Self interest vs. social responsibility

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.

Theme: Truth

Theme of Truth

Miller´s plays are ‘truthful’ because they are modern realist: they feature normal people and normal settings, and these reflect the big issues of the time. They are more convincing because they present the audience with a true (or comparatively more true than other types of drama) representation of life.

Learn about war propaganda. Watch the video, answer the questions.

1. Is the USA ready for war?

2. These are propaganda films, what does this mean?

3. Do they tell people the truth?

4. Do the US population have the opportunity to know the truth?

5. What persuasive devices do the films use?

6. With AMS, how does Miller explore the idea of truth?

7. What excuses does Joe make?

8. How does this relate to what you have learned about the second world war?

9. What is the playwright trying to tell you?

Theme: The Sacrifice for Suburban Life

Context Video:

Description of the American Dream


‘You wanted money so I made money. What must I be forgiven?” (Joe, Act Three)

The aftermath of the depression and further to that the Second World War left a huge imprint on American Life. There was an intense desire to live comfortably, to be settled, to be stable, to be normal. To live an idyllic suburban life. It’s a desire that grips many families even to this day.

When we first meet the characters in All My Sons it seems they have achieved this idyllic suburban life. Joe Keller sits peacefully in the morning sun reading a paper. He and Jim talk about the weather. There is talk of the movies. Neighbours come and go, children have free reign to run and play. Not even the toppling of an apple tree brings out much of a reaction – more than one character describes what happens to the tree as ‘a pity.’

When things look too perfect and too good to be true, they usually are. Miller is specific and purposeful with how he presents the characters in the opening moment of the play. For the sacrifice to obtain suburban life is one of All My Sons‘ dominant themes. This is more than a following of The American Dream where individuals attempt to achieve success no matter their social standing through hard work. This is a specific type of success: the suburban lifestyle.

This sacrifice manifests itself in numerous ways, many of which are rather horrifying:

  • The sacrifice of morals
    Joe is willing to lie in court and claim his partner Steve Deever is responsible for the faulty airplane parts.
  • The sacrifice for the family
    Joe is willing to lie so he can give his family a certain lifestyle and pass his business down to his sons.
  • The sacrifice of a family
    Joe’s need to survive whatever the costs destroys the Deevers. He sacrificed another family to save his own.
  • The sacrifice of responsibility
    Joe is the boss of the plant and lets someone else take the fall for the cracked parts. Joe does not see himself as being responsible to society at large (and to the boys who died) but only to his family. Chis, at one point, also sacrifices responsibility choosing to leave rather than turn his father in.
  • The sacrifice of reality
    Both Joe and Chris play along with Kate’s desire to believe Larry is still alive, even though both men believe he is dead.
  • The sacrifice of men
    Joe sacrificed the lives of the pilots in the 21 planes that went down by sending the faulty parts. Chris also talks about how he lost most of his company during the war, how they sacrificed themselves for each other and for America.
  • The sacrifice of the truth
    All the neighbours play along with the notion that Joe is innocent of his crimes, even though they know full well he’s guilty. None of them turn him in and thus play a part in his crimes. Sue actively despises the Kellers and lies to their faces, playing the part of happy neighbour.
  • The sacrifice of dreams
    Jim gives up his dream of being a medical researcher to give his wife the lifestyle she wants.
  • The sacrifice of self
    Jim sacrifices himself for his wife. Chris thinks himself a martyr and that every time he wants to reach for something, he has to pull back because ‘other people will suffer.’ This one, however, I would say is a bit debatable given Chris’ action in the play.

Because what the characters sacrifice is actually necessary for the survival of their humanity, what they win is tainted. The perfect suburban life is phony. A veneer over reality. None of the characters are truly happy, it’s a veneer of happiness. It’s a veneer of an ordinary, stable, normal life.

