The symbol of the apple tree
The apple tree in the Kellers’ garden symbolizes Kate Keller’s delusion that Larry is still alive (the tree was planted in his memory).
At the play’s opening, the scene is one of prosperous comfort. The only discordant element that is apparent at this point is the broken apple tree, which has been snapped off in the storm the previous night. There are still fruits clinging to the branches, but the fact that the branches are no longer attached to a living stem means that they will decay and die. Although Kate does not yet know it, the delusion that Larry will return is about to be shattered forever. The storm coincided with Kate’s nightmare in which she dreamed of Larry, falling from the sky in his plane. She was either sleepwalking or having a vision of the tree when she saw it snap in front of her. This confirms to the audience that Larry is in fact dead, although to Kate, it simply means that he is angry that they planted a memorial tree in the assumption that he was dead. The fruits clinging to the branches are symbolic of Kate’s clinging to the notion that Larry is alive.
It is significant that Chris is the one who cuts down the broken-off tree. He is a truth-bringer in the play, and wants Kate to face up to Larry’s death. Kate says, “You notice there’s more light with that thing gone?” In spite of her own desire to keep Larry’s memory alive, her remarks suggests the arrival of a more enlightened and truthful state of awareness over his death.
The metaphor of prison
In Act Two, Sue says of her husband, “Jim thinks he’s in jail all the time.” This statement is significant in the context of the play as a whole because it highlights the running metaphor of prisons, of both the physical and psychological kind. Jim feels trapped in his marriage because Sue wants him to earn money as a practicing physician, whereas he wants to do medical research for the benefit of mankind.
Other characters are also in psychological prisons, hedged about by fear. Kate is afraid to admit the truth about Larry’s death because as well as losing her son, it would mean accepting that her husband was responsible for his death. Joe is trapped in his assumed role of upstanding citizen and prosecutor of Steve, when in fact he is responsible for the death of the twenty-one airmen. Chris and Ann are temporarily restricted in their freedom to follow their hearts and marry, because of the worry of how Kate will react.
All these psychological prisons are reflected on the physical level by the prison inhabited by the wrongly accused Steve. It is Steve’s wrongful imprisonment by the guilty Joe that has led to the psychological imprisonment of the Keller family.
The theme of prisons is also represented symbolically by Bert’s habit of playing jail in the Kellers’ backyard. Bert imagines that Joe has a prison in his basement and that Joe is a policeman. Joe tells how when he first got out of prison after his successful appeal, the neighborhood children treated him as an expert on jail, but as the years passed, things got “confused” and they thought he was a detective. In reality, Joe confused the issue himself by pretending to be innocent and playing the policeman in having Steve imprisoned for the crime that Joe committed.
Questions and accusations
A quick glance at any page of the text for Acts Two and Three will reveal an extraordinarily high number of exclamation and question marks. This is because much of the dialogue in Acts Two and Three is made up of questions, accusations, and exclamations. This has the effect of giving the dialogue the flavor of an interrogation, with one character accusing another and demanding to know why he or she did a certain thing. The sense develops of a court case in progress, with the prosecution (George, Chris, and Ann) accusing the defendants (Joe and Kate) of committing a crime, concealing a crime, or refusing to face up to the truth about Larry. The rhythm of speeches heavy with questions and accusations is urgent and forceful, pounding the audience with sound as the characters pound each other with their opposing viewpoints.
Many of the questions in the play are rhetorical. A rhetorical question is one that does not need an answer because it is obvious. Such a question is put not to elicit information but for its persuasive power. An example is Chris’s rhetorical question to Joe in Act Two: “God in heaven, what kind of a man are you?” To Chris, the answer is obvious: an immoral one. Joe in turn frequently answers accusations or questions with another question, such as in the following exchange in Act Two:
Chris: Dad … Dad, you killed twenty-one men!
Keller: What, killed?
Joe’s question, along with many of his questions, has two effects: it attests to his moral confusion, a confusion that led him to commit the crime in the first place; and it attempts to deflect responsibility. As long as Joe is questioning, he is not accepting responsibility for what he did. His questions are reminiscent of a child who, when rebuked by a parent, persists in asking, “Why …?” rather than admitting his fault. Joe’s questions continue in almost every speech he makes in Act Three until his final admission of guilt: “But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were. I guess they were.” This plain statement of fact, coming after Joe’s many questions, brings the harried, urgent rhythm of the scene to a point of rest, as Joe realizes that the only thing he can do with honor is to go to prison or take his life.