All My Sons by Arthur Miller

All My Sons by Arthur Miller
Table of Contents
1. All My Sons: Introduction
2. All My Sons: Arthur Miller Biography
3. All My Sons: Summary
All My Sons: Summary and Analysis

¨ Act One Summary and Analysis
¨ Act Two Summary and Analysis
¨ Act Three Summary and Analysis
All My Sons: Quizzes
¨ Act One Questions and Answers
¨ Act Two Questions and Answers
¨ Act Three Questions and Answers
6. All My Sons: Characters
7. All My Sons: Themes
8. All My Sons: Style
9. All My Sons: Historical Context
10. All My Sons: Critical Overview
All My Sons: Essays and Criticism
¨ Comparing Miller's Play with Sophocle's Oedipus Rex
¨ The Living and the Dead in All My Sons
¨ Arthur Miller: 1947
¨ The Theatre
12. All My Sons: Compare and Contrast
13. All My Sons: Topics for Further Study
14. All My Sons: Media Adaptations
15. All My Sons: What Do I Read Next?
16. All My Sons: Bibliography and Further Reading
17. All My Sons: Pictures
All My Sons 1
18. Copyright
All My Sons: Introduction
All My Sons, Arthur Miller's first commercially successful play, opened at the Coronet Theatre in New York
on January 29, 1947. It ran for 328 performances and garnered important critical acclaim for the dramatist,
winning the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
Miller's earlier play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), had not done well and had quickly closed;
therefore, at the time All My Sons opened, Miller's reputation as a writer was based almost solely on Focus
(1945), his lauded novel about anti-Semitism.
All My Sons is now regarded as the first of Miller's major plays. The work also greatly helped the career of
Elia Kazan, who had first won accolades for his direction of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942
and after directing All My Sons would continue to work with the plays of both Miller and Tennessee Williams
to produce both legendary stage productions and important films.
In All My Sons, Miller evidenced the strong influence of both Henrik Ibsen and Greek tragedy, developing a
‘‘formula’’ that he would brilliantly exploit in his next play, Death of a Salesman (1949), which many
regard as his finest work.
All My Sons: Arthur Miller Biography
Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City. He spent his early years in comfortable
circumstances, until his father, Isidore, a prosperous manufacturer, lost his wealth in the economic devastation
of the Great Depression. After completing high school, Miller had to take a job in a Manhattan warehouse.
He had not been much of a student, but after reading Dostoevsky's great novel The Brothers Karamazov, he
decided that he was destined to become a writer. He had trouble getting into college but was eventually
accepted at the University of Michigan, where he began his apprenticeship as a writer and won several student
awards for his work.
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
Arthur Miller at his writing desk.
After college he returned to New York and worked briefly as a radio script writer, then tried his hand at
writing for the stage commercially. His first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), closed
after only four performances, but it did win a Theater Guild award and revealed the young writer's potential.
He had more success with Focus (1945), a novel dealing with anti-Semitism. In fact, at the time he wrote All
My Sons (1947), his first dramatic hit, he was better known as a writer of fiction than as a playwright.
All My Sons established Miller's standing as a bright and extremely talented dramatist. The play had a good
run and won Miller his first New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. Even the least favorable commentators
recognized the playwright's great promise.
Miller followed All My Sons with three of his most critically and commercially successful plays: Death of
Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), and A View from the Bridge (1955). In these works, Miller attempted
to show that tragedy could be written about ordinary people struggling to maintain personal dignity at critical
moments in their lives. With these plays, Miller joined Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams in what in the
post-World War II years was generally recognized as the great triumvirate of the American theater.
Miller, a political leftist, gained some notoriety in the 1950s when he refused to cooperate with the House
Un-American Activities Committee and was held in contempt of Congress. From this experience he found
thematic material for one of his most famous and controversial plays, The Crucible, which focuses on the
Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
After the 1955 production of A View from the Bridge, Miller took a nine-year hiatus from playwriting. In the
interim, Miller married and divorced the famous actress, Marilyn Monroe. He did adapt one of his stories, The
Misfits, as a screen vehicle for his celebrated wife but did not complete another Broadway play until 1964,
when both After the Fall and Incident at Vichy were produced. The former play, considered Miller's most
experimental play, is also his darkest work, with many autobiographical parallels.
His last Broadway success was The Price, produced in 1968. After his next play, The Creation of the World
and Other Business (1972), failed on Broadway, Miller stopped premiering works in New York. He continued
All My Sons: Arthur Miller Biography 3
to write plays, and enjoyed some success, but nothing that matched that of his earliest works. Many of his
later plays were short one-act plays and works comprised of sketches or vignettes.
His greatest triumphs remain Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Both have been revived with great
success. In 1999, for example, the New York production of Death of a Salesman garnered four Tony awards,
including one for best revival and one for best direction. At the age of eighty-four, Miller was also presented
with a special, lifetime achievement award for his great contributions to the American theater. Miller died
from congestive heart failure on February 10, 2005, in Roxbury, Connecticut.
All My Sons: Summary
Act One
The play opens on a Sunday morning in August and is set in the backyard of the Keller home, located on the
outskirts of an unidentified American town, a couple of years after the end of World War II. Joe Keller, who
has been reading classified ads in a newspaper, banters pleasantly with his neighbors, Dr. Jim Bayliss and
Frank Lubey. He explains that the apple tree had split in half during the night.
It is a source of some concern, for the tree is a memorial for Joe's son, Larry, and its destruction might upset
Joe's wife, Kate. Frank refers to it as Larry's tree and notes that August is Larry's birth month. He plans to cast
Larry's horoscope, to see if the date on which he was reported missing in action was a favorable or
unfavorable day for him.
The men ask after the Kellers' visitor, Ann, the daughter of Joe's former partner, Steve Deever, who once lived
in the house now owned by the Baylisses. Sue, Jim's wife, arrives and sends Jim home to talk on the phone
with a patient. She is followed by Frank's wife, Lydia, who reports a problem with a toaster.
Joe's son, Chris, comes from the house, and a neighborhood boy, Bert, darts into the yard. Joe amuses Bert in
a role-playing game in which Bert is learning to be a police deputy under Joe's authority. He has shown Bert a
gun, and they pretend that the basement of the house is actually a jail.
After the others leave, Joe and Chris talk about the tree and the fact that Kate was outside when it fell. She has
never stopped hoping that Larry will return, still alive. Her failure to accept his death is a major obstacle for
Chris, who hopes to marry Ann. Kate can only think of Ann as Larry's girl, and she can not accept a marriage
of Chris and Ann without first accepting her son's death. Chris's proposed solution, much to his father's
chagrin, is to leave the Keller home and business unless his father helps him make Kate accept Larry's death.
Kate enters and muses over the significance of the fallen tree and Ann's arrival. She also speaks of a dream in
which she saw Larry and expresses her belief that the memorial tree should never have been planted.
Exasperated, Chris talks of trying to forget Larry. She sends him off to get an aspirin, then tries to wring from
Joe an explanation for Ann's visit. She also discloses that if she were to lose faith in her belief that Larry was
alive, she would kill herself.
Chris returns with Ann, and a tense confrontation almost immediately begins. Ann pointedly rejects Kate's
hope that Larry is still alive. She also divulges that she is unwilling to forgive her father, now in jail, as Joe
once was, convicted of providing the Army Air Force with 121 defective cracked cylinder heads. The parts
were used in the engines of P-40 fighter planes, twenty-one of which crashed.
Joe, who was later exonerated, attempts to defend his former partner as a confused, somewhat inept ‘‘little
man’’ caught in a situation that he did not fully fathom. Ann is unmoved and holds her father responsible for
Larry's death. Yet Kate knows the truth: Joe ordered his partner to weld the cracked cylinder heads and hide
All My Sons: Summary 4
the defect.
After Joe and Kate leave, Chris confesses his love to Ann, and she ardently confirms her own for him. She is
mystified by his long delay in disclosing his feelings, and he explains that it took him a long time to shake
free from a guilt he felt for his survival in the war. They are interrupted when Ann is told that her brother,
George, is on the phone.
As she exits, Joe and Chris discuss the fact that George is in Columbus, visiting his father in jail. Ann is heard
talking on the phone, trying to mollify her angry brother, while Joe speculates as to the possibility that George
and Ann may be trying to open the criminal case again. Chris placates Joe, who shrugs off his concern and
begins talking of Chris's future and telling him that he will help Chris and Ann make Kate accept their
marriage. Ann then comes out to tell them that George is coming to visit that same evening.
Act Two
It is late afternoon on the same day. Kate enters to find Chris sawing up the fallen apple tree. After telling
Chris that Joe is sleeping, she asks Chris to tell Ann to go home with George. She is afraid that Steve Deever's
hatred for Joe has infected his children, and she wants them both to leave.
When Ann appears, Kate returns to the house. Ann wants Chris to tell his mother about their marriage plans,
and he promises to do so that evening. As he leaves, Sue enters, looking for her husband. She and Ann discuss
Ann's marriage plans. Sue encourages her to move away after her marriage. She is bitter towards Chris, who,
as Jim's friend, has tried to convince him to pursue work in medical research, a luxury that the Baylisses can
not afford.
When Ann defends Chris, Sue suggests that Chris is a phony, given the fact that Chris has greatly benefited
from Joe's ruthless and unethical business practices. She also tells Ann that everyone knows that Joe was as
guilty as Steve Deever and merely ‘‘pulled a fast one to get out of jail.’’
When Chris returns, Sue goes in the house to see if she can calm Kate down. Ann tells Chris that Sue hates
him, and that the people of the community believe that Joe should be in jail. Chris believes in his father's
innocence and tells her that he can not put any stock in what the neighbors believe.
Joining them in the backyard, Joe tells the young lovers that he wants to find George a good local job, and
then announces that he even wants to hire Steve Deever when he is released from prison. Chris is adamantly
opposed, believing that Deever had wrongly implicated his father, and he does not want Joe to give him a job.
Joe exits.
Having picked up George at the train station, Jim Bayliss enters quickly from the driveway. Jim warns Chris
that George has ‘‘blood in his eye,’’ and that Chris should not let him come into the Keller yard. However,
Chris welcomes George as a friend, but from George's surly behavior it is soon clear that he is angry.
As a result of visiting his father, he is convinced that Joe knew about the cracked cylinder heads but ordered
Deever to ship them anyway, and he is now intent on stopping Ann from marrying Chris. He presents his
father's account of the day the cracked cylinder heads were made, but Chris, believing in his father's
innocence, tries to make him leave rather than confront Joe and upset his mother.
The tense situation is defused when Kate and Lydia enter the yard. After some amiable recollections are
exchanged, Joe enters and asserts that Steve Deever only blames Joe because Steve, unable to face his faults,
could never own up to his mistakes. George seems almost at ease, but when Kate makes a critical blunder,
inadvertently disclosing that Joe had not been ill in fifteen years, George is once again upset. Joe's alibi was
that he had been home with pneumonia when the defective parts were doctored up and shipped out by Deever;
All My Sons: Summary 5
George realizes that Joe's alibi was a lie.
Frank Lubey enters with Larry Keller's horoscope, which speculates that Larry is still alive. Kate wants Ann
to leave with George and has even packed her bag. Chris tries to make his mother see that Larry is dead, but
Kate, knowing the truth about the defective parts, insists that he must be alive. Otherwise, she believes that
Joe is responsible for his death.
Finally realizing the truth, Chris angrily confronts his father, who lamely tries to defend his actions as
‘‘business.’’ Chris, profoundly hurt and disillusioned, beats furiously on his father's shoulders.
Act Three
It is 2:00 AM of the following morning. Alone, Kate waits for Chris to return. Jim joins her and asks what has
happened; he then reveals that he has known about her husband's guilt for some time. He contends that he
hopes that Chris will go off to find himself before returning.
Jim exits just as Joe comes in. Kate tells him that Jim knows the truth. Meanwhile, he is concerned about Ann,
who has stayed in her room since Chris left. He talks, too, of needing Chris's forgiveness and his intent to take
his own life should he not get it.
Ann enters and hesitantly gives Kate a letter that she had received from Larry after Joe and her father were
convicted. Chris returns and tells his father that he cannot forgive him. Ann takes the letter from Kate and
gives it to Chris, who reads it aloud.
Composed just before Larry's death, it tells of his plan to take his own life in shame over what his father had
done. It suddenly becomes clear to Joe that Larry believed that all the fighter pilots who perished in combat
were Joe's sons. He then withdraws into the house, and Chris confirms his plan to turn Joe over to the
Suddenly, a shot is heard from the house. Chris enters the house, presumably to find his father's body. He
returns to his mother's arms, dismayed and crying, and she tells him to forget what has happened and live his
All My Sons: Summary and Analysis
Act One Summary and Analysis
New Characters
Joe Keller/Keller: a businessman about sixty years old, who rose from humble beginnings to a career in
industrial manufacturing
Kate Keller/Mother: Joe’s wife and Chris’s mother, who is about fifty years old
Chris Keller: the oldest Keller son, who is already a war veteran and partial owner of his father’s business at
the age of thirty-two
Ann/Annie Deever: the beautiful, former girl next door, who is twenty-six years old and still single.
