Analysis of Act Two
Joe’s crime of sending out faulty cylinder heads to the army for the sake of keeping his factory running (and thereby making money) exemplifies the theme of money versus humanitarian ideals. It questions the idea of the American Dream: the idea that everyone, regardless of background, can become financially successful. Chris, in contrast, is more idealistic: he wants to do what is right and is not motivated by money.
Sue Bayliss’s attitude to Chris mirrors Joe’s priorities. She wants Ann and Chris to live somewhere else after they marry, as Chris’s idealism makes Jim feel unhappy around him: “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.” Jim then feels as if he should give up making money for his family and do medical research to help mankind. Thus Sue’s story becomes a parallel plot to the main backstory of the play. Just as Joe sacrificed humanitarian considerations for the sake of money, so Sue is sacrificing Jim’s desire to do research for the greater good of mankind. Both Joe and Jim are, figuratively speaking, in a prison constructed out of the perverted values of the American Dream.
Joe’s plans to set George’s law practice up in town and to offer Steve a job in his firm when he gets out of prison are loaded with dramatic irony (a literary device in which the audience knows something more than one or more of the characters, lending a different meaning from the superficial meaning of what is said or done). While Joe says that he wants to offer Steve a job to make relations easier between Chris and his future father-in-law, the audience suspects that Joe’s plan may be a “sweetener” to keep Steve quiet about Joe’s guilty secret. Joe’s plan also raises the question as to whether stealing a man’s liberty and reputation can be atoned for in material terms, by offering him a paid job.
When Chris asks after Steve, George replies bitterly, “He got smaller…. He’s a little man. That’s what happens to suckers, you know. It’s good I went to him in time – another year there’d be nothing left but his smell.” His words relate back to Joe’s description of Steve in Act One as a “little man” who was frightened into shipping out faulty cylinder heads by the demands of army officers. George, now convinced of Steve’s innocence, uses “little” in the sense that he was victimized by Joe. In a wider sense, it could also relate to the vast capitalistic machine, which (the play suggests) cares nothing for human and moral values. In such a system, human beings are demeaned and made “little.”
When Kate rebukes George for not marrying Lydia and staying out of the war (“Stop being a philosopher, and look after yourself”), she is echoing the capitalistic values embodied by her husband, Joe. Joe, unlike Chris and George, is not a philosopher or thinker. He is uneducated and has always focused on making money, looking after himself and his immediate family.
George’s visit is marked by extreme swings of emotion and viewpoint, and is managed masterfully by the playwright. He begins by feeling angry with the Kellers, but is momentarily disarmed by Joe’s counterattack against Steve as a man who “never learned how to take the blame.” Following this, George is charmed by the Kellers’ warmth and agrees to eat dinner with them at the lake. There is a sudden reversal and climactic moment when Kate inadvertently reveals that Joe has never been sick in fifteen years. This exposes Joe’s claim that he was sick with influenza and could not go to work on the day of the cylinder heads incident as a lie.
Immediately after this, Frank enters and announces that November 25, the day Larry disappeared, was his favorable day and so he must be alive. In fact, adds Frank, it was “the kind of day he should’ve married on.” There are many possible interpretations of this news. On the most superficial level, it is obvious to everyone except the delusional Kate that Larry is dead, so Frank is wrong and deluded.
But there is a sense in which that day, and this day, could be seen as favorable. Larry, it later turns out, killed himself because he could not bear to live with the knowledge that his father Joe (as the papers reported at the time) was responsible for the death of many pilots. Larry chose honor over his own life and self-interest; he took the opposite route to Joe, who pursued self-interest at the expense of honor. And although November 25 should have given Larry the fulfillment of marriage, he has gained a different kind of fulfillment: the spiritual and moral one of taking a stand for what is right. What is more, the girl he was to marry, Ann, will now marry Larry’s brother Chris. Most important, now, in the same month as Larry’s favorable day, the truth about Joe’s crime, which Larry could not live with, will be confronted and brought to light.
Just as Kate unintentionally reveals the truth about Joe’s lie to George by saying that Joe has not been sick in fifteen years, she also confirms the truth about Joe’s guilt to a still-disbelieving Chris. She says, “Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me?” In this statement, she sums up why she has been deluding herself and trying to convince others that Larry is alive. She cannot bear the thought that he might be dead, because that would raise the possibility that he was killed by the faulty airplane parts that Joe shipped out to the army. In other words, the truth that Kate cannot face is that Joe is responsible for Larry’s death. The logic is as follows: if Chris marries Ann, who is Larry’s girl, then Larry must be dead, in which case Joe killed him.
Chris’s questioning of Joe convinces him that Joe is indeed responsible for the pilots’ deaths. Joe’s speech beginning, “You’re a boy …” is an emotional appeal on behalf of the values of capitalism and self-interest by which he lives. Joe also inadvertently condemns those values by emphasizing how they have consumed his life and moral code: “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?” While Joe has sacrificed the lives of twenty-one airmen on the altar of capitalism, he has also sacrificed his own life and soul.