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Helpful Background
      Universal Themes
      A Social Drama
      A Modern Tragedy
      Literary & Dramatic Devices

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Subjects (Theme Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

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      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
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Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Helpful Background:

In addition to the benefits described above, "All My Sons" illustrates many dramatic and literary devices, including irony, foreshadowing, character development, and the tragic form. Its universal themes are listed at the beginning of the Helpful Background Section. The play allows children to work through the moral issues of cheating and taking responsibility for your actions. It can be used to show the futility and tragedy of suicide as an escape from problems.

Literary Analysis of the Play


Summary List of Themes
"The Full Loathsomeness of Anti-social Action":  Arthur Miller has said that one of the purposes of this play is to describe "the full loathsomeness of anti-social action". "Introduction" by Arthur Miller in Arthur Miller's Collected Plays, 1957, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., hereinafter "1957 Introduction" No one ever thought of Joe Keller as an evil man and in fact, if he were evil, the play wouldn't work. But by any measure, Joe Keller committed a monstrous crime. He knowingly sent out defective engine parts that he knew could cause airplane engines to fail. He caused the deaths of 21 men. After he was caught, he committed another serious crime by denying responsibility and lying under oath to shift the blame to Steve Deever.

Assaulting the "Fortress of Unrelatedness" -- The Limits of the American Dream -- Pursuing Profit at the Expense of Society:  Joe Keller knew that it was wrong to ship the defective engine parts and then to throw the blame onto Steve Deever. Joe claimed that his duties to his family (to keep Kate living in the style she wanted and to give his boys a head start so that they would not have to begin at the bottom) justified what he had done. By the end of the play Joe's actions have been condemned by both of his sons. Larry committed suicide and Chris says, "What the hell do you mean you did it for me? Don't you have a country? Don't you live in the world? What the hell are you? You're not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you?" Act II, pp. 146 & 147.

The playwright said that "The fortress which All My Sons lays siege to is the fortress of unrelatedness. It is an assertion not so much of a morality in terms of right and wrong, but of a moral world's being such because men cannot walk away from certain of their deeds." 1957 Introduction

The story of Joe Keller and his family shows the limits of the American Dream and the moral bankruptcy of making a profit at the expense of society as a whole. For other ways to describe this theme, see the description of Joe Keller's fatal flaw in the section on "All My Sons" as a Modern Tragedy.

Parent/Child Conflict (in this case father/son):   The structure of the modern family sets the stage for conflicts of power and values between parents and children. When children are young, parents are all powerful. Parents control everything and set standards of competency and ethics. As children grow into late adolescence and adulthood, they begin to exercise power and to set their own standards, leading to potential conflicts in several areas. Normal growth and emotional maturation require that children separate from their parents and see themselves as important actors in their own lives with power and moral responsibility.

In modern Western society, potential conflicts between parents and children are usually resolved when children move out of the house to go to school, to get married, or to get a job. Children will start their own families at some distance from their parents' home. However, when there is a family business, there can be conflicts if the children seek to exercise power which the parents want to retain. [In the Keller family this isn't a problem. Chris is not anxious to take over the plant and his father wants to bring him into the company as an owner.]

Then there are expectations of ability and success. In many families, the parents' success will be the benchmark by which children will be measured. This could be in terms of success in business, levels of education, professional achievement, athletic achievement and many other areas of human endeavor. If either the parent or the child doesn't feel that the child measures up, there will be feelings of disappointment. Often, to avoid this type of competition, the child will go into a completely different field of endeavor from that of the parents. Sometimes, feelings of failure or inadequacy by a child can lead to risky or illegal behavior as the child is driven to equal or better the parent's achievements. An example of this can be found in the film Quiz Show. [Again, this is not a problem in the Keller family.]

When children are young, it is the parents who set the standards for conduct in the family. Beginning when they are teenagers kids can develop their own ethical concepts. Often, these are absorbed from the outside community. When parents don't live up to ideals their children have learned at home or which the children have acquired from the outside world, there can be conflict. Usually, the resolution is separation or just not discussing those issues. "All My Sons" presents a situation in which the conflict in values deals with issues of life and death. Larry's suicide is perhaps the most radical rejection of his father's family-obsessed ideals that anyone could design. Larry wrote "I tell you, Ann, if I had him here now I could kill him --" Act III, p. 157. One way for Larry to strike back at his father was his own death. If Joe Keller worked all his life to give a business to his sons it would hurt deeply if there was no son to give it to. Chris also rejects his father once he knows that Joe was responsible for shipping the defective engine parts. He decides to leave the family and pursue a separate life.

Parent/child conflicts often involve differences among generations; what is called a "generation gap". In this play, Larry, Chris and Ann, represent the younger generation. They have adopted the idealism of those who sacrificed to help the U.S. and its allies win the Second World War and believe that people have obligations to their community and their nation. Joe believes that the obligations of family are paramount and can justify betraying the community and the nation. He does not understand the younger generation. Joe says to Chris "I don't understand you, do I?" Act I, p. 98. This is repeated by Kate Keller later in the play.

Appearances vs. Reality -- How Refusing to Acknowledge the Truth Warps People and Relationships:    In this play, Miller is sending a strong message that people who close their eyes to the consequences of their actions and to the reality of life suffer for their blindness. A major theme of this play is the perniciousness of the psychological defense mechanism called "denial". This applies to both Kate Keller and Chris Keller.

Kate Keller, referred to as "Mother" in the stage directions, refuses to believe the obvious fact that Larry is dead. This gives rise to all sorts of strange behavior that warps her life and the lives of others. Three years after Larry's death, the wound is still fresh. She cries hard the night his tree is blown over in the storm. Act I, p. 95. In addition, Mother keeps Larry's shoes shined and his clothes hanging in the closet of his room, waiting for when he returns. She asks her neighbor, Frank, to prepare a horoscope to show that Larry could not have died on the day of his disappearance. However, the most pernicious effect of her refusal to acknowledge the truth is that she opposes her living son, Chris, in his efforts to marry Ann and find happiness. See, Act I, p. 101.

Chris' idealism, forged in battle, would never let him accept Joe's conduct. However, Chris should know better than to believe Joe's claims of innocence. Deep down he suspects that Joe is guilty, but he loves his father and does nothing. Chris suffers from seeing people as better than they are. (As Ann says, "As soon as you get to know somebody you find a distinction for them." Act II, p. 124) Chris' failure to see the truth that is in front of him makes him a hypocrite. Sue Bayliss sees this clearly. Act II, pp. 122 & 123.

The Dangers of Inaccuracies of Self-Image:   This theme relates to another form of denial, the failure to have an accurate view of one's self. Joe Keller is a criminal who has caused the death of 21 pilots and the destruction of the Deever family through perjury. Each of these crimes were premeditated. However, Joe thinks that his obligations to his family justified his crimes. He acts like a criminal but doesn't see himself as a criminal. This leads to his self-destruction.

An example of Joe's inability to see himself clearly is his claim that the Court of Appeal exonerated him when it overturned his conviction and that the people in his community believe that he is innocent. In fact, the community accepts Joe because he has successfully pulled a fast one and they admire that, not because he is innocent. (This is one of Miller's indictments of society as a whole.) Keller doesn't understand that the reversal of his conviction means only that the government didn't present enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As George Deever (now a lawyer) points out, the court paper doesn't prove Joe's innocence. Had Joe understood how much of a criminal he really was, he probably could have avoided his ultimate fate.

Chris's hypocrisy, seeing himself as an upright man, at the same time that he works in his father's factory while ignoring his suspicions of his father's guilt, demonstrates an inaccurate self-image. Most critics look at Chris Keller with compassion. They see him as a man who comes home to his family from the war. He has a job with his father's business and, not being married, he lives at home. He doesn't want to believe the worst about his father and his parents help him submerge his doubts. By small degrees his loyalty to his dead comrades in the war has been compromised.

The Law of Unintended Consequences:    The Law of Unintended Consequences states that even if our actions have the effect that we intend, it will also have effects that we don't anticipate. Several events in this play demonstrate this rule. Joe never expected that his crime would drive his sons away. Chris never expected that asking Ann to visit so that he could ask her to marry him would lead to the exposure of his father as a criminal, his father's death, and the destruction of his family. He didn't anticipate that the decision to leave home and reading Larry's letter to Joe would precipitate Joe's suicide. Nor did Ann predict that the result of her trip to the Keller home would be to expose Joe as a criminal and led to his death.

The playwright put it this way, " . . . [W]hat I was after was the wonder in the fact that consequences of action are as real as the actions themselves, yet we rarely take them into consideration as we perform actions, and we cannot hope to do so fully when we must always act with only partial knowledge of consequences." 1957 Introduction

The Compromises People Make:   Jim Bayliss wanted to be a research scientist but has become a practicing doctor to support his family. He always regretted the compromise. When Mother is worried that Chris won't come home after she exposes Joe's guilt, Bayliss tells her that: "Oh, no. he'll come back. We all come back, Kate. These private little revolutions always die. The compromise is always made. In a peculiar way, Frank is right. Every man does have a star. The star of one's honesty. And you spend your life groping for it, but once it's out it never lights again. I don't think he went very far. He probably just wanted to be alone to watch his star go out." Act III, page 149.

When Chris returns, neither he nor Arthur Miller are comfortable with Bayliss' complete abandonment to compromise. Chris won't report his father, but he will deny his father the fruits of the crime. Chris won't work in the family business or take the tainted money. He's going to leave home. He hates himself for his compromise, " . . . [N]ow I'm practical, and I spit on myself. I'm going away. I'm going now." Act III, p. 154. But after learning about Larry's reaction to his father's crime and after Joe offers to go to the District Attorney's office, Chris doesn't discourage his father. When Mother orders: "You're not going to take him!", Chris replies, "I'm taking him." Act III, p. 157. The compromise is withdrawn and Chris is back on track with his principles.

Let's look at these compromises a little more closely. Jim Bayliss is pretty unhappy about his compromise and it has caused serious strains in his marriage. However, his wife had put him through medical school and he did have obligations to her.

Chris's first compromise of coming into his father's business and burying his suspicions was clearly not the right thing to do. He was not being truthful with himself and he was not being loyal to his principles. One critic has noted that Bayliss had it wrong. On the long drive Chris was not watching the star of his honesty fade away, he was coming to the realization that this star had faded a long time ago. Chris' second compromise, when he knew the truth and after taking his long drive, may have been reasonable given his love for both his parents. By refusing to take the tainted money and moving away, Chris was retaining an element of his principles. Arthur Miller clearly didn't think this was a good compromise. It leaves Chris feeling polluted and as if he had let his fellow soldiers down. "I spit on myself." Chris quickly rejected his second compromise after he learned of Larry's letter and when his father appeared willing to go the District Attorney.

Ann decided to compromise from the beginning of the play and again during the play as the revelations about Mr. Keller came out. Her compromise was to ally herself with the Keller family, and later the son of the man who had destroyed her father's life. This compromise is not criticised in the play and it was probably the right thing to do, especially after Chris made known his intention to leave the business and move away. Chris wasn't responsible for what his father had done.

The neighbors compromised their ethics by accepting Joe as a pillar of the community after his conviction was overturned. In the play, this is seen as a symptom of the cynicism of society. Under the law, people are innocent until proven guilty. However, respect in society is something quite different. Joe should not have been accepted as an upstanding member of the community.

Idealism vs. Cynicism:   The community described in this play is cynical. Joe is accepted despite the belief that "he pulled a fast one". Frank Lubey comments when Joe tells him he only reads he want-ads, "What's the difference, it's all bad news anyway."


