Themes in Arthur Miller's All My Sons

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All My Wrongs

“I want to know what you did,” Arthur Miller’s Chris yells to his father, “now what did you do? You had a hundred and twenty cracked engine-heads, now what did you do?” (69). For Chris Keller, as well as every member of the Keller family, the two-day span of Arthur Miller’s play is a tragic one. As the plot of the play continues to develop, the play’s themes quickly follow suit. By the end of the third act, the themes of love, guilt, betrayal and money become interconnected and disastrous for the Keller family due to Joe Keller’s lies.

Love, guilt, betrayal and money are all themes that would commonly prove dissimilar outside of Arthur Miller’s play. Through the unscrupulous business dealings of Joe Keller, however, all four themes culminate into a tragic composite that destroys the entire family. These four themes manifest themselves in several different ways throughout the play, as well as in many of the characters.

Love, for example, becomes a recurring theme in Miller’s play through many different relationships: Joe’s misconceived sense of love for his family, Chris’ romantic love for Ann, Ann’s initial lack of love for her father due to his alleged crime and the entire family’s love for the late Larry Keller. All of these manifestations of love, however, are affected by the lies Joe Keller perpetuates in order to both remain a free man and support his family. Joe Keller’s betrayal, which he tries to compensate for when made public, becomes intertwined in the love and relationships of the entire family.

In his outing as a murderer, Joe Keller tries to defend himself. Keller asserts that his betrayal was born solely out of love for his family, as well as his paternal nature to try to support it as best as possible. This interconnection of betrayal and love, however, is one of the most disastrous and tragic aspects of the play.

Though undoubtedly morally wrong, the monetary necessity of Joe Keller’s actions certainly makes for a strong case when defending his familial love and convictionThe theme of money and its necessity becomes a huge moral debate in the play. It is incredibly ironic, however, that while his betrayal starts as one against Steve Deever and the American military to support his family, his essential betrayal is inflicted upon his family. By the curtain fall of the third act, the audience discovers that Joe Keller’s essential betrayal lies in his personal causation of Larry’s suicide. This betrayal, of course, is caused by greed.
Joe Keller’s greed is somewhat complicated, as he argues his crime’s necessity for his family. “Chris, I did it for you,” Joe asserts, “it was a chance and I took it for you” (Sinclair 70). Greed turns Joe Keller, the dedicated family man, into an anti-hero because he claims to act immorally for a moral cause. This mirage of justification Keller creates for himself, however, is nothing more than a defense against guilt.

Guilt, interestingly enough, doesn’t seem to reach Joe Keller until the end of the play. Once he associates his actions with their final repercussions, intertwining guilt with the other three themes of money, betrayal and love, many aspects of the play finally come to a close. By assuming the guilt his other family members had harvested in his place, Joe realizes the burden of his own disastrous actions and finally assumes some sort of responsibility by taking his own life.

Unfortunately for the surviving family, this suicide does not facilitate the healing Chris had, instead, hoped would come as a result of Joe turning himself in. The family is afflicted by the four themes once again as Joe leaves them with betrayal by never serving jail time, a sudden lack of income to support their monetary needs, the loss of a loved one and guilt that will now continue to haunt Chris. “Don’t take it on yourself,” Kate whispers to Chris, desperately trying to assuage his grief. “Forget now. Live” (Sinclair 84). To the contrary, Joe Keller leaves Chris and his family with no choice but to live in grief and pain.

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