  • The set which is a seemingly perfect picture of suburban life with its trees, green grass, nicely painted house and trellised arbor, is marred with the jagged lightening struck stump of the apple tree.
  • Joe tells Ann that all the neighbours get together in the arbor to play cards all the time – a normal suburban activity. But Sue tells Ann everyone knows Joe is guilty. Sue tells Ann she can’t stand living next door to the ‘Holy Family.’
  • Kate has to believe that Larry is alive because otherwise, she then has to believe Joe responsible for the cracked parts.
  • When George arrives and threatens to shatter the veneer, the family tries to tempt and seduce him with suburban trinkets: a comfy job, a dinner on the shore, a date with a girl, a nice shirt and tie.

Joe has fully bought into the veneer. He doesn’t see it as something fake. He has to, in order to justify his past actions. His actions brought the suburban life. To that end, Joe often makes statements about suburban life that on the surface make sense but under the surface are completely ridiculous. This is particularly true when Joe talks about Steve Deever:

  • ‘That was a very happy family used to live in your house Jim. (Act One)
  • ‘I’d like to see him move back right on this block.’ (Act Two)
  • ‘I want him to know that when he gets out he’s got a place waitin’ for him. It’ll take his bitterness away.’ (Act Two)

It’s absurd that Joe can’t understand why the partner he sold down the river would hate him, or not want to return to his old life.

Jim on the other hand does not buy into the veneer. He gets what is really happening in this suburbia. He has chosen to accept his lot in life and that his past dreams are forever gone. To that end, when he speaks he always speaks the plain truth without the veneer. ‘Now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s even hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be.’ (Act Three)

The eventual consequences for living a lie come back to haunt the Keller family most of all. But instead of facing the issue, the characters choose to remove themselves from the issue.

  • When Larry finds out what Joe has done, sees Joe for who he is, the effect is so damaging he crashes his plane and kills himself.
  • When the truth is revealed, Chris announces that he’s leaving instead of turning his father in.
  • Rather than face the consequences of his actions, Joe kills himself at the end of the play.

A common criticism of All My Sons is that the first act is too slow. But that slowness is necessary. It’s necessary to establish the suburban veneer before it starts to peel away. It’s significant that the lighting at the top of the play is a sunny, Sunday morning with Joe Keller sitting front and centre reading the paper. In order to understand the underbelly of these characters, to understand the consequences of what they have sacrificed, we must see their unsatisfying, unsettled, unstable reward.

Activities and Exercises

  • In groups create a list on “What living in suburbia means in the twenty-first century.” Then create a list on “What living in suburbia means in All My Sons.” How do the two version of suburbia compare and contrast?
  • In groups find lines in the play that demonstrate the perfect suburban life. Then create a tableau that represents those lines.
  • The word mendacity means: the act of lying, a tendancy to be untruthful. In groups find lines in the play that demonstrate the lies the characters tell. Create a tableau that represents those lines. Compare this tableau with the one that represents the perfect life.
  • Improv moments that show the veneer and the reality of the suburban bliss. For example the card game that both Joe and Sue mention. Improv the game the way Joe sees it – a fun, normal suburban activity. Then improv it the way that the rest of the neighbours see it – every time they look at Joe they see his guilt.
  • Compare Joe and his actions to someone recent who has also sacrificed others for his own success (For example, Bernie Madoff) What are the similarities and differences?
  • Circle Answer: The class stands in a circle. Go ’round the group and each person answers quickly on a question. If there is momentum, go ’round the circle two or three times. If someone is truly stuck they can pass. Questions: How far would you be willing to go for a perfect life? What would you do if you found out your father did something bad? Is there ever a right time to do the wrong thing? Have you ever sacrificed something to be able to buy something else?

Questions To Answer

  1. Why is the suburban lifestyle so important to Joe? How do Sue’s feelings about suburbia compare?
  2. What is the American Dream and is it explored in All My Sons?
  3. Is Joe a victim of the American Dream?
  4. Is Joe’s action at the end of the play an admission of responsibility or a further sacrifice of responsibility?
  5. How do Joe’s sacrifices for his family end up hurting his family?
  6. Are there any characters in the play who are happy in suburbia?
  7. Are there any characters who have made worthwhile sacrifices?
  8. What is the significance of the way light is used in the play in reference to the perfect suburban life?