Scholars draw a distinction between tragedy, social drama, and melodrama. Tragedy is an ancient form of drama originating with the ancient Greeks. It shows man struggling with his fate. Melodrama keeps the audience in suspense and builds excitement with crimes and catastrophes. The world of melodrama is a black and white world of good and evil. On the other hand, social drama describes a nuanced world in which people sometimes combine both good and evil elements. Social drama explores man in his social and political context, seeking to raise consciousness about the problems and conflicts of life within society. "Arthur Miller and the Loss of Conscience" by William B. Dillingham, Emery University Quarterly Vol. 16, pp. 40 - 50.

Good social drama also has a psychological component because people always act in response to psychological needs and imperatives. In "All My Sons", Kate Keller is deeply conflicted and tortured by guilt. Through the course of the play Chris realizes that his father is not a hero but a man with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults. Every child, as he or she matures, goes through this process, although few are delayed as much as Chris Keller. Many soldiers coming home from war are changed by the experience and many suffer from the guilt of the survivor. These psychological insights are discussed more fully in the sections on the individual characters below.


"All My Sons" has several direct links to Greek tragedy. The action of the play shows Joe Keller, the protagonist, living out the consequences of his actions. Joe Keller's fatal flaw is his failure to understand that "they were all my sons". (Act III, p. 157.) He needed to learn, as Chris puts it, that "there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible to it". (Act III, page 158.) There are several other formulations of Joe Kellers' failure of understanding: (1) he didn't realize that he has a connection to the community and the nation which brings with it ethical obligations beyond his family; (2) society is based on a social contract; Joe Keller received benefits from the community and the nation (e.g., from the men who fought and died in the war), and that under the social contract he has obligations to the community and the nation that sometimes supercede his desire to help his family; (3) he did not understand that the desire that his sons wouldn't have to start at the bottom was not a justification for sacrificing the lives of other young men by selling defective airplane parts; and (4) he was blind to the limits of the American Dream, i.e., that people cannot achieve the American Dream by failing in their obligations to the larger society.

Critics tell us that classic tragic action in the sense of Sophocles and Shakespeare has two elements. First, the tragic figure must be a person of stature. While he must represent the human condition, he must be "larger and grander than the norm -- certainly in the inherent fineness and depth and energy of his mind and character, and perhaps also in his exterior societal role -- so that his fall will have deep emotional consequences for the audience." The second requirement is that the tragic figure's world must have a moral order which he in some way violates and which punishes him for that violation. Richard J. Foster, in "Confusion and Tragedy: The Failure of Miller's Salesman" in Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire edited by John D. Hurrell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961. To a great extent, the story of Joe Keller meets both of these criteria. He is a successful businessman who has started at the bottom, survived adversity (in his case the Great Depression), and is now wealthy. This is the modern American hero. The moral order is the idealistic view of society which has been adopted by his sons and which holds sway in much of the United States today.

An important difference between this play and ancient Greek tragedy is that "All My Sons" doesn't tell the story of a king, prince or other great man on a battlefield or in the public arena. Modern audiences identify less with kings and princes than they do with people who appear to share their situation in life. While Joe Keller is a man of substance in his community, his most important qualification for being a modern tragic hero is that he is similar to his audience, a "common man". The audience can therefore feel an identification with him and sympathize with his plight. One of the great contributions of Arthur Miller was that he was able to craft tragic heros out of "the common man".

The fact that Joe Keller is successful and somewhat important in his community enhances his status as a tragic hero. Before the revelation of his crime, he is the successful common man that we would all like to be. The Kellers' backyard, in which the entire action of the play takes place, is almost a community center for the neighbors. Joe has weekly poker games. Joe is well connected, ("I'm very friendly with some big lawyers in town. I could set George up." Act II, p. 127). People like to do things for the Kellers. Frank Lubey is creating Larry's horoscope for Kate. Lydia makes a hat for her and comes to the house to do Kate's hair. Ann and George practically grew up in the Keller house. Joe has a large manufacturing plant and provides jobs to the community.

Joe Keller is a criminal, but we can all understand why he shipped the defective cylinder heads. Joe was faced with a situation in which, unless he shipped the defective engine parts, he would lose much that was dear to him: his ability to give his sons a head start; his standing in the community; his ability to give his wife the style of living she had asked for; and his view of himself as a successful man. He might not have survived prison. We can all feel the temptations that were pulling at Joe Keller.

In classic Greek tragedy, the community suffers when the hero has a flaw and is not in sync with the powers of the universe. Thus, in Oedipus, Thebes suffers from poor harvests while Oedipus rules. In "All My Sons", this literary convention is also modernized. The community does not undergo economic deprivation, instead it suffers from a cynicism that allows it to accept Joe Keller as a pillar of the community while it knows that he pulled a fast one to avoid being punished for causing the deaths of 21 pilots.

In the basic plot structure of a tragedy, long before the curtain rises, the main character has done something that violates the moral order of the universe, sometimes without even realizing it. This is called "the main action". In addition, a number of other important actions have occurred leading up to the events portrayed in the play. When the curtain rises, situations follow that force the protagonist to realize his mistake ("confrontation/realization"). Through the confrontation/realization, the tragic hero either learns from his fault or dies ("resolution"). Whatever the outcome, balance, harmony and moral order are restored, and the other characters are able to move on with their lives without the burden of the protagonist's error. This is the pattern of the plot of "All My Sons".

The play adopts another technique of classic Greek tragedy by having the confrontation, realization and resolution occur within a 24 hour period. The main action and other important situations occur off-stage and are presented through a description by a character or, in the case of Joe, hearing the gunshot.

The characters of Annie and George are actors in the drama as well as messengers bringing important information to the audience about something that occurred in the past at a different location. Having messengers appear with news is a common dramatic device in classic Greek theater.

Mother seems, at times, almost like the ancient Greek chorus. This is melded into her role as Joe's wife. Look at her warnings to Joe in Act III ". . . you better be smart now" and "You want to live? You better figure out your life." (p. 150)

Idealism vs. Cynicism:   The community described in this play is cynical. Joe is accepted despite the belief that "he pulled a fast one". Frank Lubey comments when Joe tells him he only reads he want-ads, "What's the difference, it's all bad news anyway."


JOE KELLER:    Joe Keller is the self-made man of American folklore. The stage directions describe him as "a man among men". Joe Keller is down to earth, not well educated, focused on business, and not concerned with his community or his nation. Joe's limited interest in the newspapers, he reads only the want-ads, is a symbol of his moral myopia and his failure to understand his connection to the larger community.

Joe appears to have achieved the American Dream. As he sees it, his sole achievements are his sons and his business. He struggled and nurtured the business through the Great Depression and then built it up during the war. But the sole purpose of the business was to provide a good living for his family and as a gift to his sons. Joe has already lost one of his boys in the war and so, for Keller, everything depends on Chris.

Most critics do not see Joe Keller as evil and, in fact, for the play to work, the audience must feel a certain sympathy for him. After all, he did what he had to do to protect his family and the 40 years he had put into the business. However, by the end of the play, Joe Keller is revealed as a deeply cynical man who will lie (even to his family), cheat, evade responsibility, play the victim, and destroy the lives of others, in order to protect himself and, by extension, the money that he can pass on to his sons. These actions include: 1) putting the lives of pilots at risk; 2) shifting the blame onto Steve Deever, destroying the Deever family and causing untold pain to Deever, his wife, and children; 3) continue manipulating people, including George, Ann and Chris, to avoid blame.

Keller has a lot of trouble with the truth. When Chris first broaches the subject of marrying Ann, Keller's first response is to tell Chris that the decision is just Chris' business. Of course, it's not, because Mother insists that Larry is coming back and Ann was Larry's girl. Later in the play, Joe suggests to Mother that if he offered to go to prison, surely Chris wouldn't demand that he go. Again, he intends to talk for effect and not telling the truth.

Miller leaves open the question of why Keller kills himself. He could have committed suicide because of his anguish at being the cause of Larry's death. He could have shot himself because both his sons, his reason for being, had rejected his view of life and condemned him. Joe could have killed himself because he could not suffer the shame of exposure and loss of status, or it could have been that he believed that he could not have survived living in jail. He could have shot himself because he realized that his system of values was wrong and that he knew of no other way to live. He could have shot himself because he finally realized the enormity of his crime. Or it could have been a combination of all of these factors piled one upon another.

One critic suggested that although Joe acknowledged in his last line that they were "all my sons", it was hard to believe that he could change the way he had thought and felt all of his life in an instant. "He knows only that his sons think there is something bigger than family, that he has shamed them, one to the point of suicide, that his sons for whom he has lived consider him an animal and do not want to live in the same world with him. Joe's suicide is less a moral judgment than an act of love. In effect, Joe kills himself so that Chris need not kill himself." All My Sons and the Larger Context by Barry Gross, Modern Drama, March, 1975.

Another view of Joe Keller sees him as a coward: from the time he shipped the defective cylinders rather than face the ruin of his company, to the time he refused to take the blame and shifted it onto Steve Deever, through to the end when he killed himself to avoid facing the consequences of admitting guilt. But when Keller put the gun to his head he could very well have been thinking that this was a final sacrifice for Chris. Keller was very good at self-deception. He could have been thinking that if he were out of the way, it would be easier for Chris to grieve the loss of his image of his father.

MOTHER:    Kate Keller, according to the stage directions, is " . . . in her early fifties, a woman of uncontrolled inspirations and an overwhelming capacity for love." She is consistently called "Mother" in the stage directions. Mother knew that Joe was guilty from the beginning and has served as his accomplice in evading responsibility for his crime. She has tremendous power in the Keller family both as the mistress of the house and through her unstated bargain with Joe that she will not discuss his guilt and he will not challenge her neurotic insistence that Larry is still alive.

Mother's insistence that Larry is alive makes sense on at least two levels: social/ethical and psychological. From the standpoint of the moral lessons of the play, Mother's conviction that Larry can't be dead comes from her intuitive understanding that if Larry has died in the war, there is a connection between Joe's crime and Larry's death. She felt this long before she knew about Larry's suicide. See her speech outing Joe, Act II, p. 144. (This speech is quoted below.) Mother understands that if the war can reach into her family and take away her son, people have responsibilities to the wider society to act in ethical ways so that this happens as little as possible to any family. If she accepts the benefits of Joe's crime, she is discarding her son, in Chris' words "like a stone that fell into the water". (Act III, p. 157). (Ann Deever shares this understanding. It was the news of Larry's death (not Larry's letter) that broke her relationship with her father. Act I, p. 111) In this way, Mother does not share Joe's fatal flaw of failing to understand that people are related. She knows that protecting the business was not a justification for shipping defective parts to the Army.

A good way to understand Mother is to look at her psychological conflicts. She is bound to her husband, perhaps by love, but certainly by the fact that they are husband and wife and have had two sons together. She is also an accomplice to his crime. At several points during the play she helps her husband. Examples are her assistance in neutralizing George's initial anger (Act II) and her chorus-like warnings to Joe in Act III ". . . you better be smart now" and "You want to live? You better figure out your life." (p. 150) Later, she tries to deflect Chris' attack on his father, telling him, "The war's over. Didn't you hear? It's over!" (p. 157).

At the same time, Kate hates Joe for his crime and she hates herself for her complicity in helping him get away with it. She and Joe are among those people who profit by killing servicemen. If she enjoys the benefits of that profit, then how can she mourn the loss of one more serviceman, even if it happens to be her son? But a mother cannot keep from mourning her son. This is why Mother holds so fiercely to the delusion that Larry is alive.

On one level Mother knows that Larry is dead and, so, she becomes almost a split personality. One part of Mother hates herself and her husband for their crimes and the other needs desperately to mourn for her dead son. She tries that hatred by denying that Larry is dead. This is an intolerable situation but there is a way to resolve it: for Mother to expose Joe. Then she can grieve for her son and put his memory to rest.