Doctor Jim Bayliss: the current next-door neighbor to the Kellers, who is a physician
Sue Bayliss: Jim’s wife
All My Sons: Summary and Analysis 6
Frank Lubey: a neighbor who grew up with the Keller boys
Lydia Lubey: Frank’s wife and mother of their three children
The play consists of three acts only; the device of subdividing each act into scenes is not used. This
straightforward structure extends to the plot and setting; the action begins and ends in less than twenty-four
hours—from a Sunday to a Monday morning—and takes place in the sole setting of the Keller family home and
backyard. We are in post-World War II America. The Keller home is large and newly painted, symbolizing
middle-class success and respectability. The backyard, on the other hand, is littered with lawn furniture,
household items, and even debris from an apple tree. The discontinuity between the respectable house and the
disheveled yard hints at several of the play’s prevalent thematic contrasts—between success and failure, order
and disorder, harmony and conflict.
In fact, multiple sources of conflict within the Keller home are revealed in act one. Larry, Joe Keller’s
youngest son, disappeared during service in WWII and has been missing in action for three years. The act
opens with small talk between Joe and his neighbors, Frank and Jim, that quickly turns from the daily news to
Larry. The attention of the group is focused on an ominous portent of trouble: an apple tree intended to be a
memorial to Larry has been downed by a windstorm during the previous night. Joe worries that this event,
which occurs in the same month as Larry’s birthday, will upset his wife, Kate. Moreover, Ann Deever,
Larry’s former girlfriend, has returned for a surprise visit to the Keller home. Her visit will serve only as
another painful reminder of Larry’s absence for Kate. The action shifts as sparring between the two neighbors
and their respective wives interrupts the conversation and takes them away from the yard.
A short interlude between Chris, the Kellers’ oldest son; Bert, a neighborhood boy; and Joe introduces new
problems and complications into the storyline. Joe teases Bert about his role in a game of “policing” (the
neighborhood) that the older man has started with the local children. A sinister undertone emerges in the
mostly humorous dialogue when Joe insists that he will jail any offenders “arrested” by Bert (the mock
policeman of the block) in his basement; he refers to his hunting gun as proof of his serious intent. The gun, in
addition to the fallen tree, is the second portent of trouble in this act.
While Joe sends Bert off to detect trouble, he need look no farther than his own conversation with his son,
Chris. Chris, who has survived the war to become a partner in, and eventual inheritor of, his father’s business,
admits that he has summoned Ann to the family home in order to propose to her. Chris and Joe both
understand that this plan will be devastating to Kate, for she clings to the slim chance that Larry will return
and that he and Ann will marry. In Joe’s words, the union of Chris and Ann would be like “pronouncing
Larry dead” to Kate. Although father and son agree that this pronouncement is inevitable, neither man can
risk it at this time.
Unbeknownst to Chris, however, Kate already suspects his intentions. This fact, as well as her unflagging
resistance to the plan, is revealed in the next segment when Kate joins the conversation. Her resistance relies
on the belief that both she and Ann possess an indestructible faith in Larry’s survival, a conviction that he
will return even though all evidence points toward the contrary. This seemingly irrational conviction blinds
Kate to the multiple signs of doom that appear in this act, even to the obvious symbolism of a dream that links
the destruction of the apple tree to a vision of Larry, falling from the sky while calling out, “Mom!”
Ann’s entrance offers a direct challenge to Kate’s convictions. Upon close questioning from Kate, Ann
admits, even insists, that she is no longer waiting for Larry. Kate, however, is not yet convinced. A diversion
from the topic is provided by Kate’s exit for tea and Frank’s entrance for some conversation. The discussion
turns to the Deever family as Frank asks if Ann’s father might be paroled soon. The exchange that follows
reveals the fact of Steve Deever’s incarceration for the first time and introduces the complex history between
Act One Summary and Analysis 7
the Deever and Keller families. Ann expresses concern that the memory of her father’s trial and conviction
might still be fresh in her old neighborhood. She is ashamed of her father, whom she imagines could be
culpable for the deaths of many young soldiers, possibly even Larry. Joe, on the other hand, defends his
former business partner and rationalizes the crime Steve was convicted of: the shipment of “cracked cylinder
heads” destined for U.S. Air Force planes during the war. This line of reasoning, uncomfortable to Ann, ends
with the sudden decision to dine out for the evening.
Ann and Chris are left alone in the yard and finally have a chance to speak. They confirm their affection for
one another and kiss for the first time. Joe catches a glimpse of the couple, and as Ann exits, Chris declares
their resolve to marry to his father.
Yet the scene does not end on this positive note. Instead, the action closes with an unexpected phone call from
George Deever, Ann’s brother and a new lawyer. George has just visited their imprisoned father for the first
time. Although George’s end of the exchange is not heard, it is clear that he is upset and has important news
to convey. The phone call ends with an agreement that George should visit the Keller home later that evening
to communicate his concerns. Ann and Chris are not distressed by this sudden interruption in the day; they
depart for an evening drive. Kate and Joe, on the other hand, are still locked in tension and conflict. The
curtain falls on an atmosphere of suspicion and suspense as Kate questions Joe and admonishes him to “be
smart,” presumably about the chance that he can withstand the cross-examination to come and the possibility
that he finally must change his story about his involvement in the crime blamed on Steve.
All My Sons, completed in 1947, was Miller’s second play. Its success on Broadway established his
reputation as a playwright and introduced audiences to themes he would explore two years later in Death of a
Salesman and in 1953 with The Crucible, both considered his best-known and most critically acclaimed plays.
A prominent theme introduced in this play is that of the “common man” who experiences a tragic fall due to
both his personal failings and his social circumstances. In this case, it might be argued that an entire family
(the Kellers) falls because each of its members cannot overcome a fatal flaw and adapt to difficult and sudden
changes in their lives. Moreover, the devices that Miller uses to illustrate their fall are adapted from elements
common to the literary genre of the tragedy, such as a deadly conflict between father and son or a doomed
union of lovers from feuding families. As critics have noted, the use of this genre allows Miller to challenge
and critique trends in American culture during his time period—in particular, those trends that could result in
such tragic consequences in everyday life.
The action of the play revolves around Joe Keller. Although he appears onstage and speaks about as
frequently as the other characters do, he is clearly the most important character in the development of the plot
and its primary questions and conflicts. Joe is a self-made man; he rose from an underprivileged background
with little education, training, or social position to build a successful manufacturing business and provide a
comfortable, middle-class life for himself and his family. He is clearly meant to be the epitome of the
American dream, a vision that relies on the belief that anyone with enough determination can achieve
financial and social success. Hard work is imagined to be the sole and sufficient answer to any obstacles one
might encounter. Joe Keller’s fate in this play, then, offers a commentary on the possibilities and limitations
of this ideal.
Although Joe asserts that his financial ambition has been motivated solely by this desire to provide for his
family, his actions and claims throughout the play suggest that his motives are not wholly, if at all, altruistic.
He derives a deep sense of personal satisfaction and pride from his business success; his family is as much a
status symbol as a motivating force. In fact, many of the central problems in the play result from this complex
relationship between family and business. The events of this act reveal that a business blunder made at the
Keller plant during the war resulted in the deaths of several soldiers and a criminal trial for Joe and his
business partner. Joe was exonerated, but his partner (Steve Deever) was convicted, and the reputations of
Act One Summary and Analysis 8
both of the men, their families, and the business, were tarnished. The sudden return of the daughter of that
partner, Ann Deever, to the Keller family home reintroduces the threat of failure and insecurity into a story of
social and economic success that is almost perfect in all other respects. The revelation that Joe and Steve were
called outright “murderers” during the trial has ominous undertones reflected in other signs of brewing
trouble in act one.
The most obvious portent of conflict is news of the disappearance of the youngest Keller son (Larry) three
years earlier during service in the war. The fact that Kate, his mother, will not acknowledge the likelihood of
his death becomes the preoccupation of everyone around her. Her stubbornness surpasses the usual bounds of
grief as she ignores multiple signs that she must let go, including a vision of Larry’s death (in a dream) that
coincides with the destruction of his memorial (the apple tree) as well as the return of Larry’s former
girlfriend (Ann) to marry his older brother (Chris). Kate has been paralyzed by this event; she is unable to
move on, even if it means alienating herself from her husband, son, and future daughter-in-law. It is possible
to understand Kate, but perhaps not to completely sympathize with her. She begins to look ridiculous, not
righteous, when she confesses that she will “kill herself” before allowing Chris and Ann to marry. Kate’s
obsession with Larry’s survival suggests that she is the quintessential mother, a woman defined primarily by
the need to protect her children and family. It is thus fitting that her part is simply titled “Mother” in the
Kate’s plight offers one possible reaction, albeit negative, to the social and political changes of the 1940s.
The transition from war to peace in the U.S. posed many challenges, from integrating veterans into American
culture to regulating the expansion of a rapidly growing economy. It is thus not surprising that the war is an
important theme in this play. Most of the young male characters in the play are veterans who struggle to adapt
to life at home again, whether in their attempts to search for jobs or to make necessary psychological
adjustments. Miller even alludes to the challenge, and perhaps the impossibility, of understanding the
long-term cultural impact of the war. As the comments of Chris and Joe make clear, war itself has different,
often conflicting, meanings for soldiers, their families, and an entire country. For Chris, service in the war
resulted in a sense of loss as well as a new moral clarity. He experienced a type of honor found in neither his
past nor his present life at home. Yet, as a survivor, he feels guilty for returning to and even enjoying
everyday life again. For Joe, a sense of honor has only been lessened, not increased, by the loss of Larry.
Finally, it seems that the engagement between Ann and Chris might start a new “domestic” war between the
Kellers and Deevers. It is clear that if the pair is to succeed in merging their lives, they must overcome the
very circumstances that brought them together: the problematic history between their two families.
Act Two Summary and Analysis
New Characters
George Deever: Ann’s brother, who is a WWII veteran and a lawyer in his early thirties
It is later in the same evening, and Chris finally removes the trunk of the apple tree from the Keller yard.
Afterward, Chris and Kate discuss the possible reasons for George’s impending visit. Kate expresses concern
that the case (about the failed airplane engine parts) will be opened again and indicates that she could not
withstand the strain of another trial. Chris continues to dismiss his mother’s concerns, including the
possibility that the feud between the Keller and Deever families, which occurred during the trial, will
resurface, a development that would be of particular significance to his wish to marry Ann. Kate, however,
still has not been informed of the wedding plans. As Kate exits, Ann enters, and she and Chris resolve to
announce their engagement to Kate later that evening.
Act Two Summary and Analysis 9
Chris exits and Sue enters to find Ann hovering near the tree stump. A discussion ensues between the two
women about the forthcoming nuptials, specifically, and the challenges of married life, generally. Sue betrays
her own mercenary views of marriage—that happiness is based more on the financial stability of the couple
than on the presence of love. Her comments reveal deep jealousy and resentment of the Kellers, especially
Chris, whom she believes nurtures an idealism that is ridiculous, in view of the financial success of his
business and the social standing of his family. In fact, Sue believes that Chris is distracting Jim from his work
and encouraging a frivolous desire to leave his medical practice for a career in research. The conversation
becomes heated as the two women argue, first about Chris and then about the reputation of the entire Keller
Chris enters and interrupts the discussion; Sue exits. The scenes that follow develop the problem of merging
the two families and their troubled histories. Ann questions Chris about the truth of Sue’s accusations,
especially the possibility that the entire community is convinced of Joe’s guilt. Ann reminds Chris that, in
effect, she has exchanged one father (Steve) for another (Joe), by assigning guilt to the former and innocence
to the latter. The implication is that she wants to be certain that the reward of switching allegiance has been
worth the terrible cost: the emotional pain of losing her own father and family identity.
Joe enters and continues this line of discussion. He worries that Chris, too, will eventually switch allegiance
as a result of empathizing with Ann and assigning blame for the pain inflicted on the Deevers to his own
family. The solution to this problem, in Joe’s opinion, can be found if the two families live and work in close
proximity. Accordingly, he offers to find a position for George at a local law firm and to create a job for Steve
in the factory after his release from prison. Chris objects strongly, while Joe insists that the past must be
forgiven and forgotten. His protest to Chris that “[a] father is a father,” despite any wrongs that either father
or son might commit, foreshadows the conflict between the two men in the next act.
Joe exits just as Jim arrives with George, Ann’s brother. The reason for George’s visit becomes apparent
immediately; he suspects the engagement and directly opposes it. Tension grows as George explains his
opposition to Chris and Ann’s union. He has learned during his visit to Steve, at the jail, that Joe not only
condoned but also directly ordered the shipment of the cracked cylinder heads. The best evidence he can
provide is an appeal to their knowledge of the character of each man: Steve’s weak will and Joe’s attention
to detail. How could Steve contradict Joe, in view of his tendency to break under pressure? How could Joe
possibly miss an entire shipment of parts, when he meticulously checks every other detail in the plant? George
finally asserts that “everything they have is covered in blood,” which he knows neither Chris nor Ann could
accept, if they would only recognize the truth.