Theme: Social Responsibility

Objective: Understand the term ´social responsibility.´ and how Arthur Miller discusses it in his play AMS.

Part A: After viewing the video ‘ kindness boomerang’ answer the following questions with 50-100 words:

  1. Is it possible for one idea to change the world? Why/why not?
  2. Could the idea of “paying it forward” actually work? Why or why not?
  3. Would you be willing to do something nice for someone else, with absolutely no expectation of receiving anything in return? What about if the person wasn’t appreciative? Do we always expect something in return for everything we do?
  4. Do you think the recipient of a good deed would go on to do good for others? Would you be more inclined to do something good for others if someone engaged in a random act of kindness towards you?
  5. Could you devise a scenario whereby a simple smile to someone else could translate into a series of events that might ultimately change someone’s life?
  6. Is there a moral duty or obligation to do good for others especially when there is little cost to oneself?
  7. Are there opportunities where we can do good for others? or do we fail to notice them?
  8. If you had the power to make the world a better place in one way, what would you do?

Part B:  Explain in your own words the meaning of the following quotes:

  1. “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” Mother Teresa
  2. “The only time you should look down at someone, is when you are helping them up.” Jesse Jackson
  3. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Ghandi
  4. “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke

Chris discovered social responsibility during his experience of war.

He cannot forgive his father because of this AND because it is possible that Joe´s defective bombs could have killed his other son Larry.

Miller writes about social responsibility. That everyone cares and is responsible for each other. What do you think?


‘Sure he was my son. But I think to him, they were all my sons.’ (Joe, Act Three)

In Joe’s world, he believes he has done nothing wrong because he put his family first. His individual responsibility to his family is more important that his responsibility to society at large. It never enters his mind that he’s responsible for the death of the pilots who went down in planes with his faulty parts. Joe can further reconcile this responsibility because although Larry’s plane also went down, he never flew that type of plane:

‘Those cylinder heads went into P-40’s only. What’s the matter with you? You know Larry never flew a P-40.’ (Act One)

He’s completely focused on his individual responsibility. And when the truth comes out, that is still where his focus lays. There is nothing more important than the family, than saving the business to give to Chris: “For you, a business for you!” (Act Two)

Chris believes in a greater responsibility to society. This is what the war has left him with. And when Joe’s responsibility in the scandal is finally revealed, his response is volatile:

‘For me! Where do you live, where have you come from? For me! 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?’ (Act Two)

Joe lives his life with blinders on. He completely blocks out his responsibility to society and can’t understand Chris’ outburst: ‘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.’ (Act Three)

Joe’s insistence of individual responsibility is shown right from the start of the play with the description of the set. The stage directions describe the Keller’s backyard as ‘secluded.’ There are hedges and ‘tall closely planted populars.’ It’s almost as if the family is physically shut off from the rest of the world. Hiding. When Larry’s tree blows down Kate asks Chris at the top of Act Two if he notices that ‘there’s more light with that thing gone.’ As the physical enclosures are removed so is the Keller’s ability to hide from the world. The truth is coming to light.

The reveal of Larry’s letter puts Individual Responsibility and Social Responsibility on a collision course. Larry writes Ann a letter in which he states that after learning about Joe’s initial arrest for the cracked parts, he’s going to purposefully crash his plane:

‘Every day three or four men don’t come back and he sits there doing business.’ (Act Three)

The letter clarifies to Joe the difference between individual responsibility and responsibility to society. ‘Sure he was my son. But I think to him, they were all my sons.’ (Act Three) He realizes why Larry crashes his plane. The final question remains is whether by the end Joe learns to accept his responsibility.