A close analysis of the text of the play supports this interpretation. The conflict between Kate and Joe starts from her first entrance when she upbraids him for interfering with her operation of the house by throwing away a bag of potatoes. (Does the bag of potatoes represent Larry?). Later, her subconscious tries to resolve the conflict that tortures her through her slip of the tongue telling George that Joe " . . . hasn't been laid up in fifteen years". This is Kate informing anyone who would listen that Joe was guilty. At that point, only George was listening. Act II, p. 141. Kate's subconscious makes this revelation even though she has to know that it could destroy what was left of her family. The only explanation is a repressed guilt and hatred for herself and for Joe.

Further evidence of Mother's hatred for Joe can be found in the dialog and stage directions. In Act III (at page 150) Keller says that he doesn't like it that Jim Bayliss guessed a long time ago that Joe was guilty. Miller writes, "MOTHER laughs dangerously, quietly into the line: What you don't like" mocking her husband. Mother also comments on the destructiveness of her own hatred when, ostensibly describing George but really describing herself, she says, that there are people who ". . . can hate so much that they tear the world to pieces." Act II, p. 120. Her hatred tears Joe's world to pieces, and her world, too. But at least she will be able to grieve for her son.

Arthur Miller referred to Mother as a sinister and potent force in the play. In an interview, he commented favorably on one director's interpretation of Mother as "a woman using the truth as a weapon against a man who had harmed their son. . . . She's both warning him not to go down the road that his older son is beckoning him to go and, rather ambiguously destroying him with her knowledge of his crime." Interview of Arthur Miller by Matthew C. Roudané, Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer, 1985 quoted at Readings on Arthur Miller pp. 112 & 113, hereinafter "Michigan Quarterly Interview" In addition, in his autobiography, Miller referred to Mother taking "vengeance on her culpable husband by driving him psychically to his knees and ultimately to suicide. . . ." Timebends" A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987, pages 135 & 136.

Mother is truly a tragic character. By the end of the play she is forced to acknowledge that Larry is dead. Her surviving son, Chris, is disillusioned and is going away. Her husband has shot himself. At a late stage of life Kate Keller suddenly finds herself bereft and alone. But while Mother's life is a tragedy, she is not a tragic hero. Perhaps Miller could have constructed a play in which the tragic flaw was believing that it was possible to avoid facing the truth. But that is not this play. It is Joe's violation of the moral order of the universe that starts this tragedy and his suicide that is its culmination. It is Joe who, as a successful businessman, has the stature of the tragic hero.

As previously suggested, Mother acts as a Chorus in this tragedy. Look at Act III, page 150, ". . . Sit down, stop being mad. You want to live? You better figure out your life." This is another dual statement because it shows that she cares for the man whose relationship with his son, the most important relationship in his life, she has just recently destroyed. It also foreshadows what will happen to Joe.

Mother is the main example of how the failure to acknowledge the truth warps thinking, although Chris is also important to this theme. Kate believes in portents and signs. She asks Frank to prepare an astrological chart for the day Larry disappeared. She ends up destroying her family because she can no longer fail to acknowledge the truth.

In the end, like many strong women in literature (and in life) Mother perseveres through horrendous adversity and supports what can live. Released by Joe's suicide from her conflicts, she can now think about what is best for Chris. (Something she hasn't done since the defective engine parts were shipped out.) When Chris confirms that Joe is dead and "comes out of the house, down to Mother's arms ... almost crying, saying 'Mother, I didn't mean to--'" she gently puts his arms down and walks toward the house, telling him "Don't take it on yourself. Forget, now. Live." And then she begins to weep for her own great losses. (Act III p. 158)

CHRIS KELLER:    The defining event of Chris Keller's life, before the events of the play, was his service in the war. He was a real "killer in the war". But the casualties suffered by his unit were very high. From the sacrifices of the other soldiers and the general experience of the war, Chris came to the ethical viewpoint that Miller espouses in the play, i.e., we have obligations to the wider community that can transcend our duty to family. He also has "survivor's guilt", wondering why he lived to come home and work in a profitable business that got fat on the war, when so many of his friends were dead on the battlefield.

Chris Keller is more complex than he seems at first glance. "He is thirty-two, like his father, solidly build, a listener. A man capable of immense affection and loyalty." Stage Directions, Act I, p. 93.. Chris is a good man and a good son. He always thinks the best of people, including his father. Chris has never gone through the normal process of adolescence and reached a mature understanding that his father is a person, like other people, who has strengths and also weaknesses. When the play begins, Joe is still Chris' hero. After Chris learns of his father's guilt, he tells Joe, "I know you're no worse than most men but I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father". (Act III, p. 156.)

Since Chris does not see his father as an independent person, Chris' own sense of self-worth and dignity are tied to his image of his father as an upright man. (Larry had the same problem, which is why he killed himself rather than live with the knowledge that his father was a criminal.) When Chris finds out that his father is, in fact, responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots and has tried throw the blame for the crime onto another man, the shock is a personal devastation.

Chris never felt entirely right about taking part in the family business. He always had a suspicion that his father was guilty, but he ignored it and never pursued the question. When he learns the truth, his principles and his solidarity with the men in his company who died during the war, tell him that he should turn his father in to the authorities. His love for his father prevents this and leaves him feeling cowardly and polluted. Chris' rage at his father is directed partially at himself for betraying the memory of the men who died in the war. Larry's letter brings him around and he is ready to take his father to the prosecutors.

Like Ann, Chris is part of the new generation that recognizes and values morals and ethics. Chris protests that, "This is the land of the great big dogs, you don't love a man here, you eat him. That's the principle; the only one we live by - it just happened to kill a few people this time, that's all. The world's that way... " (Act III, p. 155). It is because of the corruption of the society as a whole and his loyalty to and affection for his father that Chris initially compromises and tells his father that he won't turn him in. (Chris' compromise, however, is not complete. He will leave the family and the business. They are tainted by the blood of the 21 pilots.) Chris changes his mind when he reads Larry's letter.

Larry's suicide is like the sacrifices of the soldiers under Chris' command and he cannot ignore its call to the moral order of the universe. After reading Larry's letter, Chris rejects the compromise he came to on the long drive. Chris, however, has not lost all his affection for his father. He is devastated by Joe's suicide. Mother must tell him to live his life, free of the corruption of the Keller household.

Some critics view Chris Keller as the tragic hero of the play. His fatal flaw would be his failure to recognize the truth when he sees it. As a result, he becomes a hypocrite and loses his father. There are several problems with this approach. First, the entire focus of the play is on Joe. It is to Joe that the chorus, in the person of Mother, speaks. It is Joe that loses the most, all that he has built during his life and life itself. Moreover, in this play Chris lost his innocence and came to know his father as a flawed man. This is the typical journey of a maturing child not the spiral of a tragic hero.

Other critics take a very harsh view of Chris. Like Sue Bayliss, they see him primarily as a hypocrite. According to them, Chris didn't go off to watch the death of the star of his image of himself as honest, he had already compromised when he took the job with his father and buried his suspicions. If he went to watch anything go out it was "not the fact of his innocence but the lie of his innocence which he has persisted in believing." "All My Sons and the Larger Contest" by Barry Gross in Modern Drama, March, 1975. This is unfair and by this standard we are all hypocrites. Think of Chris' position. He comes home from the war and the natural place to work is the family business. This is a man who sincerely loves his mother and father. The contradictions and suspicions are in the background. He personally is never asked to do anything wrong. It would take a man who was extraordinarily sensitive to living an ethical life to detect a problem in that situation.

ANN DEEVER:    This young woman is possibly the most mature and well-adjusted character in the play. She has confronted the reality that has been presented to her, and, unlike any of the other characters, she has dealt with it and learned from it. She worked through her father's guilt, the shame it brought her and her family, and her boyfriend's death. Afterwards, she was stronger. Ann is the breath of fresh air in the story. It is through her agency that the winds of change come to the Keller household. She is also very strong and will do what is necessary to remove the road blocks to her marriage. This includes showing Larry's letter, with all its devastating effects to Mother, to Chris, and to Joe.

On the structural level of the play, Ann represents what is gracious in life. (The name "Ann" is the French version of the Hebrew word "Hannah" which means "favored" or "gracious".) She is the beauty in life that the Keller children, both Larry and Chris, seek. Some reviewers have criticized the playwright for making Larry's fiance to be Chris' love interest, claiming that it isn't believable. They also claim that it isn't believable that she would wait for Chris for three years or that Chris would want to ask her to marry him when he hasn't seen her in five years. However, they misunderstand this part of Ann's function in the play. It is the very improbability of Chris' selection of Ann which tips us off to her role as the symbol of graciousness sought by the Keller children. Chris' delay in deciding to get married is consistent with and symptomatic of his delayed emotional development. Chris is 32 years old and hasn't yet moved beyond a child's view of his father as someone perfect. Chris hasn't even moved out of the family home.

Ann has also been seen as representing the "New Woman". Compared to her neighbor, Lydia Lubey, she is independent, strong-willed and very bright. She was living in New York by herself for years. Perhaps the tragic events that came early in her life forced her to become an independent and self-sustaining woman. She had no one else to rely on.

All of the main characters have multiple roles in the play. As described above, Ann's desire to marry Chris is not only a plot element but a major structural element in the symbolic roles of the characters in the play. Ann's steadfast devotion to Chris and her willingness to see Chris as separated from the corruption of the rest of the Keller family is an important symbol of hope. After the play, Ann and Chris will get married and have a life. This is a statement of belief in the future; a statement that living according to values is something that works.

LARRY KELLER:    Larry never appears and speaks only through a few lines read from his last letter to Ann. However, his presence is felt throughout the play and it is through Larry's example of commitment to the concept of relatedness that Chris is finally able to resist the pull of compromise and Joe Keller comes to understand the full loathsomeness of his anti-social actions.

Like Chris, Larry has not separated himself from his family and he takes on his father's sin as his own. This is why he commits suicide. Ironically, while Chris bears the name of Christ, it is Larry who dies for the sins of others and, in so doing, leads others to moral understanding.

JIM BAYLISS:    This character is a foil for Chris. Bayliss has compromised his life away by deciding not to be a research scientist, his true calling. His wife complains that Chris' idealism disturbs her husband and makes him unhappy.

GEORGE DEEVER:    George is a foil for Ann. Like Ann he easily falls prey to the nostrums of the Keller family but unlike Ann, he sees Chris as tainted. He cannot forgive Chris for his association with Joe.


AN EXAMPLE OF THE BEAUTY OF DRAMATIC LITERATURE: Mother's destruction of Joe in the climax of Act II is one of the great passages of dramatic literature. Under Chris' threat to leave the business, Joe has made the mistake of ridiculing Kate's belief that Larry is alive. ("[For] three and a half years you've been talking like a maniac." Act II, p. 144.) In response, she "smashes him across the face" and then:
MOTHER: Nothing. You have nothing to say. Now I say. He's coming back, and everybody has got to wait. . . .

CHRIS: How long? How long?

MOTHER, rolling out of her: Till he comes; forever and ever till he comes!

CHRIS, as an ultimatim: Mother, I'm going ahead with it.

MOTHER: Chris, I've never said no to you in my life, now I say no!

CHRIS: You'll never let him go till I do it.

MOTHER: I'll never let him go and you'll never let him go!

CHRIS: I've let him go. I've let him go a long --

MOTHER, with no less force, but turning from him: Then let your father go. Pause. Chris stands transfixed.

KELLER: She's out of her mind.

MOTHER: Altogether! To Chris, but not facing them: Your brother's alive, darling, because if he's dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don't you? Now you see. Beyond control, she hurries up and into the house.