The tone of the scene shifts with Kate’s dramatic entrance; she is dressed and coifed in expectation of an
evening out with the family. George seems almost charmed by Kate as the two discuss past memories and
future prospects. After Lydia briefly appears to deliver a hat to Kate, George is even teased about his failure to
marry this former neighbor. Joe enters and adds his own plan for George to the conversation. The atmosphere
brightens, and George shows signs of seriously considering the Kellers’ plans for him and the possibility of
joining their family circle. Yet Joe ruins the mood by asking about Steve and returning to the topic of the trial.
At this moment, George finally finds the inconsistency in the story that he has anticipated. Joe’s claim that a
bout of pneumonia took him away from the plant on the day of the infamous shipment is contradicted by
Kate’s assertion that her husband hasn’t been sick for the past fifteen years. It is obvious that Kate should
remember something as serious as pneumonia (which Joe changes to the flu during the argument), and the
efforts of the two to cover the blunder are unconvincing.
Frank enters with the horoscope he has been concocting for Larry, at Kate’s request. He has concluded that
Larry could not have died, due to “favorable” astrological signs on the day of his disappearance. This
announcement renews the argument and plunges the group into confusion. George tries to convince Chris of
Joe’s guilt. Kate tries to get Ann to leave. Ann demands that her brother leave, under pressure from Chris.
Act Two Summary and Analysis 10
Finally, Chris tells Kate of the wedding plans. As Joe attempts to enter the argument, Kate slaps him in the
A mood of tension and conflict grows after this sudden outburst of violence. In a desperate attempt to defend
herself, Kate declares to Chris that Larry must be alive, “because if he’s dead, your father killed him.” She
exits and Chris questions his father. Joe is cornered and can only protest that he had no choice but to comply
with the demands of his military contracts or lose his business. He insists that the choice, then, was made not
for himself but for the well-being of his family. Chris does not accept this rationale and flees into the night.
The curtain falls.
Act two brings together many of the problems from act one in order to set a sequence of tragic events into
motion. The key device for developing the action is the brewing feud between the Keller and Deever families
over the engagement of Chris and Ann. It seems that the union of the couple depends on the confirmation of
both Larry’s death and Joe’s innocence, for a marriage based on deception is in constant danger of
dissolution. If Larry is alive, Chris will have betrayed his brother. If Joe is guilty, Ann will have lost her
father, as a result of believing in his conviction and severing ties with him after the trial. In either case, the
lovers will have forsaken the honesty and trust so important to their present relationship and future marriage.
Ann’s marked anxiety over switching allegiance to the Keller family and Chris’s determined insistence on
his father’s innocence indicate that these values are indeed central to their future together.
Despite many efforts to help the couple, however, circumstances still pull Chris and Ann apart. Even Joe joins
in the cause in this act, with his offer to find employment for both George and Steve in the local community.
He hopes to merge the daily lives of the two families to such an extent that future conflict will be impractical
and, thus, impossible. A sense of hope emerges as Kate endorses the proposal and George momentarily
entertains the possibility of accepting their help and joining the family. Yet, such efforts are all the more tragic
for their futility. As Joe contradicts a key detail in his alibi, Kate blurts out his guilt, and the budding
relationship between the two families unravels. The confusion that follows—from Kate’s violent attempt to
silence her husband by suddenly slapping him to Chris’s struggle to win approval from his mother and obtain
the truth from his father—promises only more, not less, conflict in the future. A vision of harmony, for the
couple and their families, cannot withstand reality in this act. This sudden reversal in mood reminds us that
these characters will not escape the tragic fate already assigned to them in the play.
Furthermore, the doomed engagement is important not only to the plot but also to the themes of All My Sons.
The conflict surrounding the couple implies that business can destroy love. This possibility is reiterated in
many minor scenes throughout the play. In this act, Sue complains that Chris has distracted her husband from
his medical practice with idealistic dreams; Jim, on the other hand, laments his wife’s greed but fails to
change. Likewise, Kate protests George’s pursuit of a legal career at the expense of love and marriage;
despite his obvious professional success, even George expresses regret at his missed chance with Lydia, who
married Frank instead. Marital happiness rarely coincides with financial success in this play.
The effects of Joe’s business deal, however, suggest that business can destroy many forms of love and types
of relationships, including but certainly not limited to romance and marriage. Joe is so motivated by greed that
he betrays Steve and kills soldiers in the war (even if unwittingly). The decision to ship the cracked cylinder
heads ranks a desire for profit above a concern for friendship, for the future of the two families, and most
directly, for the lives of the soldiers. The marketplace, then, fosters antisocial behavior maladapted to human
cooperation and even survival. Chris states this point directly by comparing his father’s decision to that of an
animal’s to “kill [its] own.” Joe’s repeated insistence that he acted on behalf of the family only emphasizes
Miller’s suggestion that the marketplace perverts human decency and dignity.
Act Two Summary and Analysis 11
Admission of the crime is the catalyst of a moral conflict that finally consumes the family in act three. In fact,
the end of act two both introduces the moral dilemma and develops the family drama. Miller offers clear
evidence that the Kellers will fail on both accounts, to withstand a test of their values and to hold their family
together. This failure can be attributed not only to difficult circumstances but also to specific decisions made
by each member of the Keller family. In fact, the fate of the family can be blamed on tragic character flaws.
Kate reveals Joe’s guilt but still cannot accept Larry’s death. She asserts instead that “God does not let a son
be killed by his father.” Her faith remains irrational. Joe admits his role in the crime but does not accept full
responsibility for it. He continues to justify his actions and deny his true guilt. Chris struggles to forgive Joe
but concern for the family reputation makes reconciliation impossible. He puts his own idealism before duty
to and love for his father. The common factor amongst these reactions is a lack of empathy; it is an inability to
understand and thus reconnect with others that ultimately limits the moral capacity of this family.
Ironically, the Kellers are too righteous to be moral. They cling to a rigid set of beliefs that blinds them to the
truth about themselves and one another. Chris’s sudden departure at the end of the act suggests that
dissolution, not reunion, of the family offers the only means of resolving their problems. In short, the tragedy
of separation, experienced by Chris and Ann, is extended to the entire family.
Act Three Summary and Analysis
It is early morning of the following day. Jim stops by the Keller home after a late-night house call to find Kate
rocking compulsively in a chair on the porch. He learns that Chris has discovered the truth about Joe and
reveals that he has always known himself. Jim’s comments on the moral compromises made in his own life
due to monetary greed underscore the importance of this theme to the final act and to the play as a whole.
Joe Keller enters as Jim exits. Joe and Kate discuss strategies for winning Chris back as they await his return.
Kate believes that Joe can prove his remorse by offering to go to jail; she suggests that Chris will then forgive
his father but not actually insist on his imprisonment. Joe, on the other hand, continues to claim that his
decision was justified as a means to maintain his business and provide for his family. According to this logic,
his only crime has been to love his family too much. Yet Kate reminds Joe that their son does not share these
values. Joe can only reply that if this dedication to his family is wrong, he will “put a bullet in [his] head.”
While Joe and Kate continue to talk, Ann enters and proposes her own solution to the predicament. She
demands that Kate finally admit to herself and her family that Larry is dead; then, Chris can start a new life
with Ann without feeling either regret or guilt. As might be expected, Kate refuses to enter into this new
bargain and banishes Joe from the yard, presumably so that she can settle the matter with Ann once and for
all, without interference from anyone else. Yet Ann reveals a surprising piece of evidence that derails Kate: a
letter written by Larry on the day of his disappearance. Kate becomes visibly distressed while reading the
Before the contents of the letter can be shared, however, Chris rejoins the group and proposes yet another plan
of action. He will depart immediately and leave his current life behind him, even Ann, whom he claims would
surely grow to hate him over time for his association with the man and business that destroyed her family. He
will neither open the case again nor jail his father. It seems that Chris has become, in his own words, too
“practical” to enforce his own ideals. His claims are put to an immediate test as Joe reenters and engages his
son in a final confrontation.
A tragic chain of events now commences that no one can halt, despite any prior claims or plans. As Joe and
Chris argue, Ann shares the letter with Chris, who reads it aloud. The play reaches its dramatic climax at this
moment. The letter reveals that Joe did, in fact, kill Larry, but not in the way that had been imagined. Larry,
Act Three Summary and Analysis 12
distraught over the news of his father’s guilt, resolved to commit suicide on his next mission and asked that
Ann not wait for his return. Upon hearing this news, Joe finally realizes that the soldiers lost due to his faulty
engine parts were “all his sons,” as the title of the play suggests. This realization so devastates Joe that he
takes his own life by exiting into the house and shooting himself (presumably, with the gun mentioned in act
one). Ann departs to seek help from Jim; Chris investigates by running into the house. He returns onstage and
mutters to Kate, “I didn’t mean to.” Mother and son cling to one another as the curtain falls.
The long-awaited confirmation of Larry’s death seals the Kellers’ doom in this act. Like the revelation of
Joe’s guilt in act two, the news results only in new confusion and pain, rather than resolution and relief, for
the characters in act three.
It is not merely the fact of Larry’s death, but the way in which he died, that destroys his family. Ann finally
produces the last letter from her (former) lover, which reveals Larry’s determination to commit suicide on his
next mission after learning of Joe’s conviction for the deaths of fellow soldiers. Because the letter
corresponds so closely to the circumstances of Larry’s disappearance, its accuracy cannot be denied. Even
Kate accepts its truth. The outcome foretold by a series of signs—especially by the ominous fall (in act one)
and removal (in act two) of the apple tree—is confirmed. Larry will not return.
Moreover, Joe is to blame, a fact that he is able to recognize only in this moment. An admission that the
murdered soldiers were “all his sons,” just as Larry suggested in the letter, speaks to the seriousness of his
crime. Although he might speak the words, it soon becomes apparent that Joe cannot live with this fact. It is
simply too much for him to bear, and he reacts by fulfilling the promise he made to “put a bullet to [his]
head” if the rationale for his actions were ever proven wrong. After all, the results of his actions could not be
more counter to his intentions. Joe fulfills the conventions of the tragedy by failing to survive his tragic flaw:
an inability to accept the full consequences of his greed.
Joe’s failure, however, is both personal and cultural. He fails himself and his family. Yet, the American
dream fails him; the pursuit of wealth, and the success and happiness it promises, cannot save Joe Keller from
disaster. Hard work results in a middle-class lifestyle that causes him more pain than joy. He must labor
constantly to maintain his present status and reputation. The pressures of doing so breed new desperation and
greed. These emotions, and the choices that result from them, finally destroy that which they were intended to
protect: the Keller business and family. As Chris suggests, this system holds less “honor” even than the
battlefield; at least a man who “acted like a dog” was punished in the war. Instead, the business world
rewards men like Keller who act selfishly and inhumanely in the struggle for money.
Many critics have attributed the critique of market capitalism in All My Sons to the political beliefs of the
playwright, who was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. This committee, formed
by Senator Joseph McCarthy, held trials in the 1950s aimed at identifying and punishing supporters of
communism in America. The trials were later condemned. Despite the uncertainty surrounding these
accusations, it is clear that Miller is at least skeptical, if not openly critical, of the benefits promised by
American capitalism in this play. After all, a system that can inspire a man like Joe Keller to sacrifice human
lives for increased profits is certainly corrupt. The evil effects of this crime—from the deaths of Larry and his
unnamed comrades to the destruction of both the Keller and Deever families—make the need for awareness
and reform quite clear.
Miller highlights the need for change by using an open ending; he does not conclude the action neatly or
clearly. Instead, the last act closes while the characters are still in motion, reeling from the surprise of Joe’s
suicide. The final message of the play is left open to interpretation. This play demands that we sustain more
humane values and functional communities, but the exact method for doing so is left to us.
Act Three Summary and Analysis 13
All My Sons: Quizzes
Act One Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Which signs are connected to Larry’s disappearance, and how are they important in this act?
2. How does Kate approach motherhood, and what is the effect of this approach on her family?
3. Why does Kate object to the possible marriage of Chris and Ann?
4. How is the (former) friendship between Steve Deever and Joe Keller important to the plot?
5. What is the mood by the end of this act, and what does it portend for act two?
1. Several signs suggest that Larry is in danger or has died: the destruction of the apple tree (a memorial to
him planted in the backyard), the vision of his fall from the sky (in Kate’s dream), and the return of his
former girlfriend (Ann, who wants to marry his brother). Kate does not heed these signs because she believes
that Larry is still alive. Her attitude sets her apart from the others, who all believe that Larry is gone. The
argument over Larry’s survival or death introduces a key conflict in this act that does not bode well for the
relationship between either Chris and Ann or their families.
