Each character in All My Sons argues for his viewpoint – and we can hear Miller's pleas in their voices. Joe begs everyone to "see it human" and forgive his monstrous deed (2.481). Chris weeps and gets uppity with his dad: "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?" (2.557).
All My Sons qualifies as a drama because it's a play, a piece of literature that's never fully realized until it's put on stage in front of an audience. On the micro level, it's a family drama, for pretty self-explanatory reasons – it's a drama about a family. And it's a family drama in a similar way as Ibsen's Ghosts (Miller was a huge Ibsen fan). Both authors use the nuclear family to explore much bigger social issues. In All My Sons, Miller investigates middle-class nearsightedness through the story of Joe Keller.
When the conflicts of the Keller family spill out into the whole community, the play is elevated to another level all together. It becomes a tragedy. However, unlike Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, it's not about royalty or other big and powerful people. Joe Keller is a hard worker and a good father, but an abysmal member of society, whose downfall we get to witness. Arthur Miller would call the play a "tragedy of the common man." For more information on that, check out the link to his famous essay with the same title in our "Best of the Web" section.
Joe Keller is a successful businessman living in a small American town. A few years prior, during the war, he caused the death of 21 pilots, then hid his crime. When his son Chris discovers his guilt – and associates it with the death of his brother, also a pilot – Keller repeats over and over, "he never flew a P-40" (2.526). He doesn't feel a responsibility to the rest of the world, only to his family. Yet a long-hidden letter from his dead son makes the man's responsibility clear. Finally Keller understands (and here's where the title gets a nod): "Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were" (3.167). Using the metaphor of family, Miller makes a point about the necessity of a wider social conscience, one that includes not only ourselves and our offspring, but also our whole world.
At the end of All My Sons, Joe Keller faces the judgment of both his sons: one accusing him from the dead and one ready to drive him to prison. He goes inside and shoots himself. What does this suicide mean? Does Joe fear prison? Is he overcome with guilt and grief? Is he paying for the death of all those pilots with his own death?
We think there's some ambiguity. Kate Keller encourages their son Chris, though he provoked his father's suicide, not to feel guilty. She encourages him to evade accountability. But passing the buck is just what Joe Keller did after selling faulty engine parts in the war. Perhaps Kate is wrong to encourage Chris to forgive himself, but it's clear she's just protecting the one family member she has left.
In the first stage directions, Miller goes into a good bit of detail about the setting of the play. The Kellers' house is located in the outskirts of an American town. It's two stories high, has seven rooms, and "would have cost perhaps fifteen thousand in the early twenties when it was built" (1.1). It is well-maintained, and communicates visually the material comfort and well-being that the Kellers enjoy.
All My Sons was first produced in 1947, and is set in that period. Men had just returned from World War II; Ann and Chris will have baby boomer kids. Don't forget, either, that all of these characters (except Bert) have lived through the Great Depression. Being poor in the 1930s makes it all the more important for Joe to keep his family comfortable now. Money is not something he takes for granted.
All My Sons is realistic and accessible. The characters speak like normal people (all right, like normal people in the late 1940s) and the action unfolds in a narrative that's easy to follow.
Miller was well-known for his ear for dialogue. There's not a lot of poetry in the language. Instead it sounds natural, like regular people talking. Even the most climactic moments register as believable, if dramatic, as when Chris confronts his mother just before the gunshot:
"Then what was Larry to you? A stone that fell into the water? It's not enough for [Joe] to be sorry. Larry didn't kill himself to make you and Dad sorry." (3.175)
In the left corner, downstage, stands the four-foot-high stump of a slender apple tree whose upper trunk and branches lie toppled beside it, fruit still clinging to its branches." (1.1)
This is Larry's tree, built as a memorial when he didn't return from World War II. It's a polarizing fixture of the Kellers' backyard, and a symbol of the complex attachment characters have to Larry's memory. Kate is relieved when lightning strikes it down, a sign that Larry is still alive, that they tried to bury him too soon. At the opening of Act 2, killing time (and burning off some nervous energy) before dinner, Chris chops the remaining trunk down. He wants no reminders of his brother messing up his impending engagement to Ann, his brother's former fiancée.
