Metaphor Analysis

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.

Analysis of Act 3

Analysis of Act Three


Jim, who has compromised on his own ideals to make money for his family, says of Chris, who has driven off in disgust after finding out about Joe’s crime: “He’ll come back … These private little revolutions always die. The compromise is always made.” This may be seen as cynical or realistic, depending on one’s viewpoint. Jim continues: “Frank is right – every man does have a star. The star of one’s honesty. And you spend your life groping for it, but once it’s out it never lights again. I don’t think he went very far. He probably just wanted to be alone to watch his star go out.” Chris has been taking a salary for years from the family business, in spite of his realization that the money is tainted with the blood of twenty-one dead airmen, and if Jim is right, he will go on taking one.


Kate knows that Joe’s excuse that he committed the crime for the sake of making money for his family will not impress Chris, as is seen in the following exchange:


Kate: There’s something bigger than the family to him.

Joe: Nothin’ is bigger!

Kate: There is to him.


The two sets of values that are opposed in the play, self-interest versus social responsibility, have collided in the characters of Chris and Joe. Joe felt he had no option but to continue production at his factory rather than risk being shut down: he was thinking of his own interest, which centers on his own immediate family. Chris, on the other hand, wants to do what is right for humanity in general. His vision is wider than Joe’s.


There is irony in Joe’s comparison of Chris with Larry. Joe implies that Larry was the one with the business head and would not have condemned his action regarding the faulty parts, whereas Chris is hopelessly idealistic. But it later transpires that Larry killed himself because he could not live with the knowledge of what his father had done. It also transpires that Chris suspected his father’s guilt all along, but did not confront him. Thus Larry turns out to be the more idealistic son, and Chris the more pragmatic son who compromises his ideals.


Joe’s suicide is a necessary atonement for Larry’s suicide, which Joe’s actions caused, as well as for the deaths of all the other airmen, which resulted from his crime. It has taken the revelation that Joe is responsible for the death of his own son, Larry, to make him realize that he has a wider responsibility beyond the confines of his immediate family. The twenty-one airmen, along with all young men in the world, are all his sons.


Joe’s death does not, however, restore a sense of rightness to the world at the end of the play. The curtain falls on Chris, tortured by guilt as he apologizes to his mother for Joe’s death. The shadow of this event is likely to haunt the marriage between Chris and Ann, if it takes place. Joe’s death can be seen as a tragedy on the personal level, but also as the final sacrifice on the altar of capitalism and the American Dream.

Analysis of Act 2

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.

Analysis of Act 1

Analysis of Act One


The play opens in a carefully constructed normality. The Kellers appear to be a prosperous, happy family. Chris and Ann are intelligent, good-looking, and worthy people who love each other and want to marry. Joe reads the Sunday newspaper peacefully in his well-ordered backyard with his friend Jim Bayliss.


Though all seems calm, certain elements are introduced to show symbolically that all is not as it seems and that there are disruptive hidden elements at work. Even before anyone speaks, the broken apple tree is a visible symbol that the current order is about to break down. The storm that destroyed the tree is symbolic of the chaos that is soon to engulf the Kellers. Frank, a believer in astrology, enters and draws a link between Larry and the tree the Kellers planted in his memory: “Larry was born in August. He’d been twenty-seven this month. And his tree blows down.” Astrology is about how the past (the moment of birth) affects the present, so there is a sense that the past has suddenly come alive in the present.


Everyone worries about what Kate will say about the tree, and Chris reveals that she was out in the garden when it cracked. Joe knows that she is dreaming about Larry again. This tells the audience that Kate is an unquiet soul and that the source of her disturbance is her obsession with Larry.


Though Kate is described as having “an overwhelming capacity for love,” there are two dominant traits of her nature that are visible in Act One, neither of them qualifying as love: the first is her unhealthy obsession with the thought that Larry is still alive, and the second is her suspiciousness. She is suspicious of Ann’s reasons for visiting them and about Chris’s intentions towards Ann. The first leads to the second, as she is determined that everyone around her should share her delusion that Larry is alive, and feels threatened and fearful at any sign that they do not. To accept that Larry is dead would be to accept that Joe might have been responsible for his death, and this thought is insupportable.


It becomes clear that Kate and Joe support each other in their delusions: Joe supports Kate in her expectation of Larry’s return, and Kate supports Joe in his claimed innocence regarding the faulty cylinder heads incident.


The banter between Joe and the local child Bert mirrors the backstory (the history behind the situation at the start of the play) of the play. Bert has been encouraged by Joe to imagine that there is a jail in the basement of the Keller home. This is symbolic of Joe’s having falsely incriminated Steve, who has been in prison ever since. Joe tells the story of when he first got out of jail, and everyone thought he was guilty. The local children treated him as the expert on jail, and over time, they got confused and thought he was a policeman or detective. Joe has played into this new role, instructing Bert to go out into the streets and look for criminals. Joe’s game with Bert mirrors his real-life treatment of Steve: Joe, the guilty one, took the role of the policeman and had Steve arrested and imprisoned for a crime that he had himself committed. Thus Joe, in the children’s game and in real life, transformed himself from prisoner to policeman, from a convicted man to a respected member of society.


This idea is reinforced by the symbolism of Joe’s eagerness to throw out the garbage (he throws out Kate’s vegetables by mistake). In his determination to pretend innocence, he is attempting to distance himself from his own crime, to throw it out of his life.


Joe’s concealment of his crime and his assumption of innocence contrasts with Chris’s more open and conscientious attitude towards what he sees as his own crime, of losing his entire company of men in the war. Chris feels that he has betrayed his men by surviving (this phenomenon is known in psychology as “survivor guilt”). He confesses his feelings of guilt to Ann, saying that he does not feel entitled to what he has: everything seems to have their “blood” on it, including Ann herself. Perhaps Chris’s feelings reflect an intuitive knowledge of the truth about his father’s crime, which the audience may also suspect. Thus there is irony in Chris’s words, as everything he has does indeed have blood on it: the blood of the men killed by the faulty cylinder heads that Joe ordered to be shipped out.


Chris’s openness about his perceived crime contrasts with Joe’s hypocrisy and determination to cover up his own guilt. Inwardly, Joe knows his guilt, though he has not yet admitted it to himself or to the world. His angry insistence at the end of the Act that he does not care what Steve might have told his lawyer son, followed by his door-slamming exit, convinces no one. Though Joe has, figuratively speaking, slammed the door on his crime, that door is about to be opened.


Suspense is created by the expected arrival of George, who has visited his father in jail and is angry, judging by Ann’s attempts to calm him down during their telephone conversation. George is a lawyer, suggesting that he is both concerned and knowledgable about justice. The final stage direction describes Kate’s sitting “stiffly, staring, seeing.” At some level of her being, Kate knows what is to happen, and fears it.