Theme: Idealism and Practicality


‘He’s driving my husband crazy with that phony idealism of his, and I’m at the end of my rope on it!’ (Sue, Act Two)

Idealism: The pursuit of high principles, purposes and goals.

Practicality: Matter of fact. Mindful of the results, advantages and disadvantages of an action.

The characters in All My Sons live in two worlds: Idealists and Practical Thinkers. This has been an fascinating theme to analyze. In my head, to be practical is not a bad thing. It is the attribute of someone who is level-headed. But in the play, to be practical or to make practical choices is another form of sacrifice. Those who are practical sacrifice a level of ‘goodness’ as a human being. Chris goes so far to say that to be practical is not to be human. When characters use the work practical, it’s not a compliment.

‘The cats in that 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.’ (Act Three)

Who are the Idealists and who are the Practical Thinkers? Are there any true Idealists in the play?

Chris – Idealist?

Chris is touted as the idealist of the play. He has an idealistic vision of his father. He is horrified that the sacrifices his soldiers made during the war mean nothing back at home. Because of his war experiences, he believes in a higher responsibility to the world at large. He has a hard time, even though he still seems to live quite a comfortable life and never outright rejects his father’s money, with materialism: ‘I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator….Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there’s blood on it.’ (Act One)

He also has a different view of the business than Joe does. He’s willing to leave it behind in order to gain some beauty in his life; he doesn’t want his life to be all about the money. This is the reason he has invited Ann to the house, he wants to propose to her and begin a new life.

But other than these points, it’s the words of the other characters, rather than Chris’ words and actions, that tell us of Chris’ idealism:

  • ‘This one, everything bothers him. You make a deal, overcharge two cents, and his hair falls out.’ (Joe, Act Three)
  • ‘I believed everything because I thought you did.’ (George, Act Two)
  • ‘Whenever I need somebody to tell me the truth I’ve always thought of Chris.’ (Ann, Act Two)
  • ‘Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.’ (Sue, Act Two)

This is always a red flag writing wise – why is the audience told something about Chris’ character and not shown it? Under the surface Chris’ character doesn’t seem so different to Joe’s. When Ann asks if the neighbours talk about her father, Chris is quick to say, ‘Nobody talks about him anymore,’ (Act One) which is not true at all. When Joe’s guilt is finally revealed, Chris declares that indeed he suspected but did nothing about it, nor will he do anything about it. Where are his war time ideals? He says his parents have made him practical because he can’t send his father to jail:

‘I could jail him! I could jail him, if I were human any more. But I’m like everybody else now. I’m practical now. You made me practical…’ (Act Three)

But hasn’t he been more or less practical all along?

Ann – Idealist?

In Act Two Sue calls Ann the ‘female version‘ of Chris. What does that mean exactly? Is it that Ann is an idealist, or does Sue see Ann as a ‘phony’ idealist? Ann puts the pursuit of higher principles above her love for her father. When she believes Steve is responsible for the cracked parts, she cuts off all contact with him. Ann is also very practical when it comes to marrying Chris. She comes to the house determined to get a proposal. She has the ammunition of Larry’s letter, more or less proving his death, in her pocket and bring it out when the Keller’s are most vulnerable:

‘I’m not trying to hurt you Kate. You’re making me do this, now remember you’re – remember. I’ve been so lonely, Kate…. I can’t leave here alone again. You made me show it to you.’ (Act Three)

Larry – Idealist

Joe thinks that Larry was more like him, a practical person: “If Larry were alive he wouldn’t act like this. He understood the way the world was made. ” (Act Three) Larry turns out to be themost idealistic of all the characters. He is so affected by Joe’s arrest and the fact Joe does business while men die that he kills himself by crashing his plane.

Joe – Practical

Joe is the character touted as the most practical. On the surface Joe’s practicality is more matter of fact, more black and white. He cheerfully describes himself as a dumb guy who speaks plainly and took one year of night school. He works hard and feels pride that he is compensated for it. On the surface it seems his need for money is based in providing goodness for his family. He remembers fondly when everyone had straightforward jobs, he speaks matter of factly about the way the neighbourhood remembers the plant scandal, that everyone believes Steve Deever made a mistake and nothing else:

‘I know he meant no harm. He believe they’d hold up a hundred percent. That’s a mistake but it ain’t murder.’ (Act One)

As the play progresses we are exposed to another side of Joe’s practicality. He ignores when it is practical. He lies when it is practical. Joe’s practicality is tightly tied, to the point of being obsessive, to family loyalty and making money for the family. When he weighs the advantages and disadvantages, it’s more practical to blame Steve Deever than to take responsibility. This way he maintains his lifestyle and has something to pass on to his sons. It’s practical to say Kate is out of her mind when she reveals the truth about his part in the scandal. It’s practical to say when push comes to shove that yes he’s responsible but it wasn’t his fault:

‘I never thought they’d install them. I swear to God. I thought they’d stop ’em before anybody took off.’ (Act Two)

It keeps going. When his fault is pushed, Joe practically shifts his story: if he’s to blame, then everyone is to blame. Everyone is driven by money, not just him.

