The American Dream in “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller
Americans are just recovering from the effects of the great depression and the Second World War. Everyone is gripped with the desire to lead a comfortable and urban life. Joe Keller is one such pioneer. He is sixty-one years old and heads a business, which supplies engine parts to the military planes. His love for his family and the need to be prosperous makes him sacrifice his image and reputation. He knowingly supplies faulty engine parts to the military planes against the advice of his company manager, Steve Deever. Of the planes fitted with these faulty parts, twenty-one of them crash killing pilots.
Joe’s own son, Larry, a military pilot, dies en route to China in a related crash. This sets Joe on a collision path with his Family who associates Larrys death to his actions. After investigations on the genesis of the plane crashes, Joe and Steve are arrested and convicted. Joe, however, finds his way out of Jail by framing Steve and claiming innocence on the whole incident. This paper examines the relationship between family members, and each person’s devotion to leaving the American dream, marred by secrets and the unwillingness to reckon the responsibility.
In Miller’s All My Sons, money and responsibility play a huge role as themes, as does loyalty. However, it is an obsession with the American Dream which not only drives the plot but also drives the characters. In a new, better educated America, the main character, Joe Keller, struggles to accept that his hard work and dedication to his business is not enough. Desperate to hand the business down to his son, Keller has committed awful sins against his nearest and dearest in order to keep it alive.
His son, meanwhile, has dreams and desires of his own, ones which are perhaps not quite in keeping with those of his family. It is a combination of this rebellion and his father’s obsession that make this play so absorbing and fascinating. Perhaps the most interesting character in All My Sons is that of Joe Keller, the self-made patriarch with a desperation to pass on his business to his son, but also a colder, more hardened ability to shirk blame and gladly hand it to somebody else.
At the very beginning of Act One, we are introduced to Keller through the stage directions, which state that When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is ith the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose Judgements must be dredged out of experience and a peasant-like common sense. A man among men’ (Miller 5-6). This element of Keller’s nature, his lack of education, is something which appears more than once during the play and has a particular significance.
Keller is something of a self-made man, a hard worker with an almost exaggerated desire to pass on his business to his son, Chris. This burning need to achieve the ‘American Dream’ drives Keller to atrocious behaviour. However, this notion of the ‘American Dream’ has fooled him, it has tricked him into believing that in this new post-war world hard- work is all one needs in order to be respected and good. He rails that “everybody’s garbage [… ] It’s gettin’ so the only dumb ones left are the bosses” (Miller 48). The sensitivity that Joe Keller has regarding his education is fairly clear here.
Keller is unable to keep up with the times, struggling to understand how anybody could make money from old dictionaries – “All the kind of business is goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop. Now…” (Miller 7). Joe Keller has been blinded by his obsession with keeping his secret and his business. Throughout the play, the opinions of others are clearly of great importance to the characters, and for Keller, the thought of losing his business was too much to bear and he was willing to sacrifice literally anything in order to hold on to it.
His only defence of his actions is a need to keep the business going, the business which has become his whole life. He explains to his son, “I’m in business, a man is in business [… ] you got a process, the process don’t work you’re out of business [… they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell’s it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?’ (Miller 69). Of course, the war is a strong undercurrent in this play, and the effect that it has had on its characters is of great interest.
When Keller defends his actions, he argues that everything and everyone has been dirtied by the war, asking his son “Who worked for nothin’ in that Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes, war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?” (Miller 82). Of course, it is Keller’s ‘dirtying with which the play is concerned. Aside from the initial dreadful decision which had such damning repercussions, there is Keller’s need to have his son inherit the business in order to give his own life meaning, and what this need drives him to.
For example, he makes some effort to protect his wife from upset until his son intends to leave and turn down the business. In which case, Keller is willing to break his wife’s heart as it’s ll “only for you, Chris, the whole shootin’-match is for you!” (Miller 17). Keller is cruel and manipulative, willing to appeal to his son’s pity if need be. He tells his son “Chris, I did it for you, it was a chance and I did it for you. I’m sixty-one years old, when would I have another chance to make something for you?” (Miller 70). Here Keller attempts even to lay blame on his son’s shoulders.