2. Kate’s dedication to Larry is the pinnacle of motherhood; she exudes a seemingly selfless concern for her
“lost” child. She refuses to let Larry go, even though all signs point toward his death. Ironically, this stubborn
belief isolates Kate from her husband and surviving son.
3. Kate believes that Ann should continue to wait for Larry. A marriage between Chris and Ann could occur
only if Larry were dead, a possibility that she does not accept.
4. Steve and Joe were friends and business partners before and during the war; however, the trial over the
cracked cylinder heads destroyed this relationship. Steve was convicted, and Joe, exonerated. Bad feelings
still exist between the Keller and Deever families, even threatening the marriage plans of Chris and Ann.
5. The act ends in suspicion and suspense; a general feeling of foreboding is evident. Kate suggests that Joe
will have difficulty responding to George’s inquiries about the trial in the next act. Hints are dropped that
new information must be revealed.
Act Two Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Who is George, and what is the significance of his role in this act?
2. Which key conflict is most important to the development of the plot in act two, and what does this conflict
emphasize or reveal?
3. How are the values and practices associated with market capitalism depicted?
4. What is the relationship between Joe’s defense for his crime and the key themes of the play?
All My Sons: Quizzes 14
5. What is the primary moral problem in this act, and how does it impact the Kellers?
1. George is a lawyer and Ann Deever’s brother. His repeated questioning of the Kellers and their role in the
crime blamed on his father finally unveils a contradiction in Joe Keller’s alibi.
2. The engagement between Chris and Ann is the most important problem in this act; it reveals both the
complexity and the tragedy of the relationship between the Deever and Keller families. The efforts made to
mend this relationship only emphasize its tragic elements: the obstacles and conflicts that cannot be overcome
by either the couple or their relatives. The couple, like the entire Keller family, is doomed.
3. Business concerns threaten human values in this act, especially romantic love. The infamous business deal
and subsequent trial pits the Kellers against the Deevers and makes the marriage of Chris and Ann impossible.
Moreover, Joe’s willingness to sacrifice lives for profit suggests that the forces of the marketplace are
4. Joe’s defense is concern for his family; he claims to have shipped the cylinder heads under the threat of
losing money and his business, a chance he could not take as the provider for his family. His defense sustains
the connection between the themes of business and family first introduced in act one.
5. The problems facing the Kellers become a moral dilemma. Each family member fails in a critical test of
empathy as conflict erupts over the trial at the end of this act. This inability to empathize with others threatens
to divide the family forever.
Act Three Questions and Answers
Study Questions
1. Why is the confirmation of Larry’s death understood and accepted so quickly by his family, especially by
2. What is the significance of the comparisons made between war and business in this act?
3. Why does Joe Keller decide to commit suicide?
4. How does the play end, and how is that ending tragic?
5. To what extent does the final scene resolve the primary conflict(s) of the play?
1. Ann confirms Larry’s death by sharing a letter with the Kellers that reveals his intention to commit suicide;
the details of the letter match the circumstances of his death exactly and cannot be denied. Kate finally gives
in because a key motivation for her denial of the death has been revealed: Joe’s role in the crime.
2. Chris compares business to war in this act by suggesting that even the tactics of the battlefield are more
honorable than those of the marketplace. The implication is that betrayal, at least, is punished during wartime.
His statement protests his father’s decision to ship the faulty cylinder heads, an act that places the pursuit of
profit over concern for human life.
3. Joe commits suicide because he cannot bear the news that he did, in fact, cause the death of his own son. He
cannot live with the fact that greed has corrupted one of his most precious values: loyalty to his family.
Act Two Questions and Answers 15
4. The play ends after Joe’s suicide, as Chris and Kate cling to each other in confusion. The end is tragic
because each main character fails to overcome a fatal flaw and rise above the circumstances of the conflict.
5. The final scene suggests that business practices must be reformed if human communities, and the values
that support them, are to survive. The ending leaves the exact response or solution to this problem open to
All My Sons: Characters
See Ann Deever
Dr. Jim Bayliss
Jim Bayliss is a close friend of Chris Keller. He and his wife, Sue, bought the house formerly owned by Steve
Deever and his family; this makes him a neighbor of the Kellers. Although Jim suspects that Joe is as guilty as
his former partner is, he likes the Keller family. He even tries to protect Joe from a confrontation with George
Sue Bayliss
Sue Bayliss, Jim's wife, reveals that the town knows the truth about Joe Keller, and unlike her husband, she
basically dislikes the family. However, her animus is largely directed against Chris, not Joe. She believes that
he knows his father is guilty and has profited from the situation. As a result, she deems him a phony, and she
deeply resents his friendship with her husband.
Bert is a neighborhood boy. He plays with Joe in the beginning of the play, pretending to be a policeman.
Bert's gullibility provides a comic counterpoint to the more serious gullibility of Joe's son, Chris, who believes
in his father's innocence. Joe has also shown Bert the gun with which, at the end, he kills himself.
Ann Deever
Ann is the attractive daughter of Steve Deever, Joe's former partner. She is visiting the Kellers for the first
time since her boyfriend, Larry Keller, was reported missing in action. She has been invited by Chris; they are
in love, much to the consternation of Kate, Chris's mother.
Ann believes that her father is guilty and has refused to visit him in jail. She is perhaps blinded by her love for
Chris, whom she plans to marry. However, she carries what is in fact a suicide letter that Larry wrote to her
before his final mission. Deeply shamed by his father's conviction, Larry disclosed his inability to live with
the fact of his father's crime. When Kate continues to refuse to believe that Larry is dead and tries to prevent
her marriage to Chris, Ann is forced to show her the letter. With Larry's final thoughts revealed, Chris is
forced to face his father's guilt.
George Deever
George is Steve Deever's son and brother to Ann Deever. He is a lawyer and a threat to Joe Keller, who fears
that he might try to reopen the case that put Joe and his father in prison. After visiting his father in jail, he
confronts Joe. George is convinced that Joe destroyed his father and was the real instigator of the crime. When
he discovers that Ann is in love with Chris, he tries to persuade her to leave with him.
Kate's kindness almost placates him, and he even seems ready to accept Joe's version of what happened; but
Kate inadvertently reveals that Joe was not sick when the defective parts were shipped and thereby confirms
what his father had told George. He storms off before Chris is forced to face the truth, and Joe commits
Act Three Questions and Answers 16
Chris Keller
Chris, at age thirty-two, is Joe and Kate Keller's surviving son. He is in love with Ann Deever, the former
girlfriend of his deceased brother, Larry. He invites Ann to visit the Keller home so that he might propose to
A veteran of World War II Chris now works for his father, Joe. Since being exonerated and released from
prison, Joe has built a very successful company. Chris believes that his father is innocent, as he feels was
proved at the pardon hearing before Joe's release. An idealist, he has a very strong sense of justice and
responsibility, and he bears a residual guilt for surviving the war when many of his friends died.
He also believes that one should be guided by the noblest principles, and he tries to encourage his friend, Jim
Bayliss, to leave his medical practice to pursue a higher calling in medical research. His influence angers Jim's
wife, Sue, who believes that Joe is guilty and that Chris is a hypocrite.
Although his love for his father blinds him to the truth, when Joe's guilt is finally revealed, he believes that he
has no choice but to see to it that his father is returned to prison.
Joe Keller
The Keller family patriarch, Joe is a self-made businessman who started out as a semiskilled laborer and
worked his way up in the business world to become a successful manufacturer. He owns a factory, where he
employs his surviving son, Chris.
Burt Lancaster as Chris and Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller in a scene from the film adaptation.
Initially, Joe seems like a very genial, good-natured man, almost like a surrogate grandfather to the
neighborhood kids. He is very outgoing with his neighbors, and has a disarming tendency to engage in some
self-deprecation, noting, among other things, that he is not well-educated or as articulate as those around him.
It is partly a pose, however, for he actually prides himself on his business acumen. His business means a great
deal to him, almost as much as his family.
Unfortunately, Joe has sacrificed quite a bit for such success. During the war, he ordered his partner, Steve
Deever, to cover cracks in some airplane engine parts, disguise the welds, and send them on to be used in
fighter planes, causing the death of twenty-one pilots. Although convicted, Joe put the blame on Steve and got
out of prison.
When the truth is revealed about Larry's death, Joe is at first unwilling to face the responsibility. Finally
realizing the consequences of his actions and his limited course of action, he commits suicide.
All My Sons: Characters 17
Kate Keller
Kate is Joe's wife and the mother of Chris. Although her older son, Larry, was reported missing in action
during World War II, she hopes that he has survived and will eventually return home. She hopes for this not
only because she loves her son, but also because she knows the truth about Joe: he ordered his partner Steve to
cover the cracks in the cylinder heads that eventually resulted in the death of several American fighter pilots.
Although Larry never flew a P-40 fighter, Kate believes that Joe must be held accountable as his murderer.
She is finally forced to face Larry's death when confronted with the letter that he sent to Ann Deever
announcing his impending suicide.
Her motives are hidden from Chris, who earnestly wants her to face the fact of Larry's death and move on
with life. He wants to marry Larry's former girlfriend, Ann Deever, but he knows he will not be able to obtain
his mother's blessing as long as she continues to hold on to her unrealistic conviction that Larry is still alive.
Kate is a sympathetic character. She is kind and motherly, but the truth of her husband's guilt tortures her. As
the pressure mounts, she develops physical symptoms of her inner agony. At the end, after Joe shoots himself,
she tells Chris to live—something she had not been able to do since the death of her other son.
Frank Lubey
Frank Lubey is Lydia's husband. A haberdasher, he is perceived as flighty and socially inept. Gracious,
intelligent, and attractive, Lydia makes him seem rather silly by comparison. Frank, always missing each draft
call-up by being a year too old, did not go to war. He married Lydia when George Deever, her former beau,
did not return to his hometown from the war.
Frank's foolishness extends to his belief in astrology, which would be harmless enough were it not for the fact
that he keeps Kate's hopes of Larry's survival alive with his insistence that Larry's horoscope could reveal the
Lydia Lubey
Lydia is Frank's wife. She is a charming, very pretty woman of twenty-seven, described by Miller as a
‘‘robust laughing girl.’’ Before George went off to war, she was his girlfriend; when he did not return home
after his father was imprisoned, she married Frank, a dull alternative. When George does come to confront the
Kellers with his father's accusations, he is reminded of everything he lost. He also knows that Lydia deserved
better than she got.
See Kate Keller
All My Sons: Themes
American Dream
In a sense, All My Sons is a critical investigation of the quest to achieve material comfort and an improved
social status through hard work and determination. In the Horatio Alger myth, even a disadvantaged,
impoverished young man can attain wealth and prestige through personal fortitude, moral integrity, and
untiring industry. Joe Keller is that sort of self-made man, one who made his way from blue-collar worker to
factory owner. However, Joe sacrifices his integrity to materialism, and he makes a reprehensible decision that
sends American pilots to their deaths, something he is finally forced to face.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Paradoxically, Joe Keller's suicide at the end of All My Sons is both an act of atonement and an escape from
guilt. It stems from Joe's realization that there can be no real forgiveness for what he had done. The alternative
All My Sons: Themes 18
is confession and imprisonment. Death offers Joe another alternative.
Forgiveness must come from Kate and Chris. The letter written by Larry reveals that he deliberately destroyed
himself during the war, profoundly shamed by his father's brief imprisonment for fraud and profiteering. It is a
devastating irony that Joe's initial attempt to do right by his family—resulting in fraud and the deaths of
twenty-one fighter pilots—leads to destruction of his world.
Choices and Consequences
All My Sons employs a pattern that is fundamental to most tragedies. Protagonists in tragedy must, in some
degree, be held accountable for their actions. When faced with a moral dilemma, they often make a wrong
choice. Joe, at a critical moment, elected to place his family's finances above the lives of courageous
American soldiers.
The revelations that lead up to Joe's tragic recognition of guilt and his suicide, the final consequences of his
choice, are essential to All My Sons. There is a sense of anake, or tragic necessity, that moves the work along
towards its inevitable moment of truth and awful but final retribution.
The key in the tragic arc of All My Sons is Kate Keller's refusal to accept the death of her son, Larry. Initially,
prone to false hopes, it seems that she is in denial; finally, it is revealed that her need to believe that Larry is
alive allows her to avoid the terrible consequences of her husband's deeds. She realizes that if Larry is dead,
then Joe is responsible for his death—something Larry himself confirmed in his letter to Ann. All along, Kate
knew her husband's guilt but desperately avoided it, knowing that it would destroy her family.
Duty and Responsibility
Joe Keller's sense of duty and responsibility is to the material comfort of his family and the success of his
business. At a weak moment, under pressure, he puts these values ahead of what should clearly have been a
higher duty, his obligation to human life. His fear of losing lucrative government contracts—essentially his
greed—blinded him to the murder he was committing.
Joe's decision to send defective parts is not merely a result of skewed values, it is a serious breach of ethics.