KELLER -- Chris has not moved. He speaks insinuatingly, questioningly: She's out of her mind.

CHRIS in a broken whisper: Then . . . you did it? (Act II, pp. 144 - 145.)
Mother's statement outing Joe is, at the same time: (1) a neurotic fixation of the character because at one level she maintains the fiction that Larry is dead and she is asking Chris to abandon reality and maintain the fiction with her; (2) a statement that Joe killed the 21 pilots because she knows at another level that Larry is dead and she also knows that Chris believes that Larry is dead; (3) an excellent example of non-logical emotional thinking revealing a deep human truth, i.e., if Joe killed the 21 pilots, he has joined in the killing of pilots and he is therefore partially responsible for Larry's death; (4) the playwright's statement of a moral truth that "they were all my sons", that we are all one community and killing any one of us is a crime against us all; (5) a dramatic device to explicate the theme that not telling the truth warps family relations; (6) a dramatic device that advances the plot, (7) a statement about Mother herself, because of her complicity in the crime (you can substitute the word Mother for the word "father" in her statement and it works just as well); and (8) a monumental irony because, as we find out in Act III, Mother's statement is literally true: Joe did cause Larry's death by driving his son to suicide when Larry heard that Joe had been convicted.

STRUCTURE:    "All My Sons" has the basic structure of tragedy invented by the ancient Greeks. As in "Oedipus Rex", events which have disturbed the moral order of the universe occurred before the curtain rises. They are revealed to the audience piecemeal during the play as the effects of the originating events ripple outward and take over the action of the play leading to the crisis and restoration of the moral order.

Another way of looking at structure is that the play provides the audience with successive, ever deeper glimpses into the reality that is hidden by appearances. Or, to put it another way, reality is successively peeled back to reveal the appearance below.
Since the world itself operates on the levels of appearance and reality, by bringing together the two worlds of [the] manifest and the hidden, Miller creates a realistic world as it exists today and which cannot be taken at its face value. The dichotomy between things said and done, between what the people appear to be and what they are, characterizes the modern world. The main interest of the play comes from juxtaposition of these paradoxical aspects of the world . . . . The Manifest and the Hidden in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" by Ramesh K. Srivastava in Perspectives on Arthur Miller edited by Atma Ram

THE USE OF LANGUAGE:    Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Mother are continually asking questions. There are different types of questions. Some are just normal dialog. In addition, Joe Keller uses questions to deflect inquiries from other characters. However, on many occasions, the questions are not answered and serve as signals for where the play will go. Here are a few examples.

  • When Chris tells Joe that Mother was up at night, saw Larry's tree break in the wind, and then cried, Joe says, "She's getting just like after he died. . . . What's the meaning of that?" p. 95;
  • After Mother describes her experiences of the night before as "more than just a dream" and complains about Joe and Chris rushing into planting the tree ("Everybody was in such a hurry to bury him."), Chris says, "The wind blew it down. What significance has that got? What are you talking about?; p. 101;
  • Mother says to Joe, "You above all have got to believe [that Larry is still alive] . . . ." and Joe responds "Why me above all? p. 103
  • Mother: "Why did that happen the very night she came back? Laugh but there are meanings in such things. She goes to sleep in his room and his memorial breaks in pieces. Look at it; look." Act I p. 103
  • Joe Keller asks, "Well, what have I got to hide? p. 104.
  • When Joe says, "To his last day in court the man blamed it all on me; and this is his daughter. I mean if she was sent here to find out something?" Chris responds, angered, "Why? What is there to find out?" p. 117
  • When Chris asks, "What's the matter George, what's the matter?" George responds, "The trouble? The trouble is when you make suckers out of people once, you shouldn't try to do it twice." Chris responds with a question, to which no answer is given, "What does that mean?" Act II, p. 131.
  • When George tells Ann she can't get married, Chris asks another unanswered question, "That's been your trouble all your life, George, you dive into things. What kind of a statement is that to make?" Ibid.

At other times, the query is in the form of a thought, but it's a question nonetheless. Mother comments: "It's so funny . .. everything decides to happen at the same time. This month is his birthday; his tree blows down, Annie comes. Everything that happened seems to be coming back. I was just down the cellar, and what do I stumble over? His baseball glove. I haven't see that in a century." p. 100

The effect of these questions is to build tension and keep the audience interested.

PLOT:   The driving force in this play is Chris' intention to marry Ann. This is unacceptable to Mother because it means that Chris and Ann accept the fact that Larry is dead. When Joe joins Chris in his refusal to live with her neurotic fiction Mother swings into action and destroys Joe.

Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, reportedly said that "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." This is a plot device which occurs several times in "All My Sons"

    -- Chris and Joe talk about their fear of what Kate will do when she finds out that Chris wants to marry Ann.

    -- The horoscope designed to foretell whether the day Larry disappeared was a favorable day for him or not. It is mentioned in Act I and comes back to advance the plot in Act II.

    -- When Chris comments facetiously that dishonesty pays off and Joe replies "I ignore what I gotta ignore." (Act I, pp. 96 - 97.)

    -- Joe mentions in the first act when talking to Bert that he has a gun. (Act I, p. 94.) He uses it on himself in Act III.

IRONY: Irony is basic to the structure of the play. Joe Keller's great strength as a human being is his commitment to his family, but that very commitment, taken to the exclusion of his obligations to others, that gets him into trouble.

Joe Keller commits a crime to keep his business so that his sons won't have to start at the bottom. When Chris threatens to leave the business if he can't get his parents' blessing to marry Ann, Joe says, ". . . what the hell did I work for? That's only for you, Chris, the whole shootin' match is for you!" (Act I, p. 98) However, Joe loses both of his sons. Larry kills himself when he hears of Joe's conviction and Chris rejects what Joe has built for him.

While Chris bears the name of Christ, it is Larry who dies for the sins of others and in so doing leads both Chris and his father to a deeper moral understanding.

November 25 was a "favorable day" for Larry. Mother and Frank believe that if the day of Larry's disappearance was a favorable day according to his horoscope, he couldn't have died. This, of course, doesn't work if Larry had wanted to die.

Joe Keller makes several ironic statements. At one point he asks, "Well, what have I got to hide? (Act I, p. 104.) Talking about Steve he makes several statements that apply to himself, "There are certain men in the world who rather see everybody hung before they'll take blame." (Act II, p. 141)

Joe's game with the kids, in which Joe is the jailer, is ironic. It's Joe who should be in jail. Mother cannot stand the game and demands that Joe stop playing it. Act I, p. 104.

Mother says to Chris: "Your brother's alive, darling, because if he's dead, your father killed him." Act II, p. 144. This is a true statement because Larry killed himself on learning about what Joe did. However, at that point Mother knew nothing of Larry's suicide and had no idea that as a matter of actual causation Joe had a role in Larry's death.

Joe claims that the court paper proves his innocence even though the jury convicted him. In fact, by saying this Joe unconsciously incriminates himself. An innocent man knows he's innocent. No court paper is necessary.

SYMBOLS: This play is richly endowed with symbols. They include:

  • The names of the characters:   Chris is short for Christopher, a name derived from Christ. Sue (Dr. Bayliss' wife) hates Chris because he "makes people want to be better than it's possible to be." This disturbs her husband who would like to do medical research. Act II, p. 123. Arthur Miller was clearly thinking about Jesus when he wrote this play. As Joe says, " . . . a man can't be a Jesus in this world." Act III, p. 156.)

    Joseph was the father of Christ. The link to Christ was clearly on Miller's mind. See comment above and Chris himself refers to Christ in Act II, p. 143, "That's all, nothing more till Christ comes, about the case or Larry as long as I'm here!"

    Kate Keller's name, "Katherine", derives from the Greek for "pure" but Miller never calls her that. The stage directions constantly refer to her as Mother. One reason is that this character is forced into compromises that rob her of her purity.

    The name "Ann" derives from the Hebrew word for "favour" or "grace". And that is what Ann represents, the graciousness in life that the Keller children are seeking, first Larry and then Chris.

    Finally, the surname "Keller" derives from the German word for cellar or basement. In the Keller home, according to the game that Joe plays with the neighborhood children, the jail is located in the cellar of the Keller home.

  • Reading newspapers:   Most people read the paper for news about political and social events in their community and the world. In this play, newspapers are seen as unwanted bringers of bad news or news that stokes Mother's dreams. Joe Keller can't see the importance of reading about politics and the larger issues of the outside world. He reads only the classified ads "to see what people want"

    Chris reads only the book reviews but never the books. This signals Joe's focus on the personal and Chris' unwillingness to explore any issue completely and ferret out the truth. Chris can't think for himself but takes at face value what the book reviews say, just like he believes his father's claims without investigating his suspicions.

  • The apple tree:   The play begins with a discussion of an apple tree planted in memory of Larry that was snapped in half by a storm the night before. Mother hated the tree because for her Larry couldn't be dead. It is Chris who drags the downed part of the tree out of the back yard, just as it is Chris who pushes the idea that he will marry Ann, which forces Mother to face the fact that Larry is dead.

  • The storm:    The storm the night before the play occurs the very night that Ann comes. It blows down the tree that represents Larry. It foretells the storm that will wreck the Keller family.

  • Steve's hat:    When George first enters the stage he is wearing his father's hat. He has come from his father to argue his father's case. (See, Act II, p. 130.)

  • Joe's game with the neighborhood children:   The jailer and the director of the police in this game is Joe. This is a symbol of the upside down world of the community in which a man who pulled a fast one to avoid being punished for causing the deaths of 21 men is a respected pillar of the community.

FORESHADOWING: These are hints about plot developments that will come later in the play. Here are some examples.

    -- The storm in the night foreshadows the storm that will wreck the Keller family. The breaking of the tree foreshadows a change in the family's memories of Larry.

    -- Joe remarks: " . . . That's what a war does. I had two sons, now I got one. It changed all the tallies." Act I, p. 92. In fact, the war is soon to change his life in more ways than he suspects.

    -- Kate: "Everything that happened seems to be coming back. I was just down the cellar, and what do I stumble over? His [Larry's] baseball glove. I haven't seen it in a century." This tells us that Larry's death is an issue that is rearing its head. Act I, p. 100.

    -- Mother to Joe in Act III, page 150, ". . . Sit down, stop being mad. You want to live? You better figure out your life." Joe is at risk of dying or of having something even worse happen to him than what has happened already.

    -- Joe Keller clearly telegraphs his own death. Speaking of loyalty to family, he says that " . . . and if there's something bigger than that, I'll put a bullet in my head." Act II, p. 151. Larry's letter and Chris' agony convinces Joe that there is something bigger, or at least that both his sons believed that there was something bigger. And he puts a bullet through his head.

    -- Joe foretells his death in another passage when speaking to Chris, trying to explain his actions: "It's your money. That's not my money. I'm a dead man. I'm an old dead man." (Act III, p. 155.)

    -- Shortly before the climactic revelation that destroys the Keller family, Chris says, "That's all, nothing more till Christ comes, about the case or Larry as long as I'm here!" Act II, p. 143. Well, there is more and it comes with the Keller family armageddon.

SETTING THE SCENE: The First Act is the morning of a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. Act I, p. 88. The human interactions of the day begin as a peaceful August Sunday in suburbia. The first line, "Where's your tobacco?" focuses on domesticity. However, soon, a complication enters when Chris insists on marrying Ann. The Second Act takes place as twilight falls. The Third Act takes place at two o'clock in the morning, the dead of night. The time of day follows the progression from complacent normalcy to the dead of night as the darkness resulting from Joe Keller's crime engulfs his family.

The scene shows that the story which will unfold is different from the Greek and Shakespearian tragedies. It doesn't take place in castles and on the battlefield and its characters are not princes or kings. Setting the play in the Keller backyard is a statement by Miller that he is creating a modern tragedy.

