller is not a coward, nor does he act from base self-interest. Chris is relentlessly honest, a loyal son. Yet both are destroyed by their failure to see life realistically. Keller places his family’s well-being above the lives of twenty-one innocent pilots, and Chris’s loyalty to an abstract idealism is ultimately destructive. Although he proclaims that the truth will set them free, Chris makes several choices in the play that reveal his unconscious knowledge of his father’s guilt: his difficulty in proposing to Ann, his rejection of the company’s new name, and his dreams of leaving the area and making his own way in the world. Both father and son are problematic characters. Their choices, neither corrupt nor noble, allow Miller to explore the results of their actions rather than the causes.

The other characters in the play are less well-defined; nevertheless, they support what some believe is Miller’s idea for survival: to face the often ugly reality of life. Ann and Sue, Jim Bayliss’s wife, negotiate life on an everyday basis. Sue points out the contradictions and dangers inherent in Chris’s idealism: “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.” Kate, the sentimental mother who keeps alive an ideal image of her dead son, is not as successful as either Ann or Sue. Knowing the guilt of her husband, she has retreated into a world of horoscopes and memory. Jim, the weary physician, has abandoned his dreams and yielded to practical demands. These tensions and conflicts give depth to Miller’s play, allowing the playwright to explore both the human and social dimensions of its central moral crisis.

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