All My Sons

All My Sons

All My Sons is a gripping post-World War II play by Arthur Miller, that explores the repercussions of a successful businessman’s moral compromise when he knowingly sells defective airplane parts, leading to tragic consequences.

About the Author

Arthur Miller (1915-2005), is an important name among the postwar American dramatists. Born in a prosperous Austrian-Jewish family of New York, he grew up in poverty due to the collapse of his family business by the economy crisis a.k.a. The Great Depression, that hit America in 1929. He was more interested in sports than in studies. He graduated from high school in 1932, but was unable to go to college. His circumstances forced him work to earn money for his studies. Some of his major plays are All My Sons (1947)Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1952), A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964) etc. He received many prestigious awards including the 1949-Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He is generally regarded as an intellectual dramatist, whose plays express moral, social, and political ideas. Some of his critics acknowledge him as a strong critic of contemporary American society, whose views are clear and coherent.

About the Play

All My Sons, which prepares the way for Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, continues the tradition in twentieth century American drama that was established by Eugene O’Neill in Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and by Thornton Wilder in Our Town (1938). In these plays as in Miller’s All My Sons, the authors explore the complex dynamics between individual responsibility and family relationships.

Significance of the Title

The significance of the title is made clear in the conclusion of the play when Keller finally faces the truth of his character and finally accepts the responsibility of his actions. Joe’s role as a father was pivotal to age identity. He was the father of his two sons, Larry and Chris. Joe loses the respect and love of Chris because of his greed and irresponsible behaviour. His unethical actions also caused the death of his second son, Larry. When Larry realises the henious crime committed by his father, his elevated sense of moral responsibility and shame did not allow him to live on and he knowingly crashes his plane. Larry’s letter makes Joe realise that severity of his crime, and he accepts that he has not only killed his own son, but was responsible for the death of twenty-one other young men, who were also like his sons. He realises and confesses that in a way they were all his sons:

I think to him [Larry] they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.”

Significance of the Setting

The setting contributes to the overall theme of the play—unrestraint pursuit of American dream. The setting is a small Midwestern town, shortly after the World War II. It suggests comfort and isolation. The action takes place in “the backyard of Keller home”. Joe’s house, his family and his property is all he has gathered working throughout his life. He made significant advances by using the period of war as an opportunity to prosper—to gather all material and worldly comforts for him and his family. However, he neglected all codes of morals and ethics in his pursuit of American dream. Miller dextrously made the situation and characters interplay in a manner that Joe had to face the consequences of his decisions and deeds: he loses his son, his life, and his family disintegrates.

Thus, the setting representing Keller’s Home, his estate and his family is shown to be of no good to Keller when he shuns morality for material gains.

Symbolism in All My Sons

Miller uses symbolism which foreshadows the coming events. Kellers plant an apple tree in memory of their lost son, Larry. Before the play starts, the tree breaks apart hit by the storm last night. The breaking of the Larry’s tree symbolises the breaking of Larry’s myth and revelation of the secret of Joe’s crime that Joe had somehow managed to hide i.e. being guilty for the death of twenty-one pilots.

The moment when the tree broke is the same when Kate’s dream of Larry also breaks with her sleep:

While I was dreaming of him in the middle of the night, the wind came along and…”

The destruction of the tree by strong winds concurrent with Kate’s dream about her lost son symbolises not only the end of Joe’s deceptions, but the realisation as well that Larry will not return.

Themes of All My Sons

Miller’s All My Son is often regarded by some critics as his first successful play. It provides a glimpse of American middle-class life. Though initially its content and scope seems limited—a manufacturer sells defective airplane parts to the military and then covers up his crime by forcing his partner to take the blame. However, the consequences lead to situations that broadens the scope of the play culminating in the moment when an individual needs to take a moral stand.

The play deals with a number of themes like choices and their consequences, guilt, revenge and punishment, death, forgiveness and atonement (compensation), idealism, etc. which, in turn, highlights the central theme of moral responsibility. The playwright is effectively able to fulfil ‘his’ moral responsibility as he said:

I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

The central character, Joe Keller, is a middle-aged, successful businessman who manufactured parts for military aircraft. At the time of the world, under constant pressure of continuous supply of cylinder heads for the aircraft, he allows a set of defective cylinders to be delivered because he, for the sake of his family, cannot afford to lose the contract with military. To his bad luck, twenty-one pilots die due to the crashing of the planes with defective cylinders. But Keller not only denies his crime rather puts the entire blame on his partner, Steve Deever, who is in jail, in spite of being innocent.

He justifies this action by stating that he did what he did for his family. Though, later the consequences force him to accept the responsibility of his evil deeds. Larry’s letter reveals that he was not only the cause of the death of twenty-one young pilots, but also his own son, Larry. He, realising the severity of his crime, could not forgive himself and commits suicide.

Similarly Chris, his second son also learns the lesson of moral responsibility while he was in the combat where his fellow soldiers cooperated with one another like brothers and made attempts to save his life, overlooking their own safety. He returns from the war as a responsible, philanthropist, and sensible person. Though his idealism turn out to be destructive with his father. Joe suicides and puts him [Larry] under a sense of guilt. However, Kate, his mother tries to console him saying:

Don’t dear. Don’t take it on yourself. Forget now. Live.”

Kate, the mother, also faces the dilemma of choosing between her moral responsibility and her wishful thinking. Even though she was aware of Joe’s crime, she blinds herself and hopes that Joe is innocent. Her emotions stop her from thinking rationally. If she acknowledges and accepts Joe’s crime, she will also have to accept that Larry is dead and that his plane also crashed due to Joe’s fault. Thus, she also runs away from her larger moral responsibility. She evades from reality and escapes into her world of imagination, where Larry is alive.

All My Sons also addresses the material aspect of ‘American Dream’ and its effect on human soul. Joe represents the tension between the need to succeed materially and the responsibility to behave ethically. People often neglect their moral responsibility while pursuing their dreams. The American economy flourished as a result of the World War II, which might have given birth to a sense of guilt among Americans. While Chris lives under the guilt of participating in the War, there were people like Joe who can do anything to make profit and prosper, keeping the morals and ethics aside.


In short, we find that Arthur Miller is successfully able to communicate the harsh truth about the ‘American Dream’. Achieving prosperity and power is no bad thing, but not at the cost of others’ loss. People ought to take into account the moral and ethical obligations. The pilots who died were fighting for their country. The civilians should also play their part in return by behaving morally and leaving their monstrous greed. With All My Sons, Miller lays bare his purpose of writing, which was further explored and expanded in his later works, especially in Death of a Salesman. His contribution to the contemporary American drama is undeniably immense.



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