Activities and Exercises

  • Define what it means to be responsible. What is the difference between individual and social responsibility? Create a tableau that shows both kinds of responsibility. Compare and contrast the two pictures.
  • Circle Answer: The class stands in a circle. Go ’round the group and each person answers quickly on a question. If there is momentum, go ’round the circle two or three times. If someone is truly stuck they can pass. Questions: Are you responsible? What are your responsibilities? Which is more important individual or social responsibility? Are you socially responsible?
  • In groups look at the following speeches. Divide the lines up so that each person is responsible for a small chunk. Once they’re under your belt perform them for the larger class in two ways: one with the entire class blocking the group in, creating human ‘blinders.’ This should allow for the speakers to be quiet, intensely focused. Then do the speeches in a large space where the groups have to try to communicate the speech to the class from far away. To society at large. How does the speech change? How does each manner feel for the speakers? Which way is more effective?
    • Joe’s speech in Act One that begins ‘The man was a fool but don’t make a murderer out of him.’
    • Joe’s speech in Act Two that begins ‘You’re a boy what could I do.’
    • Joe’s speech in Act Three that begins ‘What should I want to do? Jail?’
    • Do the above speech again. This time only one person speaks the speech. As they do, the other members of the group find places to call out ‘Guilty!’ It’s the person playing Joe’s job to convince the others of his innocence. Afterwards, what’s the response?

Questions To Answer

  1. What does the title mean?
  2. Is Joe responsible for what happens outside of his family? Why or why not?
  3. What are Kate’s responsibilities?
  4. Is Chris more responsible than Joe? Why or why not?
  5. When Joe kills himself does this show a sense of responsibility or a lack of responsibility?

Theme: Past vs. Present.


‘We’re like at a train station waiting for a train that never came in.’ (Chris, Act One)

Thorton Wilder writes in The Skin of Our Teeth, ‘If anyone tries to tell you the past, they’re charlatans!’ (Fortune Teller, Act Two) This is an excellent and relevant quote when referring to how the characters in All My Sons deal with the past.

The characters in the play are highly affected by the past. Some are so affected they can’t accept the present such as Kate: ‘He’s not dead so there’s no argument!’ (Act One) Kate keeps Larry’s room exactly as it was when he left to the point of regularly shining his shoes.

Some have to re-write the past, such as Joe: ‘What have I got to hide?’ (Act One) For Joe, the past is nothing more than a series of events and he gets angry when others don’t share his view of the past.

Some carry the past with them and aren’t sure how to deal with it, like Chris and his feelings about the war: ‘They didn’t die. They killed themselves for each other.’ (Act One) His feelings about the war are what have caused him to take so long to express his love for Ann.

Some have to acknowledge their past dreams are gone, such as Jim: ‘It’s hard to remember sometimes the kind of man I wanted to be.’ (Act Three)

Even those who have left get drawn into the lure of the past. Both Ann and George show extreme wistfulness when they speak of the past:

‘I guess I never grew up. It almost seems that Mom and Pop are in there now. And you and my brother doing algebra, and Larry trying to copy my home-work.’ (Act One, Ann)

‘Kate, you look so young, you know? You didn’t change at all. It…. rings an old bell.’ (Act Two, George)

It’s important to bring up the characters of Frank and Lydia at this point. These are the only two characters, who have been around just as long as the Kellers (at least Lydia has as she dated George before the war) and aren’t affected by the past. Especially Lydia, who while glad to see George when he comes, doesn’t seem to feel she’s missed something by marrying Frank.

The Keller family does not address the past, nor do they move on from it. They are in a holding pattern.

Not only that, they are in a holding pattern of a version of the past that is only a version of the truth. In this version, Larry is alive and Joe had nothing to do with the scandal. The neighbourhood supports this version completely (in public at least); it’s as if the street is frozen in time and no one wants to do anything to change it.

When something threatens this holding pattern, Chris and Ann wanting to marry, George returning to confront Joe, the majority of characters scramble to maintain the frozen past.