Joe does not fully comprehend how serious a breach it is. To him, success is more important than anything
else, including human life and the good of his country. By setting up this ethical situation, Miller clearly
questions the implications of a value system that puts material success above moral responsibilities to others.
Guilt and Innocence
In All My Sons, there are hints that Joe is troubled by his guilt—even before his eventual suicide. His
suspicions of Ann and George Deever reveal his fears of being forced to face the truth. Even when he attempts
to atone for his guilt by helping his former partner, Steve Deever as well as Deever's son, George, his offer
seems rather lame given the enormity of his guilt. There is no way he can atone for the deaths of the American
fighter pilots, however, something that he finally realizes.
Joe's death at the end of All My Sons is paradoxically both punishment and escape. In one sense, Joe can do no
less than pay for his crime with his life. It is not an empty gesture. It is made abundantly clear from the play's
beginning that Joe is a man who is full of life and cherishes his roles as both husband and father.
When the truth comes out, Joe has to face not only a return to prison but also the alienation of his remaining
son and the destruction his family. Death offers the only escape from that pain. It may also be seen as a
sacrificial act, one which saves Joe's son, Chris, from further humiliation.
All My Sons: Themes 19
Fueled by his anger over Joe's guilt, George Deever comes to the Keller's house seeking revenge and
retribution. He is a major catalyst and intensifies the emotional tension of the play. For a moment, Kate's
friendliness and warmth placate him. When, towards the end of the second act, Kate inadvertently confirms
the probable truth of his father's accusations, George's anger returns. Joe is then forced to reveal his fraudulent
and deceitful actions.
All My Sons: Style
All My Sons has a very traditional dramatic structure, with carefully orchestrated action that reaches a climax.
Although it may be argued that each act has its own climax, with a particularly powerful one in the second act,
the final climax occurs in the last act, when Joe finally realizes that he was responsible for the deaths of the
American fighter pilots, his ‘‘sons.’’
Tension in drama evolves from conflict. In fact, conflict is virtually mandatory in what is termed the dramatic
moment, whether in a play or in fiction. A good play generally evinces a sense of a deepening conflict that
heightens the emotional tension as the play works towards its climactic moment. Conflict arises as a character
strives toward a goal and is met by an obstacle to that goal.
The key conflict in All My Sons develops as a result of Chris's desire to marry Ann Deever. Standing in the
way of his desire is his mother's ability to block the marriage; she opposes the union because she cannot
accept the death of her son, Larry. If she accepts his death, then she must also face Joe's role in it.
Ironically, Chris tries to enlist his father's help in this matter. On account of his love for Ann, Chris pushes his
family into facing truths that have tragic and destructive consequences.
Exposition in drama is often more of a problem than it is for writers of fiction. Somehow, information about
past events and relationships must be conveyed to an audience so that the action in the present can be fully
understood. Because All My Sons is a realistic play in which all the action occurs on the day in which the
family crisis is met and tragically resolved, Miller has few options for revealing Joe's fraudulent past. The
action strictly adheres to a normal chronological order, allowing nothing like a flashback or the hallucinatory
reveries of the main character so brilliantly used by Miller in his next play, Death of Salesman.
Miller's chief device is the reunion, the introduction of a character who needs to be told what has transpired
since that character's former estrangement. That character is Ann Deever; inadvertently, she opens old wounds
because of her familial relationship with Joe's former partner, Larry. She also bears the truth of Larry's death
in a letter that he had written to her. In this way she is like the messenger of Greek tragedy whose task it is to
bear in the pain of truth that will force the tragic recognition in the main character.
Foreshadowings of an impending disaster appear in the first act of All My Sons. The memorial apple tree
planted for Larry is destroyed during a storm in the early morning hours, suggesting a dark force that has the
power to destroy the Keller family.
Kate's response to the tree's felling at first seems odd. She says that it should never have been planted in the
first place. However, it is soon learned that she has desperately held on to the hope that Larry, reported
missing in action during the war, is still alive. That she suffers from the emotional burden of her hope is
All My Sons: Style 20
revealed by her sleeplessness and physical pain.
In its way, even Joe's role-playing game is a foreshadowing. Playing with Bert, they pretend that the Keller
home is a jail. This game suggests that Keller views his home as a kind of jail. On account of what he has
done, he can not really be free.
Even the play's setting foreshadows events. The backyard of the Kellers is pleasant and, initially, a happy
place; but it is also rather insular, hidden from its neighbors by the poplar trees that grow on both sides. The
trees stand like sentinels, protecting Joe from the suspicions of his neighbors, most of whom believe that he
was at least as guilty as Steve Deever.
All My Sons strictly adheres to the tenets of realistic drama as first put in practice by such early modern
playwrights as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Fundamental to such drama is faithfulness to real life in
both character and action. Characters speak and act very much like real people. Nothing happens that could
not happen in reality.
However, like the realism of most plays in the Ibsen tradition, the realism of All My Sons is of a selective
variety, deliberately controlled to advance a particular thesis. Matters are rather conveniently drawn to a
climactic head on a single day with the visit of the two Deever siblings, a coincidence that is nevertheless
wholly within the realm of plausibility.
The setting of All My Sons, the Keller's backyard in a small Midwestern town shortly after World War II has a
significant role in the play. The setting suggests comfort and isolation from the community. Isolation is
necessary because the townspeople suspect the truth about Joe, that he did what he had been convicted of
doing during the war. Yet because he is so successful and provides jobs in the community, they do not openly
reproach him for it.
Destructive forces threaten the setting. Nature first invades, destroying the apple tree planted in memory of
Larry. It is followed by the ‘‘messengers,’’ Ann and George. At the end of the play, the yard is engulfed in
the darkness of night, the destructive truth that leaves Kate and Chris alone in the grim aftermath of Joe's
All My Sons is a thesis play that focuses on a problem that Arthur Miller believed was eating at the fabric of
American democracy: material greed. Miller's protagonist, Joe Keller, is an affable and pleasant man with a
strong sense of family loyalty, but his values have been shaped by a prevalent American belief that human
success and worth can best be measured by how many things a person owns.
Joe believes that his son's love is based on material concerns. The fact that Chris wants Joe to atone for his
crime finally forces him to recognize his guilt.
Tragic Flaw
Joe lets a love of materialism and fear cloud his moral compass. He sets in motion events that have tragic
consequences. Joe fears failure in business, as if, somehow, failure would threaten the love and respect of his
family. Under pressure, that fear leads him to make an ill-considered decision to put the lives of American
pilots at risk by disguising cracked cylinder heads and shipping them to assembly plants.
In addition to being a realistic play, All My Sons has some characteristics of classical drama, notably an
All My Sons: Style 21
adherence to the so-called dramatic unities of time, place, and action. First, it basically observes the
Aristotelian notion that the action should all occur within a twenty-four-hour time period. The action opens in
the morning and ends in the early hours on the morning of the next day.
Second, the action all occurs in one locale, the backyard of the Keller home. Third, although the action is not
continuous, within each of the three acts the action is continuous, and the three acts are arranged
chronologically, as is the standard practice in most realistic plays. Breaks between acts are in part used to
indicate the passage of time in the play's action.
All My Sons: Historical Context
In March of 1947, President Harry S. Truman presented the Truman Doctrine to the U.S. Congress. The
Truman Doctrine was an anti-communist declaration that would shape American foreign policy for over four
decades. With the Cold War heating up, fears of an international communist conspiracy were rapidly growing.
The Truman Doctrine was meant to alleviate some of those very fears.
The now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its very visible investigations
of alleged communist influence in Hollywood, resulting in the jailing and blacklisting of witnesses who
refused to cooperate with investigators. The FBI, meanwhile, looked for evidence of communist infiltration in
America; for example, they concluded that Frank Capra's classic Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life, was
little more than insidious communist propaganda.
To counter the growing spread of communism in Eastern Europe and Asia, the United States took positive
steps to help rebuild the war-torn countries of both its allies and its former enemies, including Germany and
Japan. On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall announced his plan for the economic recovery of
Europe. With the Brussels Treaty of March 17, 1948, the Western European Union, the forerunner of the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was formed.
Meanwhile, King Michael of Romania abdicated, bringing another European country into the Soviet bloc.
India and Pakistan were granted independence from Great Britain. In that same year, Mother Teresa left her
Loreto order to move into the slums of Calcutta to establish her first school.
In Roswell, New Mexico in July, 1947, there was a rash of UFO sightings and the reported crash of an alien
space ship, the basis for what many still consider a lame government cover-up of the truth. Also that summer,
Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player to play in the Major Leagues, had joined the
Brooklyn Dodgers and was on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year award.
In cinema, Elia Kazan, the director of All My Sons, won an Oscar for his direction of Gentlemen's Agreement,
a film about anti-Semitism. Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier in October 1947.
Breaking a different kind of barrier, Bell Telephone Laboratories introduced the transistor, the first important
Postwar breakthrough in the evolution of microelectronics, fundamental in the development of the
post-industrial, information-age technology of the late twentieth century.
All My Sons: Critical Overview
All My Sons was Arthur Miller's first successful play on Broadway. In hindsight, it may seem that the work
lacks the great imaginative force of his next play, Death of Salesman (1949), still widely regarded as his
masterpiece, but in All My Sons, Miller certainly showed that he could both use dialogue very well and
construct a riveting drama in the tradition of social realism.
All My Sons: Historical Context 22
Miller was fortunate to have as his director Elia Kazan, whose mercurial career was then rapidly rising, and an
excellent cast, headed by Ed Begley as Joe Keller, Beth Merrill as Kate, Arthur Kennedy as Chris, Lois
Wheeler as Ann Deever, and Karl Malden as her brother, George. In most reviews, the quality of the
production was recognized and applauded. The play chalked up a run of 328 performances and garnered the
New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. It was an impressive achievement for a new and virtually unknown
The work did not receive uniform raves, but it did win the approval of some influential critics, notably Brooks
Atkinson of the The New York Times, the city's most distinguished newspaper. In his autobiography,
Timebends, Miller says, ‘‘It was Brooks Atkinson's campaign for All My Sons that was responsible for its
long run and my recognition as a playwright.’’
Among other things, Atkinson defended the play against those who took umbrage with Miller's depiction of
an American businessman as one who puts material comfort and success above moral responsibility. For
Atkinson, the play was ‘‘the most talented work by a new author in some time,’’ and though he recognized
the important contribution of Kazan and the cast to the play's power, he credited Miller with devising a
‘‘pitiless analysis of characters that gathers momentum all evening and concludes with both logic and
dramatic impact.’’
Most reviewers recognized Miller's great promise even while finding flaws in the work. For Joseph Wood
Krutch, the plot of the drama was ‘‘almost too neat.’’ ‘‘The pieces,’’ Krutch argued, ‘‘fit together with
the artificial, interlocking perfection of a jigsaw puzzle, and toward the end one begins to feel a little
uncomfortable to find all the implicit ironies so patly illustrated and poetic justice working with such
mechanical perfection.’’ Moreover, Krutch took issue with Miller's ‘‘warm respect for all the leftist
pieties’’ and complained that the playwright's ‘‘intellectual convictions’’ are ‘‘more stereotyped than his
dramatic imagination.’’
That Miller imposed a classical structure on a social problem play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen and Anton
Chekhov was recognized by his reviewers, whether leftist in sympathies, like Atkinson, or conservative, like
Krutch. The influence of both Ibsen and Chekhov is noted by John Mason Brown, who views Dr. Bayliss as a
Chekhovian interloper, and in the ‘‘spiritual stripteasing’’ of his main character, the use of symbolism, and
his digging into the past to reveal the present and ‘‘rush forward to a new climax’’ the abiding and
persistent influence of Ibsen.
To some critics, All My Sons also reflected the influence of classical tragedy. In the play, Kappo Phelan wrote,
Miller ‘‘attempted and delivered a tragedy,’’ and the play is, in fact, the playwright's first successful
attempt to create what he would later call ‘‘a tragedy of the common man.’’ There are clear parallels to
such Sophoclean tragedies as Oedipus Rex, both in structure and technique.
Both leftist ideology and the classical influence would keep All My Sons in the limelight until Death of a
Salesman replaced it as the cynosure of critical attention. With that play, Miller came as close as any
playwright before or since to demonstrate the validity of his assertion that tragedy is possible in a modern,
egalitarian democracy. For that play, as well as The Crucible and View from the Bridge, All My Sons provided
a firm foundation in both its theme of guilt and expiation and its tragic elements and structure.
All My Sons: Essays and Criticism
All My Sons: Critical Overview 23
Comparing Miller's Play with Sophocle's Oedipus Rex
Writing in 1929, almost two full decades before All My Sons opened on Broadway, critic Joseph Wood Krutch
wrote a celebrated essay entitled ‘‘The Tragic Fallacy.’’ His thesis was that modern audiences could not
fully participate in the experience of tragedy because the tragic spirit, so vital and alive in the past, had simply
stopped haunting the human landscape. Modern man no longer had tragedy's requisite belief, if not in God or
some other power greater than man, then at least in man.
