There is no denying that the father-son conflict is an old and also new theme in literature. Actually, there are a number of literary works dealing with the theme, like the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and some other modern dramas. The relationship between father and son in literature takes on psychological quality. As we later analyze, Oedipus Rex is used as a basic theme of the father-son conflict. Miller refers to Oedipus Rex to argue against the criticism that Ann’s production of Larry’s letter about his death in Act III is abrupt and too convenient for audience’s tastes. Interestingly, this shows how much he was conscious of this Greek tragedy in creating All My Sons. Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (New York: Grove Press, 1987) 134-35.just as explained in Freud’s “Oedipus complex.” It more often than not takes the form of the son’s protest or rebellion against his father or that of the conflict just like a generation gap. The chief reason why the theme of the father-son conflict is often taken up in literary pieces is that, historically speaking, the father has almost always been the center of the family and has, therefore, tremendously influenced the son’s way of living or thinking.
Before All My Sons Miller wrote a few plays dealing with the father-son conflict. For example, in The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), Miller’s first play on Broadway, he took up this theme in a rather indirect way. On the other hand, in All My Sons he directly dealt with the issue for the first time, and as in
his biggest hit, Death of a Salesman, he has continued to stick to it in some of his subsequent works. Hence, it is not an exaggeration to say that without the father-son relationship there would be no way to fathom Miller’s drama. This issue is the crux of his drama. Why, then, does he adhere to it so much? This is due largely to his belief that an individual and the society are closely related. He avers its relation is just like the one between the fish and the water. To Miller who insists on the importance of the solidarity between an individual and the society, in his dramatic world central figures are inevitably the father and the son who live both in the family (the place occupying a great part of an individual’s life) and in society. In his case, the son is almost always portrayed at the most sensitive stage of his life: adolescence.
Concerning All My Sons, the following questions are crucial: why has Joe taken such an attitude as a father and what has his way of life meant to his sons, Larry and Chris?
The relationship between the father and the son in Miller’s plays holds a common pattern. Usually two brothers are adolescents and their father loves
them very much. The brothers also love their father, but the older one, particularly, is an idealist and the younger one a realist. And when he comes out
to society to find the father’s anti-social attitude and deeds, or faults and mistakes in his way of living and thinking, he becomes so embarrassed that he
rebels, changes his attitude toward him and even denounces him. The father-son conflict is also quite an effective dramatic technique in the sense that it instills a well-balanced tension and creates a climax in the whole play. More than anything else, it has an advantage to attract the audience’s attention to the play on the stage. Thus, we can say that Miller’s father-son conflict is a useful dramatic method in terms of content and form as well.
Examining the confrontation between Joe and Chris in All My Sons, we notice two different notions contradicting each other at a deeper level. For one thing, Joe represents the old generation in his realistic and practical thinking as opposed to Chris who is quite romantic and full of idealism. For another, while Joe puts his family before anything else and sticks to securing the father image and paternal dignity at home, Chris firmly, though superficially, believes that solidarity with the wider outside world beyond the individual family is an ideal way of living.
Furthermore, Joe represents those who remained in the country during World War II, and Chris, on the other hand, takes a stance as a war veteran. Needless to say, at the bottom there lies a generation gap in the conflict. The conflict, however, constitutes a bit more complicated structure. First of all, what kind of person is Joe Keller? He is a so-called “self-made man.” He is also a “rags-to-riches” type of man who has worked pretty hard and become a successful owner of a factory. The hardships he has gone through are not mentioned in detail in the play, but we can imagine them from what he says.
He tells his wife, Kate, about Chris, “I should put him out when he was ten like I was put out, and make him earn his keep. Then he’d know how a buck is made in
This clearly shows how he started his independent life away from home when he was very young. The following also tells us how he has established
his present position through difficulties. “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?” (115). In this scene he is explaining to Chris why he would not like to give up his factory which he has kept forty long years despite
the faulty cylinders the factory produced and shipped to the armed forces.
Another evidence of Joe’s being a self-made man is found in his night-school education which was not good enough to read more than classified ads in the
newspapers, in his surprise at the great number of new books published one after another, and also in his words, “Don’t talk dirty.” without knowing the true
meaning of the French word “roué,” etc. Since he left home when he was so young, we could easily assume that he had to make his own living without proper
education. When we come to understand how hard he worked to become a successful owner of the factory, we could consider him an independent, rugged,
and self-made Horatio Alger type of hero. In fact, Joe’s view of success is closely related to Alger’s “success dream” on a deep level and clearly understood when we take his background into consideration.