Kate pushes Ann to say she’s still waiting for Larry. When she won’t, Kate does whatever she can to get Ann to leave. She even goes so far as to pack Ann’s suitcase.

Joe states that Ann’s father should move back and take up exactly where he left off. He wants to give Steve a job back at the plant when he gets out of jail.

Sue tells Ann that if she and Chris marry they should move far away.

When George arrives there is a desperate attempt to lull him with past memories and joining them to eat at the shore.

Notice how many times the characters talk about ‘going to the shore.’ It’s something they used to do before the war and demonstrates a happier time. Joe goes so far trying to get George back into the fold he wants to get George a job at one of the town’s law firms.

But the consequences of maintaining this holding pattern are inevitable. When the full truth is revealed the frozen version of the past cannot hold. The characters are forced to move forward into the present whether they like it or not.

Activities and Exercises

  • List the events of the play that happen in the past and affect the present. When was the last perfect moment for each character?
  • In groups, go through the play and pick out any details that give a hint as to what the characters were like before the war. Create an improv that shows all these characters in that time. Imagine there’s a garden party and it just so happens all the characters are there (knowing full well that Jim and Sue wouldn’t be) Show Jim as a medical researcher, Chris, Ann, George, Lydia and Larry as teenagers. Are there any characters who are exactly the same as they are in the present? Any completely different?
  • In groups create a scene around the moment it’s decided to plant Larry’s tree. During the play, Kate says she never wanted the tree planted because it was too soon. When was it planted. What was the conversation? Afterwards, run through the lines in Act One that address the tree, especially when Kate tells her dream.
  • Circle Answer: The class stands in a circle. Go ’round the group and each person answers quickly on a question. If there is momentum, go ’round the circle two or three times. If someone is truly stuck they can pass. Questions: What is your favourite moment from your past? Your least favourite moment? Is there a past moment that rules your life? Is there a moment you wish was frozen in time? Would you ever change the present to regain the past? Can the past be forgotten? Can the past be forgiven?

Questions To Answer

  1. What is the most significant moment in the past for each character? How does each character act in the present based on that moment?
  2. Does Joe believe the past that he has re-written?
  3. Do any characters in the play not live in the past?
  4. What does Ann feel about the past?

Theme: Idealism and Practicality


‘He’s driving my husband crazy with that phony idealism of his, and I’m at the end of my rope on it!’ (Sue, Act Two)

Idealism: The pursuit of high principles, purposes and goals.

Practicality: Matter of fact. Mindful of the results, advantages and disadvantages of an action.

The characters in All My Sons live in two worlds: Idealists and Practical Thinkers. This has been an fascinating theme to analyze. In my head, to be practical is not a bad thing. It is the attribute of someone who is level-headed. But in the play, to be practical or to make practical choices is another form of sacrifice. Those who are practical sacrifice a level of ‘goodness’ as a human being. Chris goes so far to say that to be practical is not to be human. When characters use the work practical, it’s not a compliment.

‘The cats in that alley are practical, the bums who ran away when we were fighting were practical. Only the dead ones weren’t practical. But now I’m practical and I spit on myself.’ (Act Three)

Who are the Idealists and who are the Practical Thinkers? Are there any true Idealists in the play?

Chris – Idealist?

Chris is touted as the idealist of the play. He has an idealistic vision of his father. He is horrified that the sacrifices his soldiers made during the war mean nothing back at home. Because of his war experiences, he believes in a higher responsibility to the world at large. He has a hard time, even though he still seems to live quite a comfortable life and never outright rejects his father’s money, with materialism: ‘I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator….Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there’s blood on it.’ (Act One)

He also has a different view of the business than Joe does. He’s willing to leave it behind in order to gain some beauty in his life; he doesn’t want his life to be all about the money. This is the reason he has invited Ann to the house, he wants to propose to her and begin a new life.