The first pages of Act I are exposition. The plot starts to move when Chris sits Joe down and reveals his plans to marry Ann. Act I, p. 96.


Arthur Miller (1915 - 2005) was one of America's greatest contemporary playwrights. His other works include "Death of a Salesman" and The Crucible. Miller and his plays have been the recipient of many awards including the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Awards. Most of Miller's plays concern the responsibility of people to each other in light of the common goals shared by people in society.

Growing up during the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II, Miller's work focused on the American experience. "His probing dramas proved to be both the conscience and redemption of the times, allowing people an honest view of the direction the country had taken". PBS Web Page on Arthur Miller.

Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York City. His father owned a coat manufacturing company and the family led a comfortable life until the stock market crash of 1929. His father had speculated heavily in the stock market and the business was hit hard by the Great Depression. Miller put himself though school at the University of Michigan by working odd jobs. He graduated in 1938 with a major in English. Upon graduation, Miller turned down a job as a screenwriter for 20th Century Fox to begin his artistic career as a playwright for the Federal Theater Project. The Federal Theater Project required its writers to produce works that were based on reality, portrayed noteworthy stories about the American people, and were relevant to the current era. In his work Miller would draw on these themes, as well as on the themes of morality and responsibility.

As World War II took hold, Miller did his part for the war effort by working in Navy shipyards. He continued writing, mainly for radio shows and produced some unsuccessful plays and a novel. (These early works gained greater recognition and acclaim years later as Miller's fame spread.)

Miller enjoyed some success in college but his first effort for Broadway, "The Man Who Had All the Luck" was a failure. His next effort was "All My Sons". He continued to write award-winning plays through 1964, most notably, "Death of Salesman" (1949) and "The Crucible" (1953). He also wrote an autobiography, Timebends. Miller received numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman", Five Tony Awards, a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award, and several New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.

The House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism: Although a respected playwright, Miller was not immune to persecution by people with hysterical fears that the U.S. had been infiltrated by Communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed in order to find and intimidate Americans who were thought to be Communists. Hollywood in general was put under the microscope, and many people's careers were ended prematurely due to HUAC's intervention or the McCarthyite blacklists. One facet of the red scare of the late 1940s through the mid-1950s was that writers, directors, actors and artists were called before the HUAC and required to testify about their political associations. There were two ways to respond to an HUAC subpoena. One was to confess ties to the Communist party and give the Committee names of persons the witness had associated with in left leaning organizations. Some of this information was fabricated and almost all of the activities investigated by the HUAC were political activities protected by the First Amendment. The second way to respond to an HUAC subpoena was to refuse to testify on the grounds that the questions sought information about protected political activity. The risk was a contempt citation and a prison sentence. Many people were imprisoned for refusing to testify.

Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to testify to the HUAC about his work with the Federal Theater Project. Miller took the latter course and refused to testify on the First Amendment grounds that the Committee had no right to ask about his political affiliations and activities. He was cited for contempt of Congress and later convicted. However, the convicted was overturned on appeal and Miller was acquitted.

In the mid-1950s it became evident that the Communist hunters had gone too far, that the influence of Communists had been grossly exaggerated, and that many innocent people had been persecuted by the red-baiters. Senator McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954. (For more about Miller and the HUAC, see Learning Guide for The Crucible.)

The play ran for 347 performances on Broadway. It received the New York Drama Critics Award and a Special Award at the 1947 Tony Awards. Since that time, the play has been performed in many countries and in many venues in the U.S.

The American Dream is a complicated topic. There is no one definition that is accepted by everyone. Entire books have been written about it. Desires for freedom from oppression and economic advancement are not unique to the United States. However, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, there were so many more people realizing this dream in the U.S. than in any other country, that upward mobility in a free society became identified with the United States.

For a brief introduction to the nature of dramatic presentations for the stage, see TWM's The Nature of Drama -- A Brief Introduction. For a form of the article suitable to be modified or printed as a student handout, click here.

If students are reading the play, teachers might want to print the questions on paper and give them to the students.

Universal Themes: touch upon the experiences of many people in many cultures. For example, almost all human societies, from the primitive to the sophisticated, are based upon the family unit. Traditionally, families suffer stress when a male child grows up and seeks to exercise his power. This now applies to increasing numbers of female children, since gender distinctions are disappearing. The Law of Unintended Consequences applies to all mankind, etc.

All My Sons had a long and successful run in the state of Israel in 1977, a country which has had to maintain a strong military to protect itself from hostile neighbors. Arthur Miller was invited to attend one of the performances with Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel. Miller noted an almost religious quality in the audience's attention. He asked Mr. Rabin why this was so. Rabin replied "Because this is a problem in Israel -- boys are out there day and night dying in planes and on the ground, and back here people are making a lot of money. So it might as well be an Israeli play." Timebends" A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987, page 135.

Some other ways to state the theme of the assault on the fortress of unrelatedness: Miller wrote that: "Joe Keller's trouble, in a word, is not that he cannot tell right from wrong but that his cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe, or his society." 1957 Introduction.

Miller also wrote that the play deals with the issue of: "How may a man make of the outside world a home. How and in what ways must he struggle, what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside himself if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which, evidently, all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family? " The Family in Modern Drama, an Essay by Arthur Miller.

This play, written in the 1940s, casts the conflict in terms of father/son. The literary analysis of the play adopts this formulation. However, the lessons of the play apply to conflicts of values between any parent and any child. With women working outside the home and gender differences blurring, the generational conflict in "All My Sons" is more properly referred to as a parent/child conflict.

Factual Sources: The idea for the play came to Arthur Miller when his mother-in-law told him about a family from the Midwest in which the daughter had discovered that her father was selling defective machinery to the Army and turned him in. This action tore the family apart. Miller converted the daughter to a son and immediately saw the climax of the second act of "All My Sons" in his mind. It took him another two years to write the rest of the play.

Why TWM Doesn't Recommend the Movie: The movie is black and white and appears to be dated. It differs substantially from the play. For example, the play has only one location, the Kellers' backyard. The screen version has several locations: the backyard, the plant, inside the house, the restaurant etc. This is an important change because one of the major dramatic devices of the play is the focus on the Keller's backyard. The screen version doesn't develop Chris' character as well as the play. In the play, the main action (delivering defective plane engine parts to the Army) is not shown. This is a technique of classic Greek tragedy. The movie shows events occuring as Steve describes them when Chris visited him in prison. There was no such visit in the play which also does not dramatize the underlying action of shipping the defective engine parts. In the play the audience learns about the day of the crime only as it is described by the characters. The apple tree is briefly referred to in the movie but loses its importance as a symbol. Minor characters such as a salesman at the poker game are added in the movie. In the film, George and Ann's mother is dead, but in the play she is referred to as being alive.

Dramatic Sources for All My Sons:

Arthur Miller acknowledged a deep debt to the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828 - 1906). (Many believe that Ibsen was the most influential playwright of the 19th century.) Miller adopted Ibsen's insistence that events in the play be based on valid cause and effect: "forcing one event out of the jaws of the preceding one". 1957 Introduction He also adopted the idea of a character's idealism being the source of a problem and the dramatic device of the "fatal secret". This structure of drama has also been called "the play of the ripe circumstance" in which a character's entire life is put into perspective in the course of a couple of hours on the stage. Ibsen's plays often present a domestic scene and then gradually introduce information about a crime and the guilt of the perpetrator, leading to a climactic eruption. Miller employed the same structure in "All My Sons". From Henrik Ibsen's play "The Wild Duck" Miller took the idea of two partners in a business where one is forced to take moral and legal responsibility for the other.

In the introduction to Collected Plays, Arthur Miller noted that the damage done by Joe's crime was irreversible when the play opened: "The stakes remaining are purely the conscience of Joe Keller and the awakening to the evil he has done, and the conscience of the son in the face of what he has discovered about his father. One could say that the problem was to make a fact of morality, but it is more precise, I think, to say that the structure of the play is designed to bring a man into the direct path of the consequences he has wrought." 1957 Introduction.

Note that the stage direction descriptions of the major characters fit their image of themselves but, because each of them has an incorrect view of themselves, these descriptions are incorrect and, in many ways quite ironic.

"Ultimately, it is not the monstrousness but the conventionality of Joe's outlook, actions, and rationalizations which provides the underlying horror of the play." Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright by Benjamin Nelson.

The importance of Mother to this play cannot be underestimated. For example, she is the first character who has a speech above the level of normal conversation. This occurs when she describes her dream the night of the storm. Act I, p. 101.

Most people can maintain the myth of unrelatedness only as long as they themselves have not suffered great loss. They have a false sense of invincibility. Those who suffer, generally reach out to others and develop empathy for the suffering of others. However, Kate cannot do this because of her complicity in helping Joe hide his crime.

Thinking of Kate's dilemma another way, the conflicts were intolerable and her subconscious had to change the situation.

Another way to describe Kate's dilemma is that when people suffer a real tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, they look to others to share their grief and to provide comfort. But Kate can't do this because her crime and Joe's crime separate them from the rest of mankind.

An example of the depth of great art: One of the wonderful things about great art is that you can always come up with something new. For example, why is Kate Keller called Mother in the stage directions? Names are significant in this play. See the discussion of symbols, below. Chris is not called "Son" Joe is not referred to as "Father". No character other than Mother is referred to by their biological place in the family. As we have seen, Mother has power. In addition, she eschews logical thinking. (Her situation would be intolerable if Larry had died in a plane crash in the war. Therefore, Larry didn't die.) Her main loyalty is to her children. — These are all attributes of a manifestation of the Goddess, the feminine deity. The Goddess can only be furious at Joe for causing the deaths of 22 of her children (21 pilots plus Larry). The Goddess does not let a son be killed by his father without punishment. When Joe goes back on his unstated bargain with his wife that she will act as his accomplice in hiding his crime and he will go along with her neurotic refusal to acknowledge that Larry is dead, she slaps him and then destroys his relationship with his remaining child. It's dangerous to cross the Goddess.

Of course there are other reasons to depersonify Kate Keller. She is so strong a character that she could take over the play if Miller isn't careful. In fact, it was reported that early drafts of the play centered on her tragedy, not on Joe's.

Chris captures the situation when he says, " . . . we never took up our lives again. We're like at a railroad station waiting for a train that never comes in." Act I, p. 102.

Another View of Chris "At some level, Chris fears that, if he allows himself to see his father's human imperfections, he will also have to recognize his own limitations -- and his experiences in the war make him dread that confrontation. . . . Having watched heroic young men under his command die selflessly in battle to save their comrades, Chris feels guilty for failing them and surviving the war. His guilt is the guilt of the survivor . . . that derives from knowing that 'no one is innocent they did not kill.' Chris desperately wants to escape from this guilt and the anguish it produces. When given the chance, he tries to find relief by disguising his disgust with himself as contempt for his father." All My Sons by Steven R. Centola, in The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller

Note that all of the minor characters have a function in the play that relates to its themes and the progress of the plot.

One can find selfish motives in some of the minor characters.

Ann Deever, the only character who knows about Larry's suicide from the beginning, cannot help but at least suspect Joe Keller's guilt. Nonetheless, she is willing to ignore these suspicions in order to ally herself with Chris who is scheduled to inherit the business tainted with the blood of the 21 pilots and of her former fiancee, Larry. She doesn't turn on Joe until it is necessary to save her relationship with Chris. Centola, Ibid.

The Baylisses also suspect Keller's guilt but they are willing to overlook it. Sue admires Joe for being able to pull a fast one and Jim Bayliss tries to warn them not to let George into the yard. The Bayliss' are people of compromise and they take comfort in the compromises of others but have trouble when faced with their own compromises. Thus, Jim Bayliss is not comfortable with Chris' sense of rectitude, because there is a core of sincere belief and feeling in Chris. If Chris was a complete hypocrite, his attitude wouldn't bother Bayliss.