At the end of the nineteenth century when Joe was born and raised, “frontier spirit” and Alger’s “success dream” were inseparably bound up with each other, and the view of life based on the “from rags to riches” concept must have been penetrating the general public. It was not impossible for the ordinary people to realize such a success dream then. But the disappearance of frontiers brought about capital based on industrialization, and the social systemno longer allowed everybody to win a success on his own. Instead, only a selected number of people could become rich. The appearance of the competitive society took place here. With this the view on success inevitably became changed as a result. Ethical or moralistic characters the Alger success dream had held were disappearing in the competitive industrialized society during World War II. The social change accordingly produced both those who could follow it and those who couldn’t. A representative of the former is Joe.
The question is why Joe got stuck to the success dream. It is quite understandable that the success dream is the embodiment of the American
Dream and shows the traditional spirit of Americans. However, Joe adheres to it too much. As discussed later, his attachment to success is closely
linked to his perceptions of fatherhood or the “father image” for that matter. In an attempt to authorize himself as a breadwinner in the family, he
desperately needs something to support it. What supports this fatherhood is nothing but the label called success. If he could become a president of his own
company or an owner of a factory and have his son inherit it, it would strengthen his position as head of the family. This is the very reason Joe made
an order to ship the cracked cylinders for army airplanes and put the blame on his partner, Steve. The time was during World War II and Joe was optimistic in
thinking that his bad deed would be overlooked.
Actually, social conditions in the United States during World War II were as follows: In February, 1941 the United States entered a state of war to a full
extent. Production of arms was encouraged as much as any available resources could be used. How much and how soon they can produce is the prime question for any factory. Competing for volume and speed fits the American’s character. Also, companies in the war munitions industry were in harsh competition. Joe’s following words indicate the situation:
Who worked for nothin’ in that war? When they work for nothin’, I’ll work for nothin’.
Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean?
It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s
He considers both the extension of his factory and the fame he obtains as a successful person in society to be the definite and surest way to keep his authority as a father in the family against his sons.
To Joe the family is everything. Especially his sons. Joe’s following words to Kate concerning Larry show this: “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!” (120). His head has been full of dreams that he will let his sons inherit his factory which he has established for decades. This is related to the American ethos and that’s where we can sympathize with Joe as a tragic person. Samuel A. Yorks explains: “After all, in our society a business to pass on to one’s sons is a badge of honor for a life well spent. Joe obeys the values the clan has taught him.”11 Joe’s problem, therefore, is not in the fact he couldn’t distinguish between right and wrong as Miller himself explains, but in the fact since he stuck to the small world such as a family, he could not turn his eyes to the general society at large, the world beyond the
In contrast to Joe, Chris is an idealist. The reason is that he is still ignorant of the world and mentally naïve and immature. Further, his war experience has
constantly occupied his mind to an unnecessary extent. It is assumed that he had a comfortable upbringing, and stayed home until he left for the war. Accordingly, the war experience affected him tremendously. To comprehend the father’s influence, it is essential for us to remember Joe as an almighty father figure. He puts his family before anything else and is supposedly a model husband for his wife and a role model for his sons. Rising from poor conditions, he has become a successful owner of a big factory with his own efforts. He, therefore, could keep his authority as a father without revealing his faults. On the other hand, how about Chris who was raised by such a father? As he himself confesses, he has been an obedient son: “ I’ve been a good son too long, a good sucker” (69).
When his crime was revealed and when Chris severely accused Joe, he cried, “What’s the matter with you? What the hell is the matter with you?” (114). This fact clearly shows that Joe had never been criticized or met with any protest from his sons previously and that thus he was acutely embarrassed with the son’s accusation. Simply because he could not get over his father, Chris missed the chance to see his father as a person or a male, and regarded him solely as an ideal father.
In short, Chris could not become independent of his father, largely because Joe was a fond father to Chris, and Chris lost an opportunity to get independent and build up his own character. In addition, Kate’s influence upon Chris cannot be overlooked. Her existence as a fond mother contributes much to the fact that Chris could not become independent of his parents. Kate says to Chris: “Honest to God, it breaks my heart to see what happened to all the children. How we worked and planned for you, and you end up no better than us” (105). Before this, Miller has described Kate as a mother with “an overwhelming capacity for love” (69). We can easily imagine that Kate’s excessive love spoiled Chris to a great extent. Let us now turn to the influence that the war experience has imposed upon Chris. The following is what Chris gained through his war experience.
“One time it’d been raining several days and this kid came to me, and gave me his last
pair of dry socks. Put them in pocket. That’s only a little thing – but ….. that’s the
kind of guys I had. They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that
exactly; a little more selfish and they’d’ve been here today. And I got an idea –
watching them go down. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me
that one new thing was made. A kind of – responsibility. Man for man. You
understand me? -To show that, to bring that on to the earth again like some kind of
a monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would
make a difference to him. (85)”
What Chris found out is the “solidarity” and “responsibility” between man and man. Those are noble ideas which Chris learned in his war situations. When he dared apply them to actual society, however, problems occurred. To Chris who had this war experience, it is quite natural that he found actual society “incredible.”