But other than these points, it’s the words of the other characters, rather than Chris’ words and actions, that tell us of Chris’ idealism:

  • ‘This one, everything bothers him. You make a deal, overcharge two cents, and his hair falls out.’ (Joe, Act Three)
  • ‘I believed everything because I thought you did.’ (George, Act Two)
  • ‘Whenever I need somebody to tell me the truth I’ve always thought of Chris.’ (Ann, Act Two)
  • ‘Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.’ (Sue, Act Two)

This is always a red flag writing wise – why is the audience told something about Chris’ character and not shown it? Under the surface Chris’ character doesn’t seem so different to Joe’s. When Ann asks if the neighbours talk about her father, Chris is quick to say, ‘Nobody talks about him anymore,’ (Act One) which is not true at all. When Joe’s guilt is finally revealed, Chris declares that indeed he suspected but did nothing about it, nor will he do anything about it. Where are his war time ideals? He says his parents have made him practical because he can’t send his father to jail:

‘I could jail him! I could jail him, if I were human any more. But I’m like everybody else now. I’m practical now. You made me practical…’ (Act Three)

But hasn’t he been more or less practical all along?

Ann – Idealist?

In Act Two Sue calls Ann the ‘female version‘ of Chris. What does that mean exactly? Is it that Ann is an idealist, or does Sue see Ann as a ‘phony’ idealist? Ann puts the pursuit of higher principles above her love for her father. When she believes Steve is responsible for the cracked parts, she cuts off all contact with him. Ann is also very practical when it comes to marrying Chris. She comes to the house determined to get a proposal. She has the ammunition of Larry’s letter, more or less proving his death, in her pocket and bring it out when the Keller’s are most vulnerable:

‘I’m not trying to hurt you Kate. You’re making me do this, now remember you’re – remember. I’ve been so lonely, Kate…. I can’t leave here alone again. You made me show it to you.’ (Act Three)

Larry – Idealist

Joe thinks that Larry was more like him, a practical person: “If Larry were alive he wouldn’t act like this. He understood the way the world was made. ” (Act Three) Larry turns out to be themost idealistic of all the characters. He is so affected by Joe’s arrest and the fact Joe does business while men die that he kills himself by crashing his plane.

Joe – Practical

Joe is the character touted as the most practical. On the surface Joe’s practicality is more matter of fact, more black and white. He cheerfully describes himself as a dumb guy who speaks plainly and took one year of night school. He works hard and feels pride that he is compensated for it. On the surface it seems his need for money is based in providing goodness for his family. He remembers fondly when everyone had straightforward jobs, he speaks matter of factly about the way the neighbourhood remembers the plant scandal, that everyone believes Steve Deever made a mistake and nothing else:

‘I know he meant no harm. He believe they’d hold up a hundred percent. That’s a mistake but it ain’t murder.’ (Act One)

As the play progresses we are exposed to another side of Joe’s practicality. He ignores when it is practical. He lies when it is practical. Joe’s practicality is tightly tied, to the point of being obsessive, to family loyalty and making money for the family. When he weighs the advantages and disadvantages, it’s more practical to blame Steve Deever than to take responsibility. This way he maintains his lifestyle and has something to pass on to his sons. It’s practical to say Kate is out of her mind when she reveals the truth about his part in the scandal. It’s practical to say when push comes to shove that yes he’s responsible but it wasn’t his fault:

‘I never thought they’d install them. I swear to God. I thought they’d stop ’em before anybody took off.’ (Act Two)

It keeps going. When his fault is pushed, Joe practically shifts his story: if he’s to blame, then everyone is to blame. Everyone is driven by money, not just him.

‘It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean? Half the goddam country is gotta go if I go!’ (Act Three)

And in the end Joe takes the practical route, rather than the idealist route when he kills himself. For Joe, there never seems to be an end to weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a situation. This is his flaw and what makes him a tragic character.