Tragedy, opined Krutch, depended on what he termed the ‘‘tragic fallacy,’’ the ‘‘assumption which man
so readily makes that something outside his own being, some ‘spirit not himself’—be it God, Nature, or that
still vaguer thing called a Moral Order—joins him in the emphasis which he places upon this or that and
confirms him in his feelings that his passions and his opinions are important.’’ Because of the ‘‘universally
modern incapacity to conceive man as noble,’’ Krutch maintained that dramatists could no longer create
tragedies, only ‘‘those distressing modern works sometimes called by its [tragedy's] name,’’ works that,
rather than celebrate a ‘‘triumph over despair’’ while exhibiting a ‘‘confidence in the value of human
life,’’ simply depicted man's haplessness and insignificance.
For Krutch, modern man's diminished stature makes a character like Oswald Alving of Ibsen's Ghosts a far
more ‘‘relevant’’ character than Shakespeare's Hamlet. Krutch essentially indicts his contemporaries for
allowing the tragic light to fade from the universe.
Arthur Miller, as he makes clear in his early plays All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A
View from the Bridge, was unwilling to admit that the light was gone. For him, a tragic consciousness still
existed, even in the most ordinary sort of people. As he wrote in his piece called ‘‘Tragedy and the Common
Man,’’ he believed that ‘‘the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who
is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing, his sense of personal dignity.’’
Moreover, Miller claimed, ‘‘the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings
were,’’ a heretical view for those critics whose definition of tragedy was largely delimited by Aristotle's
Orrin Klapp, pondering what he called Americans' ‘‘armor against tragic experience,’’ found a partial
explanation for it in the ‘‘actual shrinkage in the stature of the heroes being presented,’’ a reduction in
human significance that made it almost impossible ‘‘to see them as having the dignity necessary to be
A scene from the film adaptation of All My Sons.
Comparing Miller's Play with Sophocle's Oedipus Rex 24
For Miller, nobility of soul is not contingent upon rank at all; it rather rests on an individual's moral integrity
and, at the last, a willingness to face the consequence of a fateful decision and shoulder its attendant guilt.
All My Sons was Miller's first attempt to write such a tragedy of the common man, and although with Death of
a Salesman, his next play, he made almost a quantum leap forward in technique, in the former work he created
a prototype for all his common-man, familial tragedies, including the latter. In it he welded features of
classical tragedy to the realistic thesis play in the tradition of Ibsen, maintaining a surface verisimilitude while
advancing a plot designed in accordance with the logic of causality and plausible human motives.
Academically at least Sophocles seems to haunt All My Sons. As more than one critic has noted, the parallels
between Miller's play and the Greek tragedian' s masterpiece, Oedipus Rex, are readily apparent. W. Arthur
Boggs maintains, for example, that like Oedipus Rex, Miller's play is a ‘‘tragedy of recognition.’’
There is, of course, one major and obvious difference: the works do not share a commensurate tragic scope.
The hamartia of Oedipus, the killing of his father, has consequences not just for his family but for the entire
city state of Thebes; Keller's hamartia, his transgression against a clear moral imperative, has primary
consequences, at least among the living, only for his family and close associates.
However, both Oedipus and Joe Keller are patriarchs. Both are asked to solve a problem, which, unknowingly
or unconsciously, they have themselves created. And both must confront the truth, shoulder their terrible guilt,
and respond by inflicting punishment upon themselves—Oedipus by blinding himself and exiling himself from
Thebes, and Joe Keller by taking his own life.
Oedipus Rex and All My Sons share a similar pattern and structure, a common tragic rhythm. As Robert
Hogan notes, both works involve ‘‘the revelation of a criminal whose crimes have occurred years earlier’’
and which has become ‘‘the crux of the present action.’’ In other words, both plays deal with untying the
knot of a devastating and destructive truth that has been the source of a sickness that cannot be cured until it is
recognized and faced by the protagonist. The sickness in Oedipus Rex, a plague, afflicts the entire community
of Thebes; in All My Sons, it takes the form of a family's failure to deal with the death of a son.
Furthermore, both Oedipus Rex and All My Sons deal with the transgression of one or more universal taboos
and thus have strong moral focus. In the former, Oedipus violates taboos against incest and parricide; in the
latter, Joe Keller ‘‘kills’’ his son, Larry, and his spiritual sons, the twenty-one fighter pilots who die as a
result of his actions.
Oedipus must first discover the truth of what he has done, while Joe must own up to the consequences of what
he knows he has done and accept responsibility and guilt. Both protagonists in some sense lack knowledge,
sharing a blindness to truth that is only cured when their ignorance, in a tragic recognition or epiphany, is
sloughed off and they finally see clearly for the first time—even as their understanding destroys them.
Ironically, their insight is the necessary recompense without which tragedy has no positive meaning and no
power to elate rather than simply depress an audience.
Oedipus Rex comes from an age that accepted one premise alien to the modern mind: the victimization of
‘‘innocent’’ offspring used against their parents as instruments of divine justice. It is Oedipus's unavoidable
destiny that he should murder his father and marry his mother, atoning for their affront to the gods. A raw
deal, perhaps, but Oedipus, who learns of his fate from the Oracle at Delphi as a young man, tries to defy the
will of the gods by averting his fate. Not knowing that he is only the foster child of the king and queen of
Corinth, he flees that city and, ironically, runs headlong into his fate. His defiance and resulting conviction
that he has escaped his fate are evidence of his tragic flaw, his hubris, which, paradoxically, is also the source
of his greatness.
Comparing Miller's Play with Sophocle's Oedipus Rex 25
Although Miller could hardly incorporate such a view of divine justice into All My Sons, he employs a modern
parallel of sorts. Joe's actions victimize his innocent sons, Larry and Chris, both of whom have ethical
principles that could never condone what their father has done.
Joe also shares some of Oedipus's pride and arrogance. After leaving Corinth, Oedipus had struggled to regain
the princely stature he sacrificed in his attempt to escape his divinely-ordained fate. By virtue of his strength,
he survives a fateful encounter on the road, unwittingly committing parricide, and, through his intelligence, he
solves the riddle of the Sphinx, becoming king of Thebes and unwittingly marrying Joscasta, his own mother.
As depicted by Sophocles, he repeatedly displays pride in his accomplishments, his rise to the throne of
Thebes by merit rather than influence, and displays almost paranoid suspicions towards his uncle and
brother-in-law, Creon, who, he believes, is jealous and resents him. In his mocking of the blind prophet,
Tiresias, who, he suspects, is part of Creon's conspiracy to usurp the throne, he is nearly blasphemous in his
Joe Keller is also a proud man. Through hard work, he has made his way up in the world, from semi-skilled
laborer to factory owner and become one of the richest men in town. He is confident in Chris's faith and trusts
in him and cares little about what neighbors like Sue Bayliss believe about his culpability in the matter of the
cracked cylinder heads.
However, his equanimity and affability dissolve with the arrival of Ann Deever, and then her brother, George.
Like Oedipus, Joe suspects the motives of others. He mistrusts Ann, daughter to a man he left in prison to pay
for what was his own crime. The Deevers, ghosts from the past, are a threat to Joe, not just because of what
their father might have told them but because they can and do force a familial showdown, something that Joe
has assiduously avoided. Ann and Chris want to marry, but they will not as long as Kate Keller clings to her
hope that Larry Keller is still alive. If she must accept Larry's death, then she will hold Joe responsible for it,
something that neither Kate nor Joe can face.
The Deevers are like the Sophoclean messengers who bear fateful information. They confirm that Joe ordered
the welding of the cracked cylinder heads and that he was the cause of his son's death. Ann even bears a letter
from Larry, in which, shamed by his father, Larry confides that he is setting out on a suicidal mission.
George, on the other hand, is an interesting parallel to the messenger from Corinth in Oedipus Rex, the one
who comes to announce the deaths of the king and queen of that city, temporarily allaying Oedipus's fears
and, thereby, briefly turning the tide against the tragic direction of the play. There is a similar reversal in All
My Sons, when George, disarmed by the amiability of Kate Keller, begins to accept Joe's account of his father
as a weak man, the one who made the sole decision to send on the defective airplane parts. Only when Kate
inadvertently lets slip the fact that Joe was not sick on the fateful day does George begin to confront Joe
The influence of classical tragedy on All My Sons also resonates in other ways. For example, the idea of
destiny or fate is introduced by Frank Lubey, the amateur and inept astrologer. He tries to convince Kate that
there is hope that Larry is still alive because the day he was lost in action was, according to his horoscope, a
propitious and fortunate day for him. There is also the virtual observance of the unities of time, place, and, to
a degree, action, and a set that suggests the standard skene of Greek tragedy.
For some of the critics of the play, Miller seemed to be crowding such devices of tragedy into the somewhat
unreceptive frame of realistic drama, jamming them into a confused situation made more confused by their
inclusion or, as in the case of the letter in Ann's possession, making them a bit too convenient and coincidental
to pass muster as a device suited to the probability demanded by realism. To Boggs, for example, All My Sons
lacks the precision and simple and direct focus of Oedipus Rex and, therefore, fails.
Comparing Miller's Play with Sophocle's Oedipus Rex 26
Still, All My Sons is the first effort by one of America's major post-World War II dramatists, albeit
unconsciously, to contest Krutch's thesis of the impossibility of modern tragedy. Although in All My Sons
Miller may not have succeeded according to critics, he at least succeeded in raising expectations. In fact,
many commentators came to believe that the playwright was just one work shy of a masterpiece, which, two
years later, graced the American theater in the guise of Death of a Salesman.
Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Fiero is a Ph.D., now retired, who formerly
taught drama and playwriting at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and is now a freelance writer and
The Living and the Dead in All My Sons
Looked at superficially, Arthur Miller's All My Sons may appear to be simply a social thesis play. Such
classification—a valid one if severely qualified—is suggested both by the timeliness of the story and by the
presence of considerable overt social criticism. The story itself is obviously calculated to engage the so-called
social conscience. Stated in the simplest terms, the play dramatizes the process by which Joe Keller, a small
manufacturer, is forced to accept individual social responsibility and, consequently, to accept his personal
guilt for having sold, on one occasion during World War II fatally defective airplane parts to the government.
However, while this bare-bone synopsis is essentially accurate, it does, in fact, do violence to the actual
complexity of the play. In his well-known essay, ‘‘Tragedy and the Common Man,’’ Miller comments,
Our lack of tragedy may be partially accounted for by the turn which modern literature has
taken toward the purely psychiatric, or purely sociological.… From neither of these views can
tragedy derive, simply because neither represents a balanced concept of life.
What is reflected here is Miller's own careful avoidance of the ‘‘purely’’ this or that. And it might similarly
be said that no satisfactory understanding of Miller's All My Sons may be derived from a criticism which
commits itself to a ‘‘purely’’ or even predominantly sociological or psychiatric view. The sociological view
is particularly limiting in that it carries with it the temptation to approach the dramatic action from the level of
broad socio-cultural generalizations and, consequently, to oversimplify character and action and, stumbling
among subtleties of characterization, to accuse the playwright of a confusion of values which belongs
appropriately to the characters in their situations.
Actually, like most of Miller's plays, All My Sons demands of the reader an awareness of the deviousness of
human motivation, an understanding of the way in which a man's best qualities may be involved in his worst
actions and cheapest ideas, and, in general, a peculiarly fine perception of cause and effect. Nowhere is it
suggested that the social realities and attitudes that are brought within the critical focus of the play can be
honestly considered outside of some such context of human aspirations and weaknesses as is provided by the
play; and nowhere is it suggested that the characters are or can be judged strictly on the basis of some simple
social ethic or ideal that might be deduced from the action. The characters do not simply reflect the values and
attitudes of a particular society; they use those values and attitudes in their attempt to realize themselves. And
it is these characteristics that give All My Sons, and other Miller plays, a density of texture so much greater
than that of the typical social thesis play, which seeks not only to direct but to facilitate ethical judgments
upon matters of topical importance.
For most of us there is no difficulty in assenting to the abstract proposition which Chris puts to his mother at
the end of the play:
The Living and the Dead in All My Sons 27
You can be better! Once and for all you can know now that the whole earth comes through
those fences; there's a universe outside and you're responsible to it.
And there is no problem either in giving general intellectual assent to the morality of brotherhood for which
Chris speaks. There is, however, considerable difficulty in assenting to the actual situation at the end of the
play, in accepting it as a simple triumph of right over wrong. For the play in its entirety makes clear that Joe
Keller has committed his crimes not out of cowardice, callousness, or pure self-interest, but out of a
too-exclusive regard for real though limited values, and that Chris, the idealist, is far from acting
disinterestedly as he harrows his father to repentance.
