All My Sons appears on the Leaving Cert English Comparative course this year.
Having read the novel and thought the comparative study before, I have made the following key notes on the text and on the character of Joe.
I hope these are of some use to teachers and students alike 🙂
All My Sons
- Miller described this play as exploring the “relatedness” of people. Chris often acts as the mouthpiece of Miller’s ideals, particularly when he speaks about everything being destroyed around him, but one new thing being made, “a kind of . . . responsibility. Man for man”. The kind of responsibility that is born out of a concern for the common welfare, and that binds men and women together in a common struggle, is the same kind of responsibility that will ultimately save us from the kind of destruction that has rained down on the Keller household.
- The play is an assertion of the need for the individual to accept full responsibility for his actions, to acknowledge the reality of a world in which the idea of brotherhood is an active principle rather than simple piety. It is to be regarded as a sever attack on materialism which stands at odds with human values, on a war-profiteer’s drive for profits based on an ethic that Familial obligations should come first, even at the expense of his social responsibilities and obligations.
- Joe’s world is carefully constructed of lies to cover up the wrongful deaths caused by his actions. He continues to deny his guilt, and even when he is exposed he rationalizes away his responsibility to the pilots that died. His attempt to evade the consequences for his actions proves futile, and the choices he made in the past are now coming back to plague him. When Joe quietly acknowledges that “they were all my sons”, he recognizes that his priorities were antiquated, a product of a more barbaric time, and ultimately misplaced.
- Assumptions of capitalism are challenged and replaced by a new generation whose values, forged in wartime, are now to be socially and morally operative in peace.
- The aftermath of the depression and further to that the Second World War left a huge imprint on American Life. There was an intense desire to live comfortably, to be settled, to be stable, to be normal. To live an idyllic suburban life. It’s a desire that grips many families even to this day.
- When we first meet the characters in All My Sons it seems they have achieved this idyllic suburban life. When things look too perfect and too good to be true, they usually are. Miller is specific and purposeful with how he presents the characters in the opening moment of the play.
- The two sets of values that are opposed in the play, self-interest versus social responsibility, have collided in the characters of Chris and Joe. Joe felt he had no option but to continue production at his factory rather than risk being shut down: he was thinking of his own interest, which centres on his own immediate family. Chris, on the other hand, wants to do what is right for humanity in general. His vision is wider than Joe’s.
- Examining the confrontation between Joe and Chris in All My Sons, we notice two different notions contradicting each other at a deeper level. For one thing, Joe represents the old generation in his realistic and practical thinking as opposed to Chris who is quite romantic and full of idealism. For another, while Joe puts his family before anything else and sticks to securing the father image and paternal dignity at home, Chris firmly, though superficially, believes that solidarity with the wider outside world beyond the individual family is an ideal way of living. Furthermore, Joe represents those who remained in the country during World War II, and Chris, on the other hand, takes a stance as a war veteran. Needless to say, at the bottom there lies a generation gap in the conflict. The conflict, however, constitutes a bit more complicated structure.
- As a manufacturer of airplane parts, Keller knowingly shipped cracked cylinder heads to the U.S army in WWII. As a consequence, 21 pilots died when their planes crashed in Australia. Joe justifies his actions saying that he did it for his family and for the benefit of his prosperous business.
- He is representative of an older generation who did not have access to Higher Education, whose entire world centred was around his family. He is blind of his own ‘greed’, preferring to think of himself as a man among men, minding his own business, literally and figuratively.
- He argues that no one ‘worked for nothing in that war’, insisting that if he had to go to jail, ‘half of the Goddam country’ is similarly culpable.
- In Joe’s world, he believes he has done nothing wrong because he put his family first. His individual responsibility to his family is more important that his responsibility to society at large. It never enters his mind that he’s responsible for the death of the pilots who went down in planes with his faulty parts. Joe can further reconcile this responsibility because although Larry’s plane also went down, he never flew that type of plane:‘Those cylinder heads went into P-40’s only. What’s the matter with you? You know Larry never flew a P-40.
- Joe does not want to take responsibility for what he did until the end when Chris forces him to. He fails to understand the wider impact one man can have.
- He’s completely focused on his individual responsibility. And when the truth comes out, that is still where his focus lays. There is nothing more important than the family, than saving the business to give to Chris: “For you, a business for you!”
- Joe lives his life with blinders on. He completely blocks out his responsibility to society and can’t understand Chris’ outburst: ‘I’m his father and he’s my son and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head.’
- Having built up the factory throughout all his life, Joe sees in Chris the ultimate purpose of his business endeavour; he does it all for Chris because his family is all that matters to him. What he does not understand is that Chris, having fought in the war, has become a different man with an entirely different set of values. It is the experience of the war that separates those two generations, a gap that neither of them can successfully bridge again.
- All his life he has struggled to make his way within the capitalist American system, a system he is an integral and actively participating part of. One could even argue that he has achieved the American Dream. Therefore, his entire set of values is built on a reliance upon and loyalty towards himself and his family. Indeed, his intrinsic understanding of the competitive society he lives in probably puts his acquired property and wealth on the same level with his wife and offspring in terms of its importance and value to him.
- Joe Keller grew up in a world of materialism and competiveness. According to Joe’s imagination, his well-going business and providing his family with enough money were the most important things in life. Being a good father for Joes means to provide his sons with financial and material stability but most importantly his:“His desire to pass his business on to his sons is rooted in love…and his belief in the sanctity of fatherhood is clear as he cries ‘A father is a father’ and this cry affirms his belief that blood should always be put before outside concerns”. – Susan Abbotson.
- Using this illusion of the sanctity of fatherhood allows Joe to do everything morally right or wrong, social or unsocial, as long as it helps to fulfil his role as a good father:“This desire to bond with his son is, in a sense, what frees him from the moral responsibility, and allows him to ship those faulty parts with a clear conscience.” – Susan Abbotson
- Joe created for himself a morally right world of illusions where his family enjoys uppermost priority and social rules, guilt and social responsibility do not exist. As noted by Arthur Miller in his book Plays published in 1988:His cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe or his society.’Consequently, he denies any responsibility and guilt and insists his innocence.
- As noted by Steven Cenrola in The Critical Response to Arthur Miller: ‘So long as he acts to preserve the welfare of his family, Keller believes that anything he does can be justified. He convinces himself that his side of responsibility in life is to be successful so that he can support his wife and children’.
- The setting of the play described at the beginning of act one also emphasizes Joe’s narrow minded restricted view. Milton’s description of the set is a metaphor for Joe’s range of vision:The stage is hedged on the right and left by tall, closely planted poplars which lend the yard a secluded atmosphere’. – Arthur Miller – Plays
- Though not justifying his shipping out faulty engine parts in wartime, this state of mind does explain why he was capable of committing such a crime in the first place. For him, the tribal law of the family stands above any legislative law imposed by a wider society he co-exists with, but never really feels part of.
- The principal contention is that Keller is wrong in his claim that there is nothing greater than the family, since there is a whole world to which Keller is connected.
- Joe felt he had no option but to continue production at his factory rather than risk being shut down; he was thinking of his own interest which centred around his immediate family.