In Act 1, neighborhood kid Bert asks Joe to arrest another boy for saying a bad word. Joe has given out that he has a jail in his basement. It's all fun and games until Kate comes in, angry, and tells them to cut it out.
Keller: …What happened was that when I got home from the penitentiary the kids got very interested in me. You know kids. I was [laughs] the expert on the jail situation. And as time passed they got it confused and… I ended up a detective [laughs].
Mother: Except that they didn't get it confused. [To Ann] He hands out police badges from the Post Toasties box. (1.438-439)
We start to understand that this jail game is one of the ways Joe has charmed the community into turning a blind eye to his crime.
Booker tells us that in the anticipation stage, the hero is incomplete or unfulfilled. For Joe, this is the sudden flare-up of his guilty paranoia about the old crime. Joe has been living for years in relative comfort, not forgetting about Steve Deever, but not facing the man's ghost, either. When Ann arrives, things get complicated. Not only is she the daughter of the man Joe put in jail, she's he former fiancée of Larry, the son Kate refuses to pronounce dead. Joe needs to find a way to absorb Ann into the family without admitting his guilt.
The end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2 seem to teeter between the dream stage and the frustration stage. As soon as Joe figures out how to deal with one obstacle, a new one crops up. When he finds out George is coming to visit, he comes up with a plan. He will invite Ann and George into the family, and give his disgraced colleague Steve a job when he gets out of prison. He hopes he can finally put the memory of his war profiteering to rest.
Things really get sticky when George arrives. Joe and Kate worry because George, a lawyer, might try to reopen the case. But what George's probing really sets in motion is a battle between Chris and Ann's resolution to marry and Kate's resolution that Larry's still alive. Playing hardball, Kate reveals the truth about Joe's crime.
Prompted by Kate's stubbornness, Ann shows her Larry's last letter. Chris attacks his father's murderous small-mindedness, and Ann insists they take him to jail. This is probably the worst possible outcome for Joe; hence "nightmare stage." Chris reads Larry's letter aloud, and Joe learns that his act caused Larry to commit suicide.
Finally accepting the burden of his guilt, Joe kills himself. Kate, Chris, and Ann are left with the wreckage.
The story starts with the basics: who, where, and what. We're in a small American town, meeting the Kellers and their neighbors. With the "whats" that start to accumulate – the ominous destruction of Larry's tree, the surprise appearance of Ann – we start to get a sense that Miller is creating a tense platform for some really big stuff to go down.
This is Big Stuff #1. Why isn't Mama Kate happy that her son wants to marry the girl next door? Because this girl next door was first engaged to Larry, the dead son. If Kate and Joe give their blessing, they're admitting that Larry's really dead. Chris's announcement begins to make the old conflicts come to the surface.
Big Event #2. The appearance of George tightens the vice grip on poor Joe Keller. George believes Joe is guilty, not only of shipping faulty parts but of pinning the crime on George's father. He doesn't want the marriage to go forward either.
This is the moment in the play when the audience stops breathing. Ann has given Chris a letter she received from Larry, a suicide note confessing that he knew about his father's crime and therefore won't go on living. The emotional peak of the play, this letter forces Joe to change his point of view. He admits – and understands – his guilt.
Understanding that both of his sons blame him for murder – and accepting the charge himself, at long last – Joe Keller goes into the house. What's he doing, we wonder. Taking a break from the trauma? Readying himself for jail?
We get our answer. Joe Keller has killed himself.
After the gunshot, a few lines follow to the end of the play. Kate begs Chris to not blame himself.
Joe Keller is on orange alert. His defenses are raised by the accident of Larry's tree blowing down, by his wife Kate's anxiety, and mostly by the arrival of Ann, the daughter of the man he landed in prison. Chris's intention to marry this girl causes conflict in the family.
Ann's brother George arrives, upping the danger. He accuses Joe outright and tries to take Ann away, but she refuses. At the end of the act, everyone knows it's true. Joe killed people and ducked the consequences.
Chris confronts his father. A letter proves once and for all not only that Larry's dead, but that he killed himself because of Joe's actions. All the questions are answered; the past is aired. Joe shoots himself.