Joe Keller is a successful small manufacturer, but he is also ‘‘a man whose judgment must be dredged out of
experience and a peasant-like common sense.’’ Like many uneducated, self-made men, he has no capacity
for abstract considerations; whatever is not personal or at least immediate has no reality for him. He has the
peasant's insular loyalty to family which excludes more generalized responsibility to society at large or to
mankind in general. At the moment of decision, when his business seemed threatened, the question for him
was not basically one of profit and loss; what concerned him was a conflict of responsibilities—his
responsibility to his family, particularly his sons to whom the business was to be a legacy of security and joy,
versus his responsibility to the unknown men, engaged in the social action of war, who might as a remote
consequence suffer for his dishonesty. For such a man as Joe Keller such a conflict could scarcely exist and,
given its existence, could have only one probable resolution.
When the worst imaginable consequence follows—twenty-two pilots killed in Australia—Keller is nonetheless
able to presume upon his innocence as established before the law. For in his ethical insularity—an insularity
stressed in the play by the hedged-in backyard setting—he is safe from any serious assault of conscience so
long as he can believe that the family is the most important thing and that what is done in the name of the
family has its own justification. Yet, he is not perfectly secure within his sanctuary. His apparently thick skin
has its sensitive spots: in his unwillingness to oppose his wife's unhealthy refusal to accept her son Larry's
death, in his protest against Ann Deever's rejection of her father, in his insistence that he does not believe in
‘‘crucifying a man,’’ and in his insistence that Chris should use what he, the father, has earned, ‘‘with joy
… without shame … with joy,’’ he betrays a deep-seated fear. His appeal on behalf of Herb Deever (Act I) is
in fact, partly a covert appeal on his own behalf, an appeal for merciful understanding called forth by the
shocked realization that some considerations may override and even destroy the ties of family upon which his
own security rests.
It is Chris Keller who, in reaching out for love and a life of his own, first undermines and then destroys this
security altogether. Chris has brought out of the war an idealistic morality of brotherhood based on what he
has seen of mutual self-sacrifice among the men whom he commanded. But he has not survived the war
unwounded; he bears a still-festering psychological wound, a sense of inadequacy and guilt. He has survived
to enjoy the fruits of a wartime economy, and he fears that in enjoying them he becomes unworthy,
condemned by his own idealism. Even his love for Ann Deever, the sweetheart of his dead brother, has
seemed to him a guilty desire to take advantage of the dead to whom he somehow owes his life.
As the play opens, however, he has decided to assert himself, to claim the things in life and the position in life
which he feels should rightfully be his, and as the initial step he has invited Ann to his family home. His
decision brings him into immediate conflict with his mother, Kate Keller, who looks upon the possible
marriage between Chris and Ann as a public confirmation of Larry's death. At first Joe Keller seems only
peripherally involved in this conflict; his attempt to evade Chris's demand that Kate be forced to accept
Larry's death carries only ambiguous suggestions of insecurity. However, at the end of Act II, Kate,
emotionally exhausted by the fruitless effort to use George Deever's accusations as a means of driving out
Ann, and opposed for the first time by the declared disbelief of both husband and son, breaks down and
reveals the actual basis of her refusal: if Chris lets Larry go, then he must let his father go as well. What is
The Living and the Dead in All My Sons 28
revealed here is that Kate is fundamentally like her husband; only what is personal or immediate is real for
her. If Larry is alive, then, in a sense, the war has no reality, and Joe's crimes do not mean anything; their
consequences are merely distant echoes in an unreal world. But if Larry is dead, then the war is real, and Joe
is guilty of murder, even, by an act of association, guilty of murdering his own son. Her own desperate need to
reject Larry's death against all odds and upon whatever flimsy scrap of hope has been the reflex of her need to
defend her relation to her husband against whatever in herself might be outraged by the truth about him.
Actually, however, Kate has ‘‘an overwhelming capacity for love’’ and an ultimate commitment to the
living which makes it possible for her to ‘‘let Larry go’’ and rise again to the defense of her husband at the
end. It is Larry living not Larry dead that she clings to, and she does this because to admit his death would
make both life and love more difficult. Moreover, as is generally true of Miller's important women, Kate's
final loyalty is to her husband; to him as a living, substantial being, she, like Linda in Death of a Salesman,
has made an irrevocable commitment in love and sympathy, which no knowledge about him can destroy.
Chris, on the other hand, is incapable of any such surrender of the letter of morality in the name of love or
mercy; he cannot, as his father would have him, ‘‘see it human.’’ At the rise of the curtain in Act II, Chris
is seen dragging away the remains of Larry's memorial tree. The action is clearly symbolic; Chris, because of
his own needs, has determined to free the family of the shadow of self-deception and guilt cast over it by the
memory of Larry, to let in the light of truth. Yet, when the light comes, he is less able to bear it than the
others. Ann, in the hope of love and marriage, rejects the seeds of hatred and remorse which her brother,
George, offers her, and Kate sacrifices the dead son to the living father. But Chris has too much at stake; his
life must vindicate the deaths of those who died in the war, which means that he must maintain an ideal image
of himself or else be overwhelmed by his own sense of guilt. Because he is closely identified with his father,
his necessary sense of personal dignity and worthiness depends upon his belief in the ideal image of his father;
consequently, he can only accept the father's exposure as a personal defeat.
It becomes clear in the exchange between Chris and George Deever (Act II) that Chris has suspected his father
but has suppressed his suspicions because he could not face the consequences—the condemnation of the father,
whom he loves, and the condemnation of himself as polluted by sharing in the illicit spoils of war. Yet, this is
precisely what the exposure of Joe Keller forces upon him, and Joe's arguments in self-defense—that he had
expected the defective parts to be rejected, that what he did was done for the family, that business is business
and none of it is ‘‘clean’’—all shatter upon the hard shell of Chris's idealism not simply because they are, in
fact, evasions and irrelevant half-truths, but because they cannot satisfy Chris's conscience. Consequently,
even after Larry's suicide letter has finally brought to Joe a realization of his personal responsibility, Chris
must go on to insist upon a public act of penance. The father becomes, indeed, a kind of scapegoat for the son;
that is, if Joe expiates his crimes through the acceptance of a just punishment, then Chris will be relieved of
his own burden of paralyzing guilt. His love of his father and his complicity with his father will then no longer
imply his own unworthiness. In insisting that Joe must go to prison, Chris is, in effect, asking Joe to give him
back his self-respect, so that he may be free to marry Ann and assume the life which is rightfully his. But
Chris's inability to accept his father ‘‘as a man’’ leads Joe to believe that not only have his defenses
crumbled but that the whole basis of his life is gone, and he kills himself.
Because it forces upon the reader an awareness of the intricacies of human motivation and of human
relationships, All My Sons leaves a dual impression: the action affirms the theme of the individual's
responsibility to humanity, but, at the same time, it suggests that the standpoint of even so fine an ideal is not
an altogether adequate one from which to evaluate human beings, and that a rigid idealism operating in the
actual world of men entails suffering and waste, especially when the idealist is hagridden by his own ideals.
There is no simple opposition here between those ‘‘who know’’ and those who ‘‘must learn,’’ between
those who possess the truth and those who have failed to grasp it, between the spiritually well and the
spiritually sick. Moreover, the corruption and destruction of a man like Joe Keller, who is struggling to
preserve what he conceives to be a just evaluation of himself in the eyes of his son, implies, in the context of
the play, a deficiency not only in Keller's character but in the social environment in which he exists. Keller's
The Living and the Dead in All My Sons 29
appeal to the general ethics of the business community—
If my money's dirty there ain't a clean nickel in the United States. Who worked for nothin' in
that war? … Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? … It's
dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it's nickels and dimes, what's clean?
—is irrelevant to his personal defense; yet, it is an indictment of that community nonetheless. For it indicates
that the business community failed to provide any substantial values which might have supplemented and
counter-balanced Keller's own limited, family-based ethics. From the business community came only the
impulse to which Chris also responds when he feels prompted to express his love for Ann by saying, ‘‘I'm
going to make a fortune for you!’’
Furthermore, there is a sense in which Kate's words, ‘‘We were all struck by the same lightning,’’ are true;
the lightning was the experience of the second World War—a massive social action in which they were all,
willy-nilly, involved. It was the war that made it possible for some to profit by the suffering and death of
others and that created the special occasion of Joe Keller's temptation, which led in turn to his son Larry's
suicide and his wife's morbid obsession. Chris Keller and George Deever brought something positive out of
the war—an ideal of brotherhood and a firmer, more broadly based ethic—but George, as he appears in the play,
is paying in remorse for the principles that led him to reject his father, and Chris's idealism is poisoned at the
source by shame and guilt, which are also products of his war experience and which make it impossible for
him to temper justice with mercy either for himself or anyone else.
Source: Arvin R. Wells, ‘‘The Living and the Dead in All My Sons’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 7, no. 1, May,
1964, pp. 46-51.
Arthur Miller: 1947
A dramatic critic eminent among dramatic critics recently wrote an article which suggested that plays
‘‘about something’’ were generally duds. The article was either very sly or very stupid. It was very sly
insofar as it is unarguable that most plays the premise and sentiment of which we do not accept cannot please
us. What was stupid in the article was to isolate ‘‘plays about something’’ into a special category of plays
that are topical, political or, in some over-all manner, propaganda. Propaganda in the theatre may be defined
as the other fellow's point of view or any position with which we disagree.
All plays are about something, whether or not they have an explicit thesis. Peter Pan is as much about
something as Candida. Cyrano de Bergerac is as clear an expression of something as Bury the Dead. The
Iceman Cometh is as much ‘‘propaganda’’ as Deep Are the Roots. St. Joan is as definitely a preachment as
any play ever presented on Fourteenth Street by the old Theatre Union.
The critic's first job is to make clear what a play is about. Many reviewers are signally inept in the
performance of this simple duty. The reason for this is that they mistake a play's materials for its meaning. It
is as if an art critic were to say that Cézanne's painting is about apples, or to suppose that because religious
subjects were used in many classic paintings all these paintings were necessarily inspired by religious feeling.
An artist generally finds it convenient to use the material he finds closest at hand. What he says with his
material always reveals something personal and distinct that cannot be described comprehensively merely by
stating the materials he has employed. One play about a strike may convey some intimate frustration, another
may be a lyric outburst of youthful aspiration. A slight comedy like Noel Coward's Present Laughter is not so
much a play about the affairs of a successful playwright as a demonstration of a state of mind in which
contempt and indifference to the world have been accepted as a sort of aristocratic privilege.
Arthur Miller: 1947 30
In the Simonov comedy The Whole World Over, which I directed, the subjects of the housing shortage and the
rehabilitation of the veteran are brought into play, but they are not at all the essence of the matter. This
comedy is essentially an image of faith and joy in everyday living, told in the folk tradition of those gay and
sentimental songs which establish the continuity between what is universal in the spirit of the old and the new
Another play that has been variously characterized as a war play or as a play about the returned GI or as an
attack on war profiteers is Arthur Miller's All My Sons. The central character of All My Sons is a small
businessman who during the war sent out defective airplane parts which he hoped would not be used in actual
combat but which he would not recall for fear his army contracts would be canceled and his business and his
family ruined as a result. The play presents the gradual disclosure of these facts to the businessman's younger
son, a former army officer. The revelation brings with it not only a realization that twenty-one boys were
killed as a consequence of the use of the defective material but that the manufacturer's older son—an army
pilot—committed suicide because of his father's crime. The younger son tries to make his father and mother
understand that nothing—not business necessity nor devotion to family—can mitigate the father's guilt. A man
must be responsible not alone to his wife and children but, ultimately, to all men. Failure to act on this
fundamental tenet must inevitably lead to crime.
Contrary to what some reviewers have suggested, the author does not exonerate the central character by
making the ‘‘system’’ responsible for his guilt. Such an explanation is the cogent but desperate excuse that
the guilty man offers, but his son (and the author) emphatically deny his right to use it. There can be no
evasion of the burden of individual human responsibility.
The distorted ‘‘individualism’’ of our day that makes the private good of the individual the final criterion
for human action is shown to be inhuman and destructive, whereas the true individualism of our early
American prophets made the individual responsible to the community. The man who blames society for his
betrayal of it is a weakling and a coward. The individual of Arthur Miller's ethic is the guarantor in his own
person of society's health. The difference between Arthur Miller's individualist and the believer in ‘‘rugged
individualism‘‘ today is that the latter narrows his sense of self so that it extends no further than the family
circle, while the former gives himself the scope of humanity.
What makes the theme of All My Sons increasingly important is that we constantly talk of ‘‘service’’ and
repeat other residual phrases from the religions we inherit while we actually live a daily life devoted to the
pursuit of Power or Success, the most unquestioned symbol of which is money. The real war in modern life is
between a memory of morality and the pressure of ‘‘practicality.’’ We live in a schizoid society. This is an
open secret, but everybody pretends not to see it or condemns as ‘‘idealism’’ any attempt to remedy the
condition. To understand that our double standard is a fatal disease is, as a matter of fact, the first step in a
realistic attitude toward life. We shall see—at a later point of the present article—that it is this realism which a
part of our society at the moment wishes to resist.