‘It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean? Half the goddam country is gotta go if I go!’ (Act Three)

And in the end Joe takes the practical route, rather than the idealist route when he kills himself. For Joe, there never seems to be an end to weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a situation. This is his flaw and what makes him a tragic character.

Kate – Practical

It is often said that Kate is hysterical with grief over Larry. “Because if he’s not coming back, then I’ll kill myself!” (Act One) This is perhaps not the case at all. Kate is quite practical. She knows the truth will break her family apart. She knows that by portraying the loving mother she may convince George not to pursue his father’s innocence. She knows if Larry is dead, then Joe had a hand in killing him. Kate has weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the truth and therefore, Larry remains alive.

Jim and Sue – Practical

When Jim was younger he was an idealist. He desperately wanted to pursue a higher purpose. A practical nature has been forced upon him by his wife Sue which he has come to accept. Jim associates practicality with lying, this is how he has weighed the advantages and disadvantages with his position in life. He lies to himself about his happiness and knows that Kate and Joe do as well:

‘It takes a certain talent… for lying. You have it and I do.’ (Act Three)

Jim is wearily practical with his wife’s desire for the suburban lifestyle and money. He know the real value of money, that it doesn’t bring happiness, but he’s not willing to fight against Sue anymore.

Sue it seems, was born practical. When Joe calls her ‘realistic’ for forcing Jim to attend to a whiny patient, she laughs. She knows it’s the truth. When Jim tried to pursue his love of medical research, she followed him and for all intents and purposes dragged him home. For Sue, an unhappy wealthy Jim has more advantages than a poor happy Jim. Sue goes so far as to pressure Ann to move away when she marries Chris, as he is a bad influence:

‘My husband has a family, dear. Every time he has a session with Chris he feels as though he’s compromising by not giving up everything for research. As though Chris or anybody else isn’t compromising.’ (Act Two)

Sue rejects idealistic thinkers. She believes a satisfactory life (i.e. a wealthy life) and idealism cannot exist together.

Activities and Exercises

  • Define what it means to be an idealist and to be practical. How do your definitions compare and contrast with the way the words are used in the play?
  • Based on the definitions, divide yourselves into two groups: idealists and practical thinkers. Create an tableau or a scene that demonstrates the definition.
  • Come up with two lists of dialogue lines: one for idealism and one for practicality. Imagine a tug of war between two groups, using the lines as each sides ‘pull.’ Who wins? Which side’s lines are more powerful?
  • What are the symbols of idealism and practicality in the play?
  • Physicalize idealism and practicality. In groups create a machine that employs each concept.
  • In groups, write the scene where Joe is on the phone with Steve Deever about the cracked airplane parts – remember that there are two phone calls. What does Joe do between the two phone calls? What is Joe thinking? Does he know right away he’s not going to go to the plant? When does he make that decision? Where is Kate? You can get a feel for the chronology of events that day from George’s speech in Act Two.
  • Circle Answer: The class stands in a circle. Go ’round the group and each person answers quickly on a question. If there is momentum, go ’round the circle two or three times. If someone is truly stuck they can pass. Questions: Name a moment in your life when you’ve been an idealist. Name a moment in your life when you’ve been a practical thinker. Is it better to be practical or an idealist?

Questions To Answer

  1. Is Chris an idealist? Is he naive? How does he see his father before his crime is revealed?
  2. Is Chris’ idealism phony? Why would Sue claim as such?
  3. Is Ann the female version of Chris? Is she a true idealist or a phony idealist?
  4. Why are we more told about Chris’ idealism than shown through his actions?
  5. Were Joe and Kate ever idealists?
  6. Both Kate and Joe want to use their practicality to protect the family they both love. Why do they fail?
  7. Are Kate and Joe good people? Is it possible to look at them in black and white terms? Why or why not?
  8. Which character do you most relate to? Why?

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