Keller’s behaviour and actions were never driven by love for his son (although one cannot comment on whether or not he does indeed feel love for his son), but instead he is driven by an obsession ith an ideal, with the American Dream, and with a fear of how he will be perceived by others. As I previously pointed out, the appearance of oneself before others is a common thread in the play. There is even the ironic moment when Sue, a neighbor, says of the Keller family, “l resent living next door to the Holy Family. It makes me look like a bum” (Miller 45).
The irony being, of course, that the family is anything but holy. Keller tries to seem like an understanding man, sympathizing with his old partner, even though there is a more bitter irony in his words. “There are certain men in the orld who would rather see everybody hung before they’ll take the blame” (Miller 64). This from him is incredible. One wonders if Keller is aware of Just how much this statement applies to him, or if he in genuinely unaware. After all, Chris accuses his The character of Keller’s son, Chris is an interesting one.
In his physical description he is likened to his father, but he Just lacks the lying ability, or the self-serving nature. He struggles with his own American Dream, saying “l don’t know why it is, but every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. My whole bloody life, time after time” (Miller 16). I believe that one could argue that Chris’ feelings stem from being a pawn in his father’s own dream – Chris has never had the opportunity for any individuality, or wants of his own. He and indeed his girlfriend Ann, are shackled by money and expectation.
Sue points out to Ann that “he’s [Chris] got money. That’s important you know.” But Ann insists “It wouldn’t matter to me.” (Miller 44). It is this abandonment of expectation and financial concerns that ultimately frees the couple from the obsession that engulfed Joe Keller and was the ultimate downfall of Ann’s own father. Kate, Joe’s wife still clings to the hopes that Larry, her son, is alive despite having been dead for three years. Her remaining son Chris has to convince her of Larrys death to pave way for his marriage to Ann, a former fiancee to Larry whom he now loves.
Kate’s love for Larry, who by any means is dead, is shown to be strong when she asks a neighbor to determine the favorability of her son’s day of demise through horoscope. When she is confronted by Chris and Keller to accept the reality, she blackmails Keller into supporting her belief, failure to which Larry’s blood would hang on Keller’s shoulders (Novelguide n.). On learning of the planned marriage between his sister Ann and Chris, and given the tension between the two families accessioned by Keller’s framing of Steve, George, brother to Ann goes to prison to inform Steve (his father) of the development.
George, convinced about the innocence of his father, tries to stop the wedding and accuses Keller of all that transpired. He is ordered to leave by Chris so that the wedding plans are not Jeopardized. Kate then unravels to Chris the liability of his father, Keller, on the death of Larry and he confronts his father accusing him of murder and tarnishing the familys reputation Abbotson 39). Kate persuades Keller to turn himself to jail if Chris so pleases. Her emotions about her son’s death are aggravated further when Ann shows her the suicide letter sent by Chris who sacrificed himself for the family to ward them off the shame caused by Keller.
Chris, however, forgives his father and shuns his mother’s thought of turning in their father to jail. His marriage plans with Ann also backfires when Chris decides to travel without her, fearing Ann’s persuasiveness for Keller to be turned in (Miller, 20). Chris then reads aloud the letter, which had been sent by Larry in the presence of Keller. Keller digests the sense that all the pilots killed in the crash, which he caused by supplying faulty parts to the military equals his son Larry. He dashes into his chambers claiming he needs to pick to then drive himself to Jail but instead kills himself by his own gun.
Keller fails to recognize the inadequacy of his achievements in the business though he is determined to pass the inheritance to his son. He, therefore, exploits friend to get away with the kill. Ironically, the son he fghts so much for (Chris) has different ideologies from his and the familys. Keller’s behavior takes un-expected turn with the urge to preserve the family status and pass over what he believes to have earned rightfully to Chris. Chris’ unwillingness to inherit his father’s estate contributes to Keller’s unexpected exit.