Some reviewers complain that the plot of All My Sons is too complicated. For a while I failed to understand
what was meant by this criticism. Then I realized that the whole aspect of the mother's insistence that her son,
reported missing, is alive—her clinging to every prop of belief, including the solace of astrological
assurance—was what struck some of the reviewers as irrelevant. This is a misunderstanding that derives from
thinking of the play as an exposé of war profiteering.
The war-profiteering aspect of the play, I repeat, represents the play's material, not its meaning. What Arthur
Miller is dramatizing is a universal not a local situation. The mother, whose role in the explicit plot of the play
is incidental, is the center of the play's meaning. She embodies the status quo or norm of our present-day ethic
and behavior pattern. It is on her behalf that the husband has committed his crime. She, as well as what she
represents, is his defense. But she cannot consciously accept the consequence of the morality she lives by, for
Arthur Miller: 1947 31
in the end it is a morality that kills her children and even her husband. In order to retain her strength she
cannot abandon her position—everything must be done for one's own—and yet it is this position that has
destroyed what she hopes to protect. She is a ‘‘normal’’ woman, yet she is sick. She suffers from severe
headaches; she is subject to anxiety dreams. She believes in the stars and with fervid complacency maintains
that ‘‘some superstitions are very nice.’’
If there is a ‘‘villain’’ in the piece, it is the mother—the kindly, loving mother who wants her brood to be
safe and her home undisturbed. When her husband, who believes too slavishly in her doctrine—it is the world's
doctrine, and so there can be no fault with it—when her husband breaks down under the logic of her doctrine,
which has made him a murderer, she has no better advice than, ‘‘Be smart! ...’’ Yet she, too, is innocent.
Her son's friend, the doctor, mumbles: ‘‘How many people walking around loose, and they're crazy as
coconuts. Money, money, money, money; you say it long enough, it doesn't mean anything.’’ She answers,
‘‘Oh how I'd love to be around when that happens. You're so childish, Jim! … ’’ She is innocent because she
cannot understand. Not even in the extremity of her grief does she understand. When her son tells her: ‘‘I'm
like everybody else now. I'm practical now. You made me practical,’’ she answers, ‘‘But you have to be.’’
To her dying day, she will remain with this her only wisdom, her only conviction.
Her son cries out: ‘‘The cats in the alley are practical. The bums who ran away when we were fighting were
practical. Only the dead ones weren't practical. But now I'm practical and I spit on myself. I'm going away.’’
This is the essence of the playwright's meaning: ‘‘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 ... This is a zoo, a zoo! ...’’ The mother
is sorry … deeply sorry. ‘‘What more can we be?’’ she asks. ‘‘You can be better!’’ her son answers, and
it is the dramatist's answer as well.
Arthur Miller's talent is a moral talent with a passionate persistence that resembles that of the New England
preacher who fashioned our first American rhetoric. All My Sons rouses and moves us even though it lacks the
supreme fire of poetic vision. The determined thrust of its author's mind is not yet enough to melt or
transfigure us, but in a theatre that has grown slothful it will have to do. Yes, it will do.
Source: Harold Clurman, ‘‘Arthur Miller: 1947,’’ in his Lies Like Truth, Macmillan, 1958, pp. 64-68.
The Theatre
During the war Joe Keller allowed a batch of defective cylinder heads to be incorporated in the aircraft
engines made by his factory. It was a deliberately irresponsible act, but Keller never saw it in that light. To
him, because he accepted no responsibilities outside the circle of his own family and his own business, it
seemed the prudent, the natural, thing to do; to hold up production by declaring the parts defective might in
those frantic urgent times have lost him his Government contract and thus damaged his business and reduced
the size of his sons' inheritance. So the cylinder heads went out to the South West Pacific and caused the death
of twenty-one pilots to whose number (we learn at the end of the play) must be added Keller's elder son.
All this happened two years before the play begins. Keller has almost lived down the scandal caused by a
judicial enquiry at which he contrived to shift the blame on to an associate, who as a consequence is still in
gaol. The associate's daughter, Ann, was the sweetheart of Keller's dead son and now wants to marry the
brother who survived him. This is opposed both by Mrs. Keller, who insists on believing that Larry, whose
death has never been officially confirmed, will turn up again one day, and by Ann's brother, George, who
knows that Keller framed their father and has understandably little use for the family. Bit by bit the full
measure of Keller's guilt becomes apparent to the other characters, and at last even Keller himself is shocked
into the realisation that what he has done amounts, not to an astute though unfortunate trick, but to a major
crime against his fellow-men. The burden of this knowledge is more than he can bear, and he shoots himself.
The Theatre 32
This play—sincere, deft, at times distinguished—is well worth seeing. Its fault is a tendency, not uncommon on
the American stage and screen, to moralise a shade too explicitly; but its virtues—good dialogue, confident
characterisation and strong situations—more than compensate for the undertone of uplift. Its production by the
Company of Four marks an achievement which is painfully rare in London; the cast—only two of whom, I
think, are American—manage to give the impression that they all are. They also act very well. Mr. Joseph
Calleia makes Keller a man whose past villainies, until in a flash of revelation he acknowledges them as such,
cause him only the same sort of mild, embarrassed uneasiness as he might feel if he had a hole in his sock; it
is a very good performance, and so is Miss Margalo Gillmore's as his wife. The others do admirably, too, and
my only criticism of the production is that the tree, alleged to have been blown down in a storm and much
discussed during the first act, had so obviously been the victim of some sharp instrument that distracting and
erroneous suspicions of vandalism obtrude themselves.
Source: Peter Fleming, ‘‘The Theatre’’ in the Spectator, May 21, 1948, p. 612.
All My Sons: Compare and Contrast
1940s: In the aftermath of World War II the industrialized world divided into two armed
superpowers: the Soviet bloc of communist nations and the Western democracies. In the West, the
threat of communism led to suspicion and paranoia at the highest levels of government. Nuclear war
seemed imminent.
Today: The threat of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and United States dissipated with the
economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Instead, the threat of terrorism
reigns as well as the growing nuclear capabilities of rogue states such as Pakistan India Iran, and Iraq.
1940s: The Nuremberg Trials for war crimes and atrocities, which began soon after World War II,
continued into 1949. The trials resulted in the imprisonment or execution of many high-ranking Nazis,
particularly those involved in running the concentration camps, which exterminated millions of
Today: Reaction to genocide in several countries has led to a new call for tribunals to indict and
condemn war criminals. A notable example of a modern war criminal is Serbian president Slobodan
Milosevic, who in 1999 was charged with the mass murder of ethnic Albanians and indicted by the
World Court. Such ‘‘ethnic cleansing’’ has also occurred in other states, including Iraq, Burundi,
and Rwanda.
1940s: In the wake of World War II, concerns about wartime profiteering and unethical practices
were widespread. In the 1950s such concerns would eventually compel President Dwight D.
Eisenhower to warn America about what he called ‘‘the industrial-military complex.’’ War profits
also took the form of stealing the assets of the war's victims.
Today: In light of charges by several Jewish families that Swiss banks cooperated with Nazis during
World War II and expropriated gold stolen from war victims, the whole issue of wartime profiteering
has once more emerged. New concerns have emerged over the role some American industrialists may
have played in the rise of Germany's military in the 1930s.
1940s: Professional sports, with some rare exceptions (boxing, for example) were largely segregated.
It was not until 1947 that the color line in Major League baseball was broken when Jackie Robinson
joined the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League. Until that time, African Americans could play
only in the segregated Negro League.
Today: African Americans successfully compete in professional sports that seemed almost the
exclusive domain of white athletes, notably tennis and golf.
All My Sons: Compare and Contrast 33
All My Sons: Topics for Further Study
Research the problem of profiteering during both World War II and the Cold War. Was it a prevalent
phenomenon? What forms did it take (e.g., cost overruns, ridiculous pricing, fraudulent claims)?
Describe the worst case you can find from your research.
· Trace the influence of either Henrik Ibsen or Anton Chekhov on All My Sons.
Investigate Miller's role in the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC), including his contempt conviction and eventual exoneration. Do you agree with Miller's
position? Give reasons for your answer.
Determine the influence of the politics of the left, including socialism and communism, on the
American theater and cinema during the 1930s and 1940s.
All My Sons: Media Adaptations
All My Sons was adapted as a film in 1948. Chester Erskine wrote the screenplay. Directed by Irving
Reis, the cast included Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller, Burt Lancaster as Chris, Mady Christians
as Kate, Louisa Horton as Ann Deever, and Howard Duff as George Deever. The film is available on
The play was also produced as a television play in 1955 and again in 1987. The 1955 version featured
Albert Dekker, Patrick McGoohan, and Betta St. John in its cast. It is not, however, extant. The 1987
version, directed by John Power, was a television special produced by the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting. It featured Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Michael Learned, Joanna Miles, Aidan Quinn,
Alan Scarfe, Marlow Vella, and James Whitmore. It is not currently available on videocassette.
All My Sons: What Do I Read Next?
Aristotle's Poetics offers a descriptive definition of ancient Greek tragedy. For some theorists, it is the
ultimate critical authority on the nature of tragedy.
Eugene O'Neill, in Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), comes as close as Miller does to writing a
modern, family tragedy.
An important sociological study, The Lonely Crowd (1969), by David Reisman, suggests that modern
America has lost the capacity for guilt (necessary to tragedy).
Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1991, revised edition),
by Christopher Lasch, is a more recent look at American culture and examines the changing cultural
Stuart D. Brandes's study, Warhogs: A History of War Profits in America (1997), is a thorough history
of wartime profiteering in the United States, both before and since World War II.
All My Sons: Bibliography and Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks. ‘‘The Play in Review,’’ in New York Times, January 30, 1947, p. 21.
---. ‘‘Welcome Stranger,’’ in New York Times, February 9, 1947, sec. 2, p. 1.
Boggs, W. Arthur. ‘‘Oedipus and All My Sons,’’ in the Personalist, Vol. 42, 1961, pp. 555-60.
Brown, John Mason. ‘‘New Talents and Arthur Miller,’’ in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 30, March
1, 1947, pp. 22-4.
All My Sons: Topics for Further Study 34
Hewes, Henry. ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Famous American Plays of the 1940s. Dell Publishing, 1960, p. 15.
Hogan, Robert. Arthur Miller. University of Minnesota Press, 1964, p. 17.
Klapp, Orrin E. ‘‘Tragedy and the American Climate of Opinion,’’ in Tragedy: Vision and Form, edited by
Robert W. Corrigan, 2nd edition. Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 252- 62.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. ‘‘Drama,’’ in Nation, Vol. 164, February 15, 1947, pp. 191, 193.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. ‘‘The Tragic Fallacy,’’ in Tragedy: Vision and Form, edited by Robert W. Corrigan,
2nd edition. Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 227-37.
Miller, Arthur. ‘‘Tragedy and the Common Man,’’ in Tragedy: Vision and Form, edited by Robert W.
Corrigan, 2nd edition. Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 168-70.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. Grove Press, 1987, p. 138.
Phelan, Kappo. ‘‘The Stage and Screen: All My Sons,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 45, February 14, 1947, pp.
Further Reading
Adam, Julie. Versions of Heroism in Modern American Drama: Redefinitions by Miller, Williams, O'Neill and
Anderson. St. Martin's Press, 1991. Examining and comparing the protagonists of major American
playwrights who attempted to write tragedy, Adam finds that their heroism can fit into distinct categories:
idealism, martyrdom, self-reflection, and survival.
Gross, Barry. ‘‘All My Sons and the Larger Context,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 18, 1975, pp. 15-27. Gross
examines Joe Keller and his son Chris in light of Miller's aim to create a play functioning as ‘‘legislation,’’
exhibiting a strong social purpose, and examines the generation gap between the father and son.
Hayman, Ronald. Arthur Miller. Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1972. In this brief monograph, Hayman offers a
good critical introduction to Miller's earliest plays. Hayman concludes that Miller's principal concern is with
cause and effect.
Hogan, Robert. Arthur Miller. University of Minnesota Press, 1964. A brief work in the pamphlet series on
American writers, Hogan's study is a critical overview of Miller's early works up to and including After the
Fall. It notes the similarity of structure between All My Sons and Oedipus Rex.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. Grove Press, 1987. Miller's autobiography offers insights to all his work
written into the 1980s. He offers personal reflections on his plays.
Moss, Leonard. Arthur Miller. Twayne Publishers, 1967. Moss examines Miller's ‘‘technical resources,’’
his ‘‘dialogue styles, narrative conventions, symbolic devices, and structural principles.’’
Moss, Leonard. ‘‘Arthur Miller and the Common Man's Language,’’ in Modern Drama, 7 (1964), pp. 52-9.
Moss's article explores Miller's tendency to use ordinary speech for the expression of ethical abstractions. It
uses All My Sons to illustrate some of its points.
Wells, Arvin R. ‘‘The Living and the Dead in All My Sons,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 7, 1964, pp. 46-51.
This article argues that All My Sons and other Miller plays have a ‘‘density of texture’’ that is much greater
than that of a ‘‘typical social thesis play.’’

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