In What Way Can “All My Sons” be Described as a Tragedy?
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons tell the tragedy of Joe Keller, a hardworking businessman who tries to cherish his American dream of success through unfair means. In the play, the protagonist, Joe Killer represents the dream of an American for material success. Thus, All My Sons addresses the painful conflicts in a middle-class American family in particular and American values in general. The play, which examines the cost of blind faith in the American dream, is a postwar, American version of personal tragedy. Miller attacks an average American’s false myth of the American dream that money is more important than truth and moral vision. It can be noticed that Miller’s tragic pattern resembles that of Ibsen’s dramatization and sentimentality where the contrast between the past and the present lives of characters results in the ultimate tragedy. The play can also be categorized as a morality play as it depicts the moral or ethical conflict between Joe, a hard-working realist and his son Chris, a militant idealist. All My Sons follows an Ibsenian structure whereas Joe’s personal tragedy resembles that of the Greek tragic heroes who stumble due to their tragic flaw in character.
It is Joe’s own choices and actions that lead to his downfall and Joe’s action of supplying the cracked cylinders for army airplanes and putting the blame on his partner, Steve shatters the dreams and aspirations of both the households. Larry feels ashamed of his father’s betrayal of the nation and embraces death on the battlefield. Chris, after the war, is thoroughly disillusioned at the ingratitude shown by common man towards the American youths who sacrificed their lives at the waterfront for the nation. When Chris comes to know about the treachery shown by his father, he outbursts: “I was dying every day and you were killing my boys and you did it for me?…. 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?” (Miller 116). This intensifies the guilt-feeling in Joe’s mind which serves as the immediate reason for his suicide. Thus, it can be stated that Joe’s attempts to cherish his American dream culminates not only in his personal tragedy but also adversely affects the other family members as well.
However, it can be observed that Joe is a responsible parent and husband for whom his family is everything. Joe does everything for the welfare of his two sons-Larry and Chris. Joe’s love towards his sons is evident when he confides to Kate about Larry that “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!” (Miller 120). His words prove to be catastrophic at the end of the play when one finds Joe shooting himself. However, it can be noticed that Joe finds nothing wrong in his dishonesty as he regards “the worth of individual effort and the sanctity of family loyalty” higher than any moral or ethical scruples (Nelson 85). Thus, it can be understood that Joe Keller is moved by his loyalty towards the family rather than his own personal interests or profits. As a result, in a critical situation where his business seemed threatened, “the question for him was not basically out of profit and loss; what concerned him was a conflict of responsibilities -his responsibility to his family, particularly his sons to whom the business was to be a legacy of security and joy, versus his responsibility to the unknown men, engaged in the social action of war, who might as a remote consequence suffer for his dishonesty” (Wells 48). Thus, it can be seen that Joe possesses all the good qualities of a tragic hero whereas his incessant quest for material wealth and success plunges him into eternal doom.
To conclude, one can state that the protagonist, Joe Keller becomes a victim of his own dreams. Even though he is highly hard-working and is governed by his loyalty towards his family he gets ruined with his greed for money and material prosperity. His love for his sons and his care for the family prompts him to resort to unfair and unethical deeds in business. The Ibsenian structure of the play and the effective blending of both past and present incidents add to the tragic effects of the play.
Nelson, Benjamin. Arthur Miller: A Portrait of a Playwright. London: Peter Owen, 1970. Print.
Miller, Arthur. All My Sons in Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays. New York: The Viking Press, 1967. Print.
Arvin R. Wells, “The Living and the Dead in All My Sons,” Modern Drama, 7.1 (1964): 47-48. Print.