All My Sons was Arthur Miller's first successful play. Critics have found, in the play, evidence of Miller's relative immaturity as a playwright. While much of this comes from a failure to fully understand the play, it is true that "All My Sons" is a way station on the road to "Death of a Salesman" and The Crucible.

The Federal Theater Project: was a New Deal initiative to help artists make a living during the Great Depression. The storylines of plays developed in the FTP focused on the contemporary American experience. FTP plays were expected to entertain and raise the morale of the audience. It was closed down in 1939 based on claims by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and others that it was infiltrated by the Communist Party. At its peak the FTP employed 12,700 theater workers and established units in 31 states. FTP units gave more than 1,000 performances each month before nearly one million people -- most of the audience was admitted free of charge. The FTP's "Federal Theatre of the Air" reached some 10 million listeners broadcast over all of the major radio networks. Many people who later had stellar film and theater careers got their start in the FTP. Among them were Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Canada Lee, Will Geer, Joseph Losey, Virgil Thompson, Nicholas Ray, E.G. Marshall, Sidney Lumet and, of course, Arthur Miller. New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard.


Additional Discussion Questions:

NOTE: These questions assume that the class has been introduced to the concepts in the Helpful Background Section.

Continued from the Learning Guide...

1.   How did the idea for the play come to Arthur Miller? Suggested Response: See Factual Sources in the sidebar.

2.  What were the social conditions that gave rise to this play? Suggested Response: See Suggestions for Using This Movie in Class.

3.   What are the modern dramatic precursors of the play? Suggested Response: See Dramatic Sources in the sidebar.

Questions Relating to Theme The "full loathsomeness of anti-social action"

5.  Some critics shy away from branding Joe Keller as a cynical killer. One critic, while acknowledging Arthur Miller's statement that the Joe Kellers of the world would return us to a "jungle existence", wrote, "Yet Joe Keller is not villainous. He does not exhibit in his personal life any of the brutality and cruelty generally associated with villains; indeed, he is a loving, dutiful, husband and father." "Arthur Miller and the Loss of Conscience" by William B. Dillingham, Emery University Quarterly Vol. 16, pp. 40 - 50. Do you agree that Joe Keller is not a villain? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer. Good discussions will acknowledge that, while Joe Keller didn't think of himself as an evil man, his actions led to the same consequences as if he were a villain. In fact, Joe Keller behaved very badly. On the day that he stayed home and told Steve Deever to ship the defective cylinder heads, Keller knew that there was a risk that the defects would be missed and that the cylinder heads would be installed in planes. Yet, for weeks, he did nothing to alert the Army to the risk. Joe's excuse, he was afraid he would lose his business, is no reason to put the lives of others in danger. A good discussion of this question will also take into account what Joe did to the Deever family by throwing the blame onto Steve. A good answer will also note that even during the play Joe is still actively trying to throw the blame onto Steve. See the conversation that he has with George in which he repeats his lies about Steve and very persuasively argues that Steve's conduct in shipping the defective cylinder heads was consistent with other incidents in Steve's life. He is trying to separate George from his father. There is clearly an element of villainy in Joe Keller but like most villains, he is not all bad.

6.   This play is an example of how some of mankind's best intentions can cover some of our worst motives and give rise to our most atrocious actions. In this case love for family, a positive value in just about any culture, applied without limits caused the death of 21 people. Give some historical examples of how motives that usually count for good in the world, such as patriotism and religious beliefs, have given rise to "loathsome anti-social action". Suggested Response: Crimes perpetrated in the name of patriotism have been committed in most countries. For the U.S., they include, massacres of Native Americans, the Mexican-American War, internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and the red scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then there are the atrocities committed by other countries: the Holocaust (Germany); the Rape of Nanking and other acts of genocide committed by the Imperial Japanese Army; and the murderous reign of Josef Stalin in the U.S.S.R. As for religion, we need only look to the Inquisition, the excesses of some Protestant televangelists, and the imposition of Sharia law by radical Muslims to find excesses of zeal which led to criminal conduct.

7.  What is an essential step in assessing the ethics of any action you plan to take? Suggested Response: To assess the ethics of a potential action, put yourself in the shoes of the other people who will be affected by what you intend to do and apply the Golden Rule. For more on making ethical decisions, see Making Effective and Principled Decisions.

8.  Does this play show a struggle between good and evil? Suggested Response: Yes, because evil is often dressed in the clothes of some of our best motives. The struggle between good and evil is not always played out in terms of black and white. It is usually played out in tones of grey, of going too far for some goal that would otherwise be good. In this case, Joe took loyalty to his family too far and ignored loyalty to his country and his community. As a result, he committed a terribly loathsome act, a criminal act, a murderous act.

Assaulting the Fortress of Unrelatedness -- The Limits of the American Dream -- -- Pursuing Profit at the Expense of Society

9.  Arthur Miller, the playwright, once wrote: "The fortress that 'All My Sons' lays siege to is the fortress of unrelatedness." What did he mean by that? Suggested Response: Joe Keller's problem was that he could not see that he was related to everyone and that his effort to give a good life to his sons could not take precedence over his obligation not to cause the deaths of the sons of others. He didn't know that in a very real sense, they were all his sons.

10.  Did any generation of your family live the American Dream? How did that happen? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question.

11.  Joe Keller's chief strengths are that he was a loving father and husband and a good provider for his family. There is a certain irony in this, what is it? Suggested Response: It was these very strengths that got him into trouble. Joe Keller was a family man to the exclusion of his obligations to everyone else.

12. There are at least two things going on in this dialog, one relating to theme and the other a dramatic device. What are they?
MOTHER: Joe, Joe . . .. It don't excuse it that you did it for the family.

KELLER: It's got to excuse it!

MOTHER: There is something bigger than the family to him.

KELLER: Nothin' is bigger.

MOTHER: There is to him.

KELLER: There's nothin' he could do that I wouldn't forgive. Because he's my son. Because I'm his father and he's my son.

MOTHER: Joe, I tell you ---

KELLER: Nothin's bigger than that. And you're going to tell him, you understand? I'm his father and he's my son, and if there's something bigger than that I'll put a bullet in my head! Act II, p. 151.
Suggested Response: (1) This passage shows Joe's inability to understand that we are all related and that duties to community and nation are sometimes more important than duty to family. (Theme #2.) The dramatic device is foreshadowing. At the end of the play, it turns out that something is bigger than family and Joe Keller puts a bullet tin his head.

13. Obviously what Joe Keller did was wrong. But what should the limits be on the profit motive? Explore three situations: (1) You are a manufacturer. You can save money by sending jobs overseas to India or China, but you can still make a reasonable profit if you keep your factory in the U.S. paying reasonable wages to your employees here. You will, however, make more money by building a new factory overseas and paying your employees 1/10th the wages you pay your U.S. employees. (2) The same scenario as #1, except that unless you move your production overseas your competitors, who have already moved their plants overseas, will be able to reduce their prices and drive you out of business. (3) You are a manufacturer selling plastic combs. You can package your combs in a completely non-biodegradable plastic container or you can package your combs in biodegradable plastic for 10¢ more per comb. It will raise costs by 10% and cut your profits in half. (4) You are a fast food restaurant chain. Restaurants usually keep coffee at a temperature of 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit because liquids at more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit cause serious burns. A consultant for one company told it that the taste of the coffee would be better if it was kept at a temperature of 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. People will buy more coffee and related items and the restaurant's profits will increase by tens of millions of dollars. In the ten previous years more than 700 people had been burned by spilled coffee at the restaurants of this chain. Should the restaurant chain increase the heat of the coffee to improve its taste? See The Actual Facts About The McDonalds' Coffee Case. For each of these situations who are the stakeholders? What are their interests? What should the executives in the company do? Suggested Response: In each of these cases, modern executives will respond to the profit motive, but many would question the ethics of their actions. (In the last example, the company was sued and hit with a large punitive damages award and the probability of even more law suits if it didn't lower the temperature of its coffee. Thus, it became unprofitable to keep the temperature of the coffee high and, last we heard, it had lowered the temperature of its coffee.) Try to get the class to come up with a theory of how to tell when the profit motive should give way to other concerns.

Parent/Child Conflict

14.   This play explores the relationship between a father and a child. What happened to those relationships through the course of the play? Suggested Response: During this play, Chris undergoes the maturation process in which he realizes that his father is not perfect, but a man with good points and bad points. Most children have this realization about their parents in their teenage years. Chris has managed to postpone this process until he is in his 30s and then is forced to acknowledge that his father is a criminal who caused the death of 21 men and drove his brother to suicide.

15.  Children and parents often have conflicts over lifestyle, ideals, and what is right and wrong. This play involves a conflict over ideals. In terms of inter-generational relations what is it about the family and how children mature that leads to these conflicts? Suggested Response: To a small child, parents set the standard for what is a good life and what is right and wrong. But children grow. As they become teenagers and young adults they develop their own ideals. These ideals can come from what their parents have taught them or the outside society. Chris and Larry got their ideas of the relatedness of human beings, one for another, from the outside society. In addition, there is a natural psychological need for children to establish their own identity and, as they mature, children begin to see their parents as people, with strengths and weaknesses just like anyone else. If the parents don't measure up to the ideals that they have set for themselves, or the ideals that children have absorbed from the outside society, there can be conflict. Usually, the conflict is not as basic or as catastrophic as the conflict in this play. Each family develops its own way of handling differences in lifestyle and ideals. Often parents and children will limit their relations to the areas in which they can allow their love for each other to be expressed and try to ignore the areas in which they cannot agree. See also Parent/Child Theme in the Helpful Background Section.

16.   What is a "generation gap"? Suggested Response: When many of the children of one generation share similar differences with their parents over lifestyle, ideals or what is right and wrong.

17.  Describe how Chris viewed his father at the beginning of the play and how this changed through the course of the play. Suggested Response: At the beginning of the play Chris viewed Joe like a small child views a father. Joe was Chris' hero. At the end of the play Chris realizes that Joe is a flawed man who has committed criminal acts.

18.   Did Chris do the right thing just before Joe killed himself by refusing Mother's plea that he not take his father to the DA? Suggested Response: Yes. Joe deserved punishment for what he had done.

19.  Who had a healthier reaction to their father's crime, Larry or Chris? Suggested Response: Obviously, Chris. Suicide is not a healthy reaction. There were several things that Larry could have done to distance himself from his father's crime. See response to the first question in the Discussion Questions on Suicide. As it was, killing himself and destroying a plane were not patriotic actions. The government had spent a lot of money to train him and to purchase the plane. The United States needed its fliers in that war.

Appearances vs. Reality -- How Refusing to Acknowledge the Truth Warps People and Relationships

20.  What role did the psychological mechanism of "denial" play in this film?Suggested Response: Mother refused to accept the fact that Larry was dead. This prevented her from nurturing her living son, Chris, when he wanted to marry Ann. It also set up her conflict with Joe and led to the slip of the tongue with George about Joe not being ill a day in his life and her eventual disclosure that Joe was guilty.

21.   How did Mother's refusal to acknowledge the truth that Larry was dead, warp her relationships with others. Suggested Response: See the response to the preceding question.

The Dangers of Inaccuracies of Self-Image

22.  Did any of the Kellers have an accurate self-image? Suggested Response: No. Joe didn't see the criminality of his conduct. Chris didn't see that he was a hypocrite by suggesting that others live lives without compromising their dreams and ethics, while he had compromised his by not following up on his suspicions of his father while working in his father's business. Kate saw herself as a nurturing and loving woman.(See the stage directions.) Yet, she failed to nurture Chris by opposing his marriage to Ann. She was so conflicted about her husband's crime that she exposed him.