Kate – Practical

It is often said that Kate is hysterical with grief over Larry. “Because if he’s not coming back, then I’ll kill myself!” (Act One) This is perhaps not the case at all. Kate is quite practical. She knows the truth will break her family apart. She knows that by portraying the loving mother she may convince George not to pursue his father’s innocence. She knows if Larry is dead, then Joe had a hand in killing him. Kate has weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the truth and therefore, Larry remains alive.

Jim and Sue – Practical

When Jim was younger he was an idealist. He desperately wanted to pursue a higher purpose. A practical nature has been forced upon him by his wife Sue which he has come to accept. Jim associates practicality with lying, this is how he has weighed the advantages and disadvantages with his position in life. He lies to himself about his happiness and knows that Kate and Joe do as well:

‘It takes a certain talent… for lying. You have it and I do.’ (Act Three)

Jim is wearily practical with his wife’s desire for the suburban lifestyle and money. He know the real value of money, that it doesn’t bring happiness, but he’s not willing to fight against Sue anymore.

Sue it seems, was born practical. When Joe calls her ‘realistic’ for forcing Jim to attend to a whiny patient, she laughs. She knows it’s the truth. When Jim tried to pursue his love of medical research, she followed him and for all intents and purposes dragged him home. For Sue, an unhappy wealthy Jim has more advantages than a poor happy Jim. Sue goes so far as to pressure Ann to move away when she marries Chris, as he is a bad influence:

‘My husband has a family, dear. Every time he has a session with Chris he feels as though he’s compromising by not giving up everything for research. As though Chris or anybody else isn’t compromising.’ (Act Two)

Sue rejects idealistic thinkers. She believes a satisfactory life (i.e. a wealthy life) and idealism cannot exist together.

Activities and Exercises

  • Define what it means to be an idealist and to be practical. How do your definitions compare and contrast with the way the words are used in the play?
  • Based on the definitions, divide yourselves into two groups: idealists and practical thinkers. Create an tableau or a scene that demonstrates the definition.
  • Come up with two lists of dialogue lines: one for idealism and one for practicality. Imagine a tug of war between two groups, using the lines as each sides ‘pull.’ Who wins? Which side’s lines are more powerful?
  • What are the symbols of idealism and practicality in the play?
  • Physicalize idealism and practicality. In groups create a machine that employs each concept.
  • In groups, write the scene where Joe is on the phone with Steve Deever about the cracked airplane parts – remember that there are two phone calls. What does Joe do between the two phone calls? What is Joe thinking? Does he know right away he’s not going to go to the plant? When does he make that decision? Where is Kate? You can get a feel for the chronology of events that day from George’s speech in Act Two.
  • Circle Answer: The class stands in a circle. Go ’round the group and each person answers quickly on a question. If there is momentum, go ’round the circle two or three times. If someone is truly stuck they can pass. Questions: Name a moment in your life when you’ve been an idealist. Name a moment in your life when you’ve been a practical thinker. Is it better to be practical or an idealist?

Questions To Answer

  1. Is Chris an idealist? Is he naive? How does he see his father before his crime is revealed?
  2. Is Chris’ idealism phony? Why would Sue claim as such?
  3. Is Ann the female version of Chris? Is she a true idealist or a phony idealist?
  4. Why are we more told about Chris’ idealism than shown through his actions?
  5. Were Joe and Kate ever idealists?
  6. Both Kate and Joe want to use their practicality to protect the family they both love. Why do they fail?
  7. Are Kate and Joe good people? Is it possible to look at them in black and white terms? Why or why not?
  8. Which character do you most relate to? Why?

Themes and All My Sons



What is the difference between a theme, symbol and motif?




How do they add texture to a literary text?




Theme Quote Comment
  “The man was a fool but don’t make a murderer out of him.” P.32








Family ties are more important to the Keller family than the law. This contrasts with the Deevers – where Ann and George refuse to speak to their father.
Destiny/ superstition “certain things have to be and certain things can never be.” P. 28



























Which themes do you think will be most important? Explain your answer. Number them in order of priority.