“And then I came home and it was incredible, I -there was no meaning in it here; the
whole thing to them was a kind of a -bus accident. I went to work with Dad, and that
I felt – what you said – ashamed somehow. Because nobody was
changed at all. It seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys. I felt wrong to be alive,
to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator. I mean you
can take those things out of a war, but when you drive that car you’ve got to know
that it came out of the love a man have for a man, you’ve got to be a little better
because of that. Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there’s blood on it. I didn’t
want to take any of it. And I guess that included you. (85)”
It would be possible to say that the “solidarity” and “responsibility” which Chris experienced in the battlefield at least urged him to be aware of his own ego, that is, independence from his parents and establishment of his own identity. We can see these in Chris’ adamant attitude both in speaking against Joe and Kate who are negative to his plan to marry Ann and in declaring his elopement with her if the parents reject it. Even though Joe says, “I want a new sign over the plant – Christopher Keller Incorporated” (87), Chris flatly answers back: “J. O. Keller is good enough” (87). This again clearly shows that Chris can now say what has to be said. Before this he was just following what Joe had said to him. As we have already seen, the war experience has made Chris aware of his ego or self.
However, his experience was gained in an unordinary situation and it is not applicable to the realities of everyday life. In a way, Chris’ tragedy lies in the fact that he has not realized this. The feeling of “solidarity” and the sense of “responsibility” he learned in the war has its true meaning in the army where military cooperation and union count as a harmonious whole. In the dog-eat-dog American society of the war industry during the war, those words didn’t mean anything. Naturally Chris can never get along with Joe because of his unrealistic ideas.
I was dying every day and you were killing my boys and you did it for me? What the hell do you think I was thinking of, the goddam business? Is that as far as your mind can see, the business? What is that, the world -the business? What the hell do you mean, you did it for me? Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in this world? What the hell are you? (116)
Chris’ immaturity is clearly seen in his words to Joe, “I never saw you as a man. I
saw you as my father” (125), even after Joe’s crime is revealed. When Chris Keller, who has been “a killer” in the war, does the same thing at thirty-two, we must conclude that he is responding to some private drama unwinding inside him rather than to the relation of his revelation of his father’s guilt.
Chris can be said to be an idealist who tides over the stern realities of life based on the experience he had in the extraordinary situation like a war, and inevitably clashes with Joe, who is a rather short-sighted realist. Chris’ idealism is, however, doubtful. When he says to Ann, “I’m going to make a fortune for you!” (86), we see inconsistency in his attitude of refusal toward his father’s business ethics. As a matter of fact, his hypocrisy is pointed out by Sue, whose husband is a doctor living next door to the Kellers: “if Chris wants people to put on the hairshirt let him take off his broadcloth” (94). We see here that there is a discrepancy between what he says and what he does and that Chris can’t grasp reality as he claims. Considering this, we might say that his ideas on “solidarity” and “responsibility” are a cause merely good for the army. Therefore, we can’t help concluding that just like Joe, Chris is also a narrow-minded person obsessed with his own dogmatism.
Miller’s intention in the drama is not merely to describe the conflict between father and son. What is his real intention, then? To integrate several points discussed so far, the conflict between Joe and Chris is based on the basic pattern of the rebellion of a son against his father, who has become aware of his own ego.
The object of Chris’ rebellion or protest is his father’s unethical actions urged by his family-centered way of thinking. Chris lambastes Joe’s behavior as egoistic, even saying “You’re even an animal. No animal kills his own, what are you?” (116). Joe, on the other hand, is too obsessed with “fatherhood” and “success” in the modern capitalistic society where both of them have become quite difficult to obtain. He has gradually lost moralistic or ethical aspects in his conduct. In this father and son conflict, the father commits suicide as a loser.
However, what does this actually mean? On the surface Joe seems to have cast away his philosophy of life all of a sudden, which he has cherished for 60-plus years. But actually, he hasn’t. He has only tried hard to convince himself that his philosophy is absolutely right, but as a result, he has come to realize that he is wrong and that death is the only solution. What is Miller’s real intention in presenting the father-son conflict? It is obvious that he is presenting two significant themes: the fall of fatherhood and the demise of the Alger-type “success dream” noticeable in modern American society. These clearly illustrate the end of the nineteenth-century American ethos, and the father-son conflict represents the myth of the family and that of success. In fact, Gerald Weales interprets the play in the mythical terms. His [Joe’s] death is more than a single man’s punishment, for Joe Keller is a product of his society. He not only accepts the American myth of the privacy of the family, but he has adopted as a working instrument the familiar attitude that there is a difference between morality and business ethics. Joe Keller is a self-made man, an image of American success, who is destroyed when he is forced to see that image in another context – through the eyes of his idealist son.17