23.  George charges Chris with being a liar to himself, Act II, page 132. Is George right? Suggested Response: In a way, because Chris has never confronted his doubts about his father's innocence, all the while espousing an ethical position very different than Joe's.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

24.   Give three examples of how the law of unintended consequences worked in this play? Suggested Response: See Helpful Background Section on The Law of Unintended Consequences.

The compromises people make

25.   Name two characters in this play who had made serious compromises. Describe their compromises. Were they the wrong thing to do? Suggested Response: Jim Bayliss compromised by giving up his dream to be a research scientist to became a practicing physician and support his family. The play shows that he is pretty unhappy about it. Jim's dilemma is a common one for many adults. The right choice varies with each situation. Jim's wife had put him through medical school and he had obligations to her and to his children.

Chris compromised by coming into his father's business and burying his suspicions. This was clearly not the right thing to do. When he knew the truth and after taking his long drive, Chris agreed to compromise again by deciding not to report his father. However he retained a core of integrity by deciding to quit the family business and move away. This may have been a reasonable compromise but it left Chris feeling polluted and as if he had let his fellow soldiers down. Certainly Arthur Miller doesn't like this compromise. Chris rejected it after he learned of Larry's letter and when his father appeared willing to go the District Attorney. Ann decided to compromise from the beginning of the play and again during the play as the revelations about Mr. Keller came out. Her compromise was to ally herself with the Keller family, and later the son of the man who had tried to throw all the blame on her father. This compromise is not criticised in the play and it was probably the right thing to do, especially after Chris had announced his decision to leave the family business and move away. Chris wasn't responsible for what his father had done. The neighbors compromised their ethics by accepting Joe as a pillar of the community after his conviction was overturned. In the play, this is seen as a symptom of the cynicism of society. Under the law, people are innocent until proven guilty. However, respect in society is something different. Joe should not have been accepted as an upstanding member of the community.

26.   Did Ann make any compromises in this play? Did she do the right thing? Suggested Response: See response to preceding question.

Idealism vs. Cynicism

27.  What kind of a relationship did Chris find among his fellow soldiers in battle and what did he find when he came home? Suggested Response: This is how Chris describes it. ". . . that's the kind of guys I had. They didn't die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that exactly; a little more selfish and they'd 've been here today. And I got an idea -- watching them go down. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of -- responsibility. Man for man. You understand me? -- To show that, to bring that onto the earth again like some kind of a monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him. Pause. And then I come home and it was incredible. I - there was no meaning in it here; the whole thing to them was a kind of a -- bus accident. I went to work with Dad, and that rat-race again. I felt -- what you said-- ashamed somehow. Because nobody was changed at all. it seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys. I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator. I mean you can take those things out of a war, but when you drive that car you've got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, you've got to be a little better because of that. Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there's blood on it. I don't want to take any of it. And I guess that included you." Act I, p. 115.

Questions Relating to "All My Sons" as a Tragedy

28.  Some people have seen this play as a tragedy. What is the difference between the structure of "All My Sons" and the structure of a classic Greek tragedy such as "Oedipus Rex"? Suggested Response: The basic structure of a Greek tragedy is as follows: The main character does something that is contrary to the moral order of the universe. This is called the "main action". Sometimes the protagonist doesn't even realize that he has done something wrong. Situations follow that force the protagonist to come face to face with his mistake (confrontation/realization). Through the confrontation/realization, the protagonist either learns from his fault or dies (resolution). Whatever the outcome, balance, harmony and moral order are restored, and the other characters are able to move on freely. "All My Sons" follows this basic structure.

29.   How does "All My Sons" differ from Ancient Greek tragedy? Suggested Response: There are several differences. First, in Ancient Greek tragedy, the protagonist is someone of stature like a king or a prince. Joe Keller is just a successful businessman. Second, in Ancient Greek tragedy the community suffers until the hero learns from his fault or dies. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Thebes has poor harvests while Oedipus is King. In this play there is no economic consequence suffered by the community. Instead, it is the illness of cynicism that infects the neighbors. Third, there is no chorus in "All My Sons". Mother has some lines that remind us of a chorus, but Miller has clearly substantially modified this element.

30.  Is Joe Keller's suicide necessary to allow Chris to live free from guilt? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to this question. Here are some thoughts. Certainly, if asked, Chris would not have wanted his father to die. But from Joe's standpoint, as a man who wanted to do what was best for his son, was there any other way out? The answer is that there was. He could have accepted the fact that he had acted wrongfully and taken his punishment. He could then have tried to find a way to atone for his crime and redeem himself. Keller had always been a coward, from the time he shipped the defective cylinders rather than face the ruin of his company, to the time he shifted all the blame onto Steve Deever, through to the end when he killed himself to avoid facing the consequences of admitting guilt. But when Keller put the gun to his head he could very well have been thinking that this was a final sacrifice for his son. Keller was very good at self-deception. He could have been thinking that if he were out of the way, it would be easier for Chris to grieve the loss of his image of his father.

31.  Compare and contrast the characters of Oedipus Rex and Joe Keller. Suggested Response: There are many interesting points to make in response to this question. This list is by no means exhaustive. Both Oedipus and Joe Keller commit crimes many years before the play opens and they are destroyed as a result. They both enjoy the fruits of the crime for many years (Oedipus marries Jocasta and Joe Keller keeps his business.) Both commit their crimes due to lack of knowledge, but the knowledge is of different types. Oedipus doesn't know the identity of his father. Joe Keller lives by the false code of unrelatedness to members of society outside his family. One of the differences is that Oedipus is both the investigator/prosecutor and the tragic hero, while in "All My Sons" the role of prosecutor is taken by Chris Keller.

32.  What is Joe Keller's tragic flaw? Suggested Response: Joe Keller's tragic flaw has been described in many ways. Here are a few: His commitment to his family, to people that he loved, made him blind to his obligations to people in the larger society. -- He didn't realize that in a very real sense the young pilots of the planes that used the defective engine parts were "all my sons". -- "He was unable to visualize the public consequences of the was for him a private act" Welland, p. 26

Questions Relating to Characters in "All My Sons"

Many Discussion Questions, including the questions in the Social-Emotional Learning and the Moral-Ethical Emphasis sections relate to characters in the play. Here are a few others.

33.  Joe, Chris, and Kate each have different flaws in their character. What are they? Suggested Response: Joe fails to see his relatedness to people outside of his family. Chris, at 32 years of age, has not progressed through normal adolescent maturity that allows him to see his father objectively. Chris also fails to follow up on his suspicions about his father. Sue's charge that he is a hypocrite has validity. Mother assists Joe in hiding his crime. She refuses to face the reality of Larry's death and its implications for her family.

34.  Describe the role of Kate Keller in the play. Suggested Response: See the Helpful Background section on Characters -- Mother.

35.   Why is Joe Keller the tragic hero/protagonist in this play? Suggested Response: He is the one who committed the crime. He is the one who comes to the realization of the moral bankruptcy of his actions. He dies in the end to restore the moral order of the universe. Mother's part in the crime is only to assist Joe. She knew that what she did was wrong and comes to no new ethical understanding through the course of the play. Chris is not a mature individual who must reconcile his past transgressions with the moral order of the universe. At the beginning of the play he is child-like in his love for his father and just starting to assert his independence by deciding to ask Ann to marry him. By the end of the play he has a more mature view of his father. His journey is that of all children who come to a mature view of their parents. It is not the journey of a tragic hero.

36.   Was there any character in this play that you admired? Describe why you admired that character. Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to this question.

37.   Some critics take Sue Bayliss' position and brand Chris Keller a hypocrite. "Society's case against Chris Keller is stronger than its case against Joe Keller because Chris knows better." All My Sons and the Larger Context by Barry Gross, Modern Drama, March, 1975. Do you agree or disagree? Suggested Response: The argument against Chris is based on the fact that Chris has been through a war and he has seen men sacrifice themselves for their fellow soldiers and for their nation. He should know that lying to yourself and ignoring suspicions are goods way to get hurt. He knows that someone who killed American soldiers in the war should be hunted down and prosecuted. Joe, on the other hand, really doesn't know any better. His morality is not as well developed. However, Chris didn't cause the death of anyone (except enemy soldiers). There is a big difference between being a hypocrite and causing the deaths of 21 men.

38.   Why is Kate Keller called "Mother" by Miller in the stage directions? Suggested Response: There are several reasons. First, she is the instrument of causing the death of Joe Keller for killing her child, something a mother would do. Second, her character is too strong, Miller must keep it in bounds. Depersonalizing her is a clear message to readers and directors that she is not the tragic heroine of the play. Third, she serves as sort of a proto-chorus and must be depersonalized for that role.

39.   Why does Mother tell Chris that his father was guilty? Suggested Response: See Helpful Background Section on "Mother"

40.  Was Joe Keller a coward? Suggested Response: Yes. See response to question # 30.

41.  Mother says, "In my worst moments, I think of [Ann] waiting, and I know again that I'm right." This statement is an example of multiple uses of one statement in a play. There are at least three. Describe two of them. Suggested Response: The statement builds suspense because we know that Ann has not been waiting for Larry. We are curious to know what will happen when Mother discovers this. The statement is ironic, because Ann has been waiting for Chris. The statement is also an example of Mother's delusions, because Ann is not waiting for Larry and Mother knows that her acceptance of Chris' invitation indicates this.

42.   Two characters in this play can be said to be foils for other characters. Identify one of them and describe why that character is a foil. Suggested Response: Bayliss is a foil for Chris because Bayliss has compromised his life away but Chris, while compromising by working with his father and being willing to compromise further, always maintains a core of his own ideals. A full compromise for Chris would have been to stay in the business with his father after he knew what his father had done. George is, in some ways, a foil for Ann because he cannot see Chris as separate from the corruption of the Keller family.

Questions Relating to Literary and Dramatic Devices in "All My Sons"

See Questions 41 and 42 above.

43.   In literature (and in life) people often describe themselves when they talk about others. Give two examples of when this occurs in this play. Suggested Response: (1) Mother talks about people like George, "They can hate so much that they tear the world to pieces." Act II, p. 120. In fact, part of Mother hates her husband so much for killing the 21 pilots and implicating her in the death of servicemen, that she will tear their world to pieces by telling George that Joe was not sick a day in his life and by telling Chris that Joe was guilty. (2) Joe Keller describes Steve Deever as a frightened little man who shipped the defective cylinders out of fear. In fact, it is Joe who is the fearful one: fearful of losing his business; fearful of exposure; and afraid to face the consequences of his actions.

44.  Analyze the passage in which Mother tells Chris that Joe is guilty, beginning with Mother's line, "Nothing. You have nothing to say.". What important thing happened to cause this outburst? Describe at least three different dramatic events that are occurring in this speech. Describe how it is ironic. Suggested Response: See An Example of the Beauty of Dramatic Literature.

45.  The characters in this play ask a lot of unanswered questions. What is the role of those questions in this play? Suggested Response: See the Helpful Background section on Use of Language.

46.  Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, reportedly said that "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." This is a plot device which occurs several times in "All My Sons" Describe two of these occasions. Suggested Response: See the Helpful Background section on Plot.

47.  Irony is basic to the structure of "All My Sons" Describe the underlying irony and two additional instances of irony in the play. Suggested Response: See the Helpful Background section on Irony.

48.  What is the driving force of the plot? Suggested Response: Chris' desire to marry Ann. An alternative answer is the working out of the consequences of Joe's crime.

