All My Sons Themes

The main themes in All My Sons are family, loss and acceptance, and guilt and blame.

  • Family: Joe’s attempts to protect his family at all costs ironically backfire, leading to his family’s destruction and his own suicide.
  • Loss and acceptance: The characters demonstrate different levels of acceptance, or lack thereof, of Larry’s death in the Second World War.
  • Guilt and blame: Joe is guilty of allowing defective airplane parts to ship during the war and of allowing his business partner to take the blame.

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Themes

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Family

Family is the central theme of All My Sons. Every decision that Joe makes centers on the attempt to protect and support his family. The irony of the play is that, in the end, going too far to support his family becomes the cause of the Keller family’s destruction. When the choice of whether to let the defective parts ship out arises, Joe chooses what he perceives to be advantageous for his family: he tries to preserve his business’s reputation so that he can continue to make money for them in the short term and also pass the business on to Chris in good shape. But choosing family over honesty backfires in a devastating way for him.

First, Joe loses Larry. Although most of the characters thought that Larry had died in battle, when Chris reads Larry’s letter to Annie, they discover that his death had been a suicide. Larry killed himself because he could not bear the knowledge of his father’s corruption, particularly knowing that it had caused the deaths of fellow pilots. He could not live in the understanding that his father had chosen their family over honesty and compassion for others.

After Larry’s death, Kate becomes distant from both Joe and reality. She remains unable to accept that her son is dead because, as she reveals late in the play, that would also mean accepting that Joe was responsible for it. She believes that if Larry is dead, he must have died due to his father letting the defective parts ship.

Finally, Joe loses Chris as soon as Chris realizes the truth of what his father has done, that he really did knowingly let the defective parts ship. Chris initially decides not to turn him in. Yet he also makes it clear that they are no longer family when he announces he is moving away.

The horror and grief of having destroyed his family in an attempt to care for them is too much for Joe, leading to his suicide at the end of the play. The play’s title comes from his final realization that he should have treated the whole world like family. He should have viewed the pilots who flew in the crafts he helped build as “all my sons,” rather than exclusively protecting his biological family at the cost of everything else.

Loss and Acceptance

As the play begins, the central source of tension in the Keller family is the different degrees to which the family members (and Annie) have accepted or not accepted Larry’s death. Annie and Chris clearly understand and accept that Larry is dead, because they have gotten over it enough to want to get married even though Annie was originally with Larry. And Joe is able to overcome the grief and strangeness of this enough to accept that they are in love and give Chris a blessing of sorts. However, Kate becomes a powerful obstacle to her living son’s happiness because of her refusal to accept that she has lost Larry. The true motivation and significance of this failure to accept her loss emerges only late in the play, when she reveals that accepting Larry’s death would mean believing that Joe is responsible and that she could not bear experiencing the consequences of that acceptance.

Guilt and Blame

Joe Keller’s culpability for his corrupt action in letting the defective parts ship is a driving force in this play. It is under the surface in the characters’ social interactions to the extent that the audience knows nothing about it until late in act 1. Yet it shapes everything that happens between the major characters. Kate does not want Annie around not only because she suspects her feelings for Chris, but also because she worries that Annie is a spy for her father, whom the courts blamed for what happened at the factory. Though George initially accepted Joe’s account of the story and the court’s decision that his father was to blame, he comes to question this when he speaks to his father. This is where the characters’ relationships began to explicitly destabilize. George forces Chris into a position of questioning whether his father is guilty. After that, the realization that the deaths of the twenty-one pilots were indeed Joe’s fault becomes the breaking point for Joe and Chris’s relationship and the ultimate cause of Joe’s suicide.

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