THE SACRIFICE FOR SUBURBAN LIFE
‘You wanted money so I made money. What must I be forgiven?” (Joe, Act Three)
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. Joe Keller sits peacefully in the morning sun reading a paper. He and Jim talk about the weather. There is talk of the movies. Neighbours come and go, children have free reign to run and play. Not even the toppling of an apple tree brings out much of a reaction – more than one character describes what happens to the tree as ‘a pity.’
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. For the sacrifice to obtain suburban life is one of All My Sons‘ dominant themes. This is more than a following of The American Dream where individuals attempt to achieve success no matter their social standing through hard work. This is a specific type of success: the suburban lifestyle.
This sacrifice manifests itself in numerous ways, many of which are rather horrifying:
- The sacrifice of morals
Joe is willing to lie in court and claim his partner Steve Deever is responsible for the faulty airplane parts.
- The sacrifice for the family
Joe is willing to lie so he can give his family a certain lifestyle and pass his business down to his sons.
- The sacrifice of a family
Joe’s need to survive whatever the costs destroys the Deevers. He sacrificed another family to save his own.
- The sacrifice of responsibility
Joe is the boss of the plant and lets someone else take the fall for the cracked parts. Joe does not see himself as being responsible to society at large (and to the boys who died) but only to his family. Chis, at one point, also sacrifices responsibility choosing to leave rather than turn his father in.
- The sacrifice of reality
Both Joe and Chris play along with Kate’s desire to believe Larry is still alive, even though both men believe he is dead.
- The sacrifice of men
Joe sacrificed the lives of the pilots in the 21 planes that went down by sending the faulty parts. Chris also talks about how he lost most of his company during the war, how they sacrificed themselves for each other and for America.
- The sacrifice of the truth
All the neighbours play along with the notion that Joe is innocent of his crimes, even though they know full well he’s guilty. None of them turn him in and thus play a part in his crimes. Sue actively despises the Kellers and lies to their faces, playing the part of happy neighbour.
- The sacrifice of dreams
Jim gives up his dream of being a medical researcher to give his wife the lifestyle she wants.
- The sacrifice of self
Jim sacrifices himself for his wife. Chris thinks himself a martyr and that every time he wants to reach for something, he has to pull back because ‘other people will suffer.’ This one, however, I would say is a bit debatable given Chris’ action in the play.
Because what the characters sacrifice is actually necessary for the survival of their humanity, what they win is tainted. The perfect suburban life is phony. A veneer over reality. None of the characters are truly happy, it’s a veneer of happiness. It’s a veneer of an ordinary, stable, normal life.
- The set which is a seemingly perfect picture of suburban life with its trees, green grass, nicely painted house and trellised arbor, is marred with the jagged lightening struck stump of the apple tree.
- Joe tells Ann that all the neighbours get together in the arbor to play cards all the time – a normal suburban activity. But Sue tells Ann everyone knows Joe is guilty. Sue tells Ann she can’t stand living next door to the ‘Holy Family.’
- Kate has to believe that Larry is alive because otherwise, she then has to believe Joe responsible for the cracked parts.
- When George arrives and threatens to shatter the veneer, the family tries to tempt and seduce him with suburban trinkets: a comfy job, a dinner on the shore, a date with a girl, a nice shirt and tie.
Joe has fully bought into the veneer. He doesn’t see it as something fake. He has to, in order to justify his past actions. His actions brought the suburban life. To that end, Joe often makes statements about suburban life that on the surface make sense but under the surface are completely ridiculous. This is particularly true when Joe talks about Steve Deever:
- ‘That was a very happy family used to live in your house Jim. (Act One)
- ‘I’d like to see him move back right on this block.’ (Act Two)
- ‘I want him to know that when he gets out he’s got a place waitin’ for him. It’ll take his bitterness away.’ (Act Two)
It’s absurd that Joe can’t understand why the partner he sold down the river would hate him, or not want to return to his old life.
Jim on the other hand does not buy into the veneer. He gets what is really happening in this suburbia. He has chosen to accept his lot in life and that his past dreams are forever gone. To that end, when he speaks he always speaks the plain truth without the veneer. ‘Now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s even hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be.’ (Act Three)
The eventual consequences for living a lie come back to haunt the Keller family most of all. But instead of facing the issue, the characters choose to remove themselves from the issue.
- When Larry finds out what Joe has done, sees Joe for who he is, the effect is so damaging he crashes his plane and kills himself.
- When the truth is revealed, Chris announces that he’s leaving instead of turning his father in.
- Rather than face the consequences of his actions, Joe kills himself at the end of the play.
A common criticism of All My Sons is that the first act is too slow. But that slowness is necessary. It’s necessary to establish the suburban veneer before it starts to peel away. It’s significant that the lighting at the top of the play is a sunny, Sunday morning with Joe Keller sitting front and centre reading the paper. In order to understand the underbelly of these characters, to understand the consequences of what they have sacrificed, we must see their unsatisfying, unsettled, unstable reward.
Activities and Exercises
- In groups create a list on “What living in suburbia means in the twenty-first century.” Then create a list on “What living in suburbia means in All My Sons.” How do the two version of suburbia compare and contrast?
- In groups find lines in the play that demonstrate the perfect suburban life. Then create a tableau that represents those lines.
- The word mendacity means: the act of lying, a tendancy to be untruthful. In groups find lines in the play that demonstrate the lies the characters tell. Create a tableau that represents those lines. Compare this tableau with the one that represents the perfect life.
- Improv moments that show the veneer and the reality of the suburban bliss. For example the card game that both Joe and Sue mention. Improv the game the way Joe sees it – a fun, normal suburban activity. Then improv it the way that the rest of the neighbours see it – every time they look at Joe they see his guilt.
- Compare Joe and his actions to someone recent who has also sacrificed others for his own success (For example, Bernie Madoff) What are the similarities and differences?
- 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: How far would you be willing to go for a perfect life? What would you do if you found out your father did something bad? Is there ever a right time to do the wrong thing? Have you ever sacrificed something to be able to buy something else?
Questions To Answer
- Why is the suburban lifestyle so important to Joe? How do Sue’s feelings about suburbia compare?
- What is the American Dream and is it explored in All My Sons?
- Is Joe a victim of the American Dream?
- Is Joe’s action at the end of the play an admission of responsibility or a further sacrifice of responsibility?
- How do Joe’s sacrifices for his family end up hurting his family?
- Are there any characters in the play who are happy in suburbia?
- Are there any characters who have made worthwhile sacrifices?
- What is the significance of the way light is used in the play in reference to the perfect suburban life?