49.  In this play, important events happen off-stage. Several occur before Act I and one occurs in Act III. What are they? Suggested Response: Before Act I many things occur that set the stage for the play. They include: Keller commits the crime; Keller blames the crime on Steve Deever; Larry commits suicide; Chris has his experiences at war and then comes home to a country he didn't expect; Chris decides to marry Ann and invites her home; the storm blows down Larry's tree. In Act III, Joe commits suicide off-stage.

50.   Analyze the plot of the play in terms of classic Greek tragedy? Suggested Response: Long before the curtain rises, Joe Keller, the protagonist, has done something that violates the moral order of the universe. He knew he was committing a crime, but he thought that it was justified because he did it for his family. Thus, like many tragic heroes, he violated the moral order of the universe without even realizing it. This is called "the main action". In addition, a number of other important actions have occurred leading up to the events portrayed in the play. See response to preceding Discussion Question. On stage, situations follow that force Joe Keller, the protagonist, to realize his mistake ("confrontation/realization"). Through the confrontation/realization, Joe dies ("resolution"), balance, harmony and moral order are restored, and the other characters are able to move on with their lives without the burden of Joe's error. (Mother will bear her own burden of her complicity, but that isn't really important to her. She will be able to mourn for Larry.)

51.   List four symbols in this play and describe how they relate to the themes of the play or to an attribute of a character in the play. Suggested Response: See the Helpful Background section on Symbols.

52.   Give three examples of foreshadowing in the play. Suggested Response: See the Helpful Background section on Foreshadowing.

53.   Describe how Miller sets the scene in the first part of Act I. Suggested Response: The essential concept is that he sets out a situation of a normal day in suburbia, USA. See the Helpful Background section on Setting the Scene.

54.  What is the significance of the fact that the entire play occurs in the Keller's back yard? Suggested Response: On one level, this is a domestic play, about families. Joe Keller's life is focused on his family to the exclusion of all obligations to anyone else. 55.  Define the American Dream and describe how this play shows the limits of the American Dream. Suggested Response: Click here for one definition of the American Dream. The definition is not set and there are assuredly other valid definitions. Whatever the definition, the American Dream does not include cheating or hurting others in order to become wealthy. Joe Keller believed that he could keep his American Dream if he sold defective aircraft engine cylinder heads to the Army. However, in doing this he lost his sons, which were the most important thing to him, and a vital part of his realization of the American Dream.

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide...

1.  Students can write an essay on what "The American Dream" means to them, and whether it is different for them than for their parents or grandparents.

2.   Have students create a collage, cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them to poster board to represent what "The American Dream" means to them. After each student shares his or her poster board, put these up around the classroom as a representation of their dreams and goals, and as a reminder that the way to achieve most dreams is through education and training. (An alternative is to have the class work together to craft a collage based on students' suggestions for what "The American Dream" means to the nation.)

See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


See questions under the theme The "full loathsomeness of anti-social action"

1.  What crime did Joe Keller commit? Suggested Response: He defrauded the U.S. government by knowingly selling defective plane engine parts to the Army Air Corps. This turned into second degree murder or manslaughter when the defects contributed to the deaths of 21 pilots.

2.  Was Steve Deever innocent? Suggested Response: No, he was a co-conspirator with Joe. He could have refused to cooperate with Joe's plan to send out the defective cylinder heads. He could have gone to the authorities and confessed what he and his partner had done. He did neither.

3.  If, rather than conceal the defects in the engines, Keller had immediately reported the problem to the government, what would have happened to him and his family? Would this have been the end of his life? Suggested Response: Keller believed that he would have lost his Army contracts and the company would have gone into bankruptcy. The business that he had worked so hard to create would have been lost. His sons would have had to start at the bottom, just like he did. However, Keller would not have lost the love and respect of his sons. Larry would not have committed suicide.

4.  Compare the actions of Joe Keller to those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables? Was Joe Keller justified in selling defective engines to the Army? Was Jean Valjean justified in stealing bread to feed his family? What were the differences, if any? Suggested Response: Jean Valjean's action in stealing a loaf of bread didn't kill anyone. In addition, his children were starving and he needed to feed them. His actions in stealing a loaf of bread are understandable. Keller's family would not have starved, they would just not have been wealthy. Joe Keller had no excuse for doing what he did.

5.  One scholar who examined this play described Joe Keller by saying that "there is no vice in him, only littleness and his own form of myopia. He is genuinely unable to visualize the public consequences of what was for him a private act." Welland, p. 26 Do you agree or disagree? Suggested Response: Misunderstanding your relationship with the world is no excuse for selling defective engine parts to the Army. This is being far too forgiving of Joe Keller. It fails to recognize the "loathsomeness of [his] anti-social conduct".

6.  What is the difference between private acts, that are not regulated by the law, and public acts which are can result in criminal penalties if a person does the wrong thing? Suggested Response: The legislature (or Congress at the national level) decides what is public and what is private. Many years ago, it was permitted for men to beat their wives and for parents to beat their children. This was considered a private family matter. Now, hitting a spouse (husband or wife) is a criminal act and every day, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, go to jail for committing this crime. Even when a beaten spouse does not want to press charges, the district attorney can go forward and try to put the hitter in jail. The crime, even though committed at home in the context of a married relationship is considered a breach of the public peace. Many years ago using contraception in the privacy of your own bedroom was considered a public act, punishable by the law. Now, it is considered to be private activity protected by the constitution.


7.  This play explores the relationship between a husband and a wife. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play? Suggested Response: During the course of the play, Mother destroyed Joe as revenge for making her complicit in his crime. See also the Helpful Background Section on Mother.

8.  Why was it so important to Mother to refuse to acknowledge that Larry was dead? Suggested Response: Because if Larry had died, she would have to face the fact that her husband's crime had contributed to her son's death. She didn't know if she could forgive her husband for that. See also the section on Mother's character in the Helpful Background Section.

9.  Joe Keller had a responsibility to provide for his family. Did his actions meet that responsibility? Suggested Response: No. The responsibility to provide for a family doesn't include cheating or stealing, unless it is a matter of life and death, and perhaps not even them.

10.  Assume that Joe Keller had served out his time and come home. What should his wife's attitude toward him have been? Would it make a difference whether or not Joe admitted his guilt and attempted in some way to atone for his crimes? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. There is a strong argument that his wife should have forgiven him as best she could. Marriage vows do not include a promise to be perfect. However, since Joe Keller's conduct contributed to Larry's death, many mothers would not have been able to find it in their hearts to forgive him.

FATHER/SON -- Actually, it's Parent/Child

See questions under the theme Parent/Child Conflict


See questions 19 and 30 of the Curriculum Related Discussion Questions.

11.  Was there a better way for Larry to react to the news of his father's conviction, rather than to kill himself? Suggested Response: Larry should not have felt guilt for what his father had done. They were separate individuals. But even if Larry had felt some transferred guilt, there are no limits on the resourcefulness of individuals in atoning and finding redemption, except for the limits on their own creativity. For example, Larry could have volunteered for especially dangerous missions. He could have developed a public relations campaign to convince others in the U.S. that betraying your country is also a betrayal of your family, etc. He could have just tried to live as a good man.

12.  What was Larry's state of mind when he committed suicide? What does that tell us about one of the problems with suicide? Suggested Response: Like most people who commit suicide, Larry was probably distraught and emotional. That is not the time to make an important decision. People who are upset often make big mistakes. Suicide is final. If you make a mistake in a decision about committing suicide, and you are successful, there is no opportunity to correct that mistake or to change your mind. You're dead.

13.  Is suicide a way to accept responsibility for your actions or a way to avoid accepting responsibility for your actions? Suggested Response: It's a way to avoid responsibility for your actions.

14.  Was there any way for Joe Keller to redeem himself after causing the death of so many young men or was suicide the only way out? Suggested Response: The limits of the creativity of an individual are the only limits to the possibilities for atonement and redemption. Even Joe Keller, once he had been caught, could have done something to at least partially redeem himself. The first step was acknowledging his wrongdoing, pleading guilty and taking his punishment. Joe Keller could have done many things in prison to redeem himself, at least in part, for his crimes. He could have become a model prisoner and tried to help others while in prison. He could have volunteered to undergo dangerous tests for the benefit of medical research. He could have written an article or a book showing the error of his ways so that others would not do the same thing. He could have sold his company and used the proceeds for the benefit of veterans or compensated the families of the fliers who had died (after making some provisions for his wife). He could then have spent his life working to help veterans as a volunteer or in some other capacity. While this would probably not fully redeem him, it could still have made a contribution and permit him to provide some benefit to society. And he would have lived. After all, there were still people who loved him. Suicide just made more wounds.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

1.   Does any character in this play who had committed a great wrong make amends or obtain redemption? Suggested Response: No. Atonement requires an apology and the return of ill-gotten gains and working to make up for the wrong you have done, even if it is impossible to do that entirely. After apologizing and making amends a person can hope for some opportunity to do some great good that will permit redemption. It will probably never happen if the crime is great and it will most assuredly never happen if the person has not already atoned for his crime. Suicide is not atonement and will not lead to redemption. Suicide is usually a cop-out, as it was in the case of Joe Keller.


(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)

2.  List each of the subparts of the Trustworthiness Pillar of Character that Joe Keller failed to live up to. Suggested Response: There are many. He didn't tell the truth about the engine parts, so he was deceptive. He sold bad merchandise, and therefore he cheated and stole. He was not reliable because he didn't do what he said he would do, i.e., ship only properly made engine parts to the military. He did not have the courage to do the right thing. He totally destroyed his reputation. He was not loyal to his country. While he thought he was being loyal to his family, that didn't work out very well because his actions led to Larry committing suicide.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

3.  Compare how Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Larry Keller dealt with their responsibilities? Suggested Response: Joe did not comply with his responsibilities to make parts that complied with the Army's specifications. He later avoided responsibility by committing suicide. Chris fulfilled his responsibilities by refusing to accept his father's choice. Larry evaded all responsibilities by committing suicide.


(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

4.  What was more important, Chris Keller's duty to his country or his love and his duty to his father? Suggested Response: His duty to his country.

5.  Compare how Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Larry Keller dealt with their obligations as citizens?Suggested Response: Joe dishonored his obligations as a citizen by knowingly selling defective plane engine parts to the Army. Chris Keller honored his obligations to his country by fighting in the war and by refusing to accept his father's choice of family and personal wealth over honesty, responsibility and citizenship. Larry Keller dishonored his obligations as a citizen by crashing his plane and by giving up his life after the government had spent money to train him. He was needed as a pilot in the war but he opted out by committing suicide.

Bridges to Reading:

The play itself is excellent reading.

Links to the Internet:

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Maidy Christians and Louisa Horton.

Director: Irving Reis.


Many of the websites set out in the Links to the Internet Section, and;

  • Readings on All My Sons, Christopher J. Smith, Ed., Greenhaven Press, San Diego, CA 2001; (This is a collection of critical essays and an excellent resource; if you are going to consult one book on the play, this should be the one. However, be careful, a few of the essays in the book are ill-considered.)
  • Arthur Miller, A Critical Study by Christopher Bigsby;
  • Miller: A study of his plays by Dennis Welland, Eyre Methuen Ltd., London, 1979;
  • Readings on Arthur Miller, Bruno Leone, Ed., Greehaven Press, San Diego, CA 1997;
  • Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944 - 1961; page references in this Guide are to this edition of the play;
  • Arthur Miller (Tony Kushner, Ed.) compilation notes and chronology copyright 2006; Penguin Putnam, Inc.;
  • Arthur Miller, New Perspectives Robert A. Martin, Ed., Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1982;
  • "Introduction" by Arthur Miller in Arthur Miller's Collected Plays, 1957, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., referred to herein as the "1957 Introduction"
  • Timebends" A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987.

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