In the post war and depression America, Keller is deceived on the ability to earn respect and outstanding reputation through hard work. He scoffs at those people getting education, lamenting that there shall be nobody left for the odd Jobs should everybody get educated (Miller 48). Influence of traditional [conventional beliefs on the American dream. Keller finds it hard keeping with the pace of change and developments in post war America and wonders how anybody would make money from education if not the conventional trade. He is also determined to conceal the traditional dealings of his business and life.
Keller does not take note of others’ views just to ensure that the business and his personal interest are protected and moving. In trying to further the dreams of America by serving in the military, Chris is scolded by Keller who wonders aloud why he should waste his time in the military where they are mistreated when ther opportunities are available for him such as Joining in the trade. He vows to protect his business and life in reference to the new set regulations of doing business since he sees no necessity of conforming to such policies to build the nation (Miller 69).
The undercurrents of the Second World War also affect the developments towards the realization of the American dream adversely. Keller retorts at anything claiming it to have been corrupted by the war. He does not therefore see the need of patriotism, claiming everything done should have a price, as was the case during the ar. In the play, this is a hindrance to the development of post war and depression America as shared in the dreams. Keller presents an old era not willing to breathe fresh air of the modern America and uses his business as bait of drawing his son’s pity.
To him, the spirit adopted during the Second World War where people’s service to the nation had a price tag should continue. He tries to curve a self-centered person out of Chris by claiming that everything he does is for his own good while ignoring the plight of any other person including his neighbors. Deeply, Keller has no love or affection for neither his son nor his interest but is rather obsessed with the others perception and the perspectives of America (Moore n. p).
Chris, on the other hand, is open and selfless in his pursuit of the American dreams. Chris wonders why he has to retreat every time he sets course to achieve anything in order to avert other peoples’ sufferings (Miller 16). Though he comes from a noble family, he never shows his status and encourages a level take off by everyone since they have a common dream and objective to achieve. Both Ann and Chris’ aiden perception to money and status sets them free, unlike Keller whose downfall can be attributed to personal interests.
The same notion is used by the influential and powerful Americans to shift responsibility and blame to the less fortunate in the prefers others to clean up his mess (Vortex n. p).
Inherent themes in the American dream
Most scenes or occurrences try to ascertain ways in which individuals are indebted to their commune, attached undertakings, and the difference between personal and public matters. During the war, Keller’s actions go unperturbed since in is own rights, he is duly bound to himself. He shares nothing with the society.
Chris backs down on his hard stand when he realizes the graveness of the issue, which had the potential of sending Keller to Jail. This comes when he reads a letter written by his fallen brother (Larry) that his father was responsible for his death. He, therefore, sacrifices his ideals.
Though uneducated, Keller is financially successful. It is this success, however, that leads to his downfall when he is blinded by his business sense stemming from the capitalist system.
There is a biased misconception of economic success as the only avenue to the American dream, dwarfing all other aspects, which are also relevant. Other aspects of the dream are sacrificed by Keller to ascend to his economic power. In conclusion, Joe Keller never accepts his guilt fully. He argues and he makes excuses and he even allows someone else to take the flack. This criticism of the American Dream, a notion used by the powerful to control those less so, is made all the more interesting when one considers that the playwright, Arthur Miller, was himself investigated by the House of Un-American Activities.
This period of US history is worth studying in itself (in fact, this is my wife’s topic for her undergraduate dissertation!). Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading and I will hopefully be back with something again soon. Work cited Abbotson, Susan C. W, and Stephen Marino. A Student Handbook to the Plays of Arthur Miller: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, the Crucible, a View from the Bridge, Broken Glass. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Internet resource. Novel guide: All My Sons. Accessed. 16th November 2013. http://www. novelguide. com/all-my-sons/ theme-analysis