Self-interest versus social responsibility
The major theme of the play is the conflict between self-interest and the wider responsibility that people owe to the society in which they live. This conflict is mostly enacted through the characters of Joe, Chris, and the now-dead Larry.
Joe has put all his energies into making money and building up his business. He was determined to keep his factory production line running, even when it caused the deaths of twenty-one pilots through faulty airplane parts. At the end of Act Two, when Chris realizes that Joe is responsible for the pilots’ deaths, Joe says he did it for the business: “What could I do! I’m in business, a man is in business; a hundred and twenty cracked, you’re out of business …”
In Joe’s mind, this is not selfish, as he did everything for Chris: “Chris, I did it for you, it was a chance and I took it for you.” Horrified, Chris demands, “Is that as far as your mind can see, the business? … What the hell do you mean, you did it for me?” In Chris’s view, people have a wider responsibility to mankind in general, and to society: “Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in the world?”|
Joe has long convinced himself that Larry was his practical son, with a head for business, and that Chris was the impractical idealist. But he turns out to be wrong. It transpires that Larry found out about Joe’s conviction for causing the deaths of the pilots and could not live with the knowledge, and so committed suicide. Chris, on the other hand, reveals in Act Three that he suspected all along that Joe was guilty of the crime, but adopted a “practical” attitude and did not confront him.
There is an implicit contrast between the self-sacrifice of the men who died in the war, some of them as a result of Joe’s factory’s faulty parts, and those who were looking after their own interest, such as Joe. By association with Joe, Chris also becomes stained with corruption, as he took a salary from his father’s firm in spite of his suspicions that the money was tainted with the blood of the dead airmen.
Finally, in Act Three, Joe has to confront the implications of his actions. In words that foreshadow his end, he says of Chris, “I’m his father and he’s my son, and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head!” As the play shows, there is something bigger than that. So when Joe finally does face up to his crime, he does the only thing he can morally do, which is to extinguish his life. The sense of waste is overwhelming: not just of Joe’s life, but of all the other lives that have been lost or torn apart because of the pursuit of profit: the twenty-one airmen, Steve and the rest of the Deever family, Larry, Chris, and Kate.
What is more, Joe’s death is far from a resolution. Psychologists say that there is often an element of revenge in a suicide, with the suicide placing his or her body for maximum dramatic effect on the person who is deemed culpable. In All My Sons, Joe’s suicide carries a flavor of revenge on those who have pushed him to face his crime: Kate, Chris, and Ann. Accordingly, the curtain falls on Chris weeping with guilt over his father’s death, and there is a sense that his guilt will hang like a shadow over the marriage between him and Ann, if indeed it still takes place.
Thus the ramifications of Joe’s crime do not end with his death, but go on indefinitely.
Profiteering in wartime
Miller began writing All My Sons during World War II, though he finished it after the war. He wanted to reflect the pragmatic reality of wartime profiteering that coexisted with idealism and patriotism. He said, “everybody knew that a lot of hanky-panky was going on … A lot of illicit fortunes were being made, a lot of junk was being sold to the armed services, we all knew that. The average person was violating rationing. All the rules were being violated every day but you wanted not to mention it” (from an interview with Miller, quoted by C.W.E. Bigsby in his Introduction to All My Sons, by Arthur Miller, Penguin Classics, 2000).
Speaking in 1999, Miller noted the continuing relevance of his story. He said that even modern audiences recognize the force, if not the justification, of Keller’s defense of his actions, because they understand their own potential for complicity: “The justification that Joe Keller makes is that … you do what you have to do in order to survive,” a defense which is “always understandable and always unacceptable” (quoted by C.W.E. Bigsby in his Introduction to All My Sons, by Arthur Miller, Penguin Classics, 2000). As Joe points out when he indignantly demands of Chris whether he must go to jail for doing what many others were doing, “Half the Goddam country is gotta go if I go!” (Act Three). Joe is no better or worse than other people. He is an everyman with whom many people can identify, which is why the play has a powerful ability to make readers and the audience question themselves.
The more idealistic characters in the play believe that wartime profiteers must be held accountable for their actions. In Act Two, George says of his father Steve: “He’d like to take every man who made money in the war and put him up against a wall.” Chris replies to Joe’s self-justification by reading him Larry’s letter, in which he says, “Every day three or four men never come back and he sits back there doing business.” Then Larry commits suicide, which stands by way of his comment on his father’s stance.
As of 2008, the issue of wartime profiteering is at least as contentious as it was when Miller wrote All My Sons. Critics of the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq have pointed out that several US-based corporations have made massive profits out of the Iraq war. In many cases, prominent politicians in the George W. Bush administration who were influential in taking the country to war have interests in the corporations that stand to profit from it, leading to accusations of their having a vested interest in its launch and continuance.