The Importance of Family in All My Sons

 This post will explore the ways in which family can be seen as the most fundamental concern in All My Sons for my student audience, and seek to extrapolate some general concept-teaching principles for my fellow practitioners (if any). For the thesis to stand, we will evidently have to lay out the concerns of the play, which mostly exist in reductive yet helpful binary pairs:

  1. Social responsibility / Familial loyalty
  2. Moral idealism / Material pragmatism
  3. Redemption and atonement / Guilt (with survivor’s guilt as a subset)
  4. Denial / Truth 
  5. Familial relationships

Nearly any dichotomy we identify in a literary text, being so malleable in meaning and effect, would be necessarily simplistic. The term ‘dialectical’ allows for more intellectual engagement. One concept may contrast the other, oppose or come into conflict with the other. This external division is complemented by an internal conflict: protagonists or narrator-protagonists such as Chris, Stevens and Briony are caught in the liminal space between two concerns, epitomised by confessional writing, sealed in the bildungsroman code and reaching as far back as classical tragedy.

Returning to All My Sons, we see that ‘family’ features in two of five concepts / concept-pairs. Examining both would easily, by way of sheer breadth, place ‘family’ above other concerns. Nevertheless, I will choose to study ‘family’ as concomitant with ‘familial relationships’ — the visually inclined will already have pictured familial relationships as the base of an imagined infographic (P.S. it exists in our lecture notes). The question is then… why is it the base?

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Dramatic structure – opening / beginning
I could quite simply rest my claim on simple sequencing. All My Sons curiously opens with a Sunday morning scene of the neighbours. Jim Bayliss owns the first line. The banter between Jim, Frank and Keller is the focal point, where Sue and Lydia are strategically placed on set to provide comic relief at the expense of their respective husband’s ego. Chris and Mother are not introduced until about 11, 20 pages into the play (in the Methuen edition). If we were examine this opening scene more closely, we note how family emerges as the most obvious core of the play. Consider the following methods and elements:

  • Setting: the stage directions on the first page highlight not only the Kellers’ backyard and house, but also allude to the fallen tree.
  • The newspaper: the stage property and the ensuing Frank-Keller conversation brings to the surface the idea of ‘bad news’ (i.e. deaths and disappearances), before leading into a discussion of the tree and Larry’s horoscope.
  • Dramatic language: the apparently typical banter over Jim’s son sets up the conflict between Keller and Chris over the latter’s need to ‘help humanity’. Uncoincidentally, Jim and Keller’s next talking point is Ann’s return — arguably the inciting incident that destabilises the Keller household.
  • Chris’s entrance: the above provides enough information on Ann and Larry to understand Chris’s intention to marry Ann in spite of Mother’s wishes.

The first 15 pages or so then set up the audience’s understanding of the Keller family and how it has been fractured, either by tragic events (Larry’s disappearance / suicide) or by tensions in the aftermath (Chris’s return, Chris-Keller, Chris-Mother, Keller-Mother). Undoubtedly, one can count on denial, social responsibility and material pragmatism rearing their head in these pages but familial relationships underpins each of them. Or it could be my skewed vision.

Dramatic structure – closing / ending
Another way of approaching this is to study the ending. The opening arguably provides us the sense of family – a homely setting with father, mother and son. The possibility of Larry’s return is entertained by Mother and in all likelihood, Keller and the audience too. By the end of the play, the Keller family is torn apart. In my interpretation, Chris has disowned his father by means of abnegating responsibility. Less open to interpretation is Keller’s death and the confirmation of Larry’s death.

The play effectively moves from equilibrium to chaos, harmony to fissure, joy to tragedy a possible-completeness to fissure and destruction. One cannot make the same observation of the other, more abstract concerns in the play. With ‘Live’, does the play really call for us to reconcile with truth? Does Chris not live with guilt, when Joe’s recognition is debatable to say the least? The clear shifts on the family, with highly affective consequences, form a good reason for us to teach this first. If anything, students will be able to justify their own interpretations (perhaps too conveniently) with the start and the end.

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Dramatic structure – tension, conflict and development
On the other hand, I would argue that the play is driven by the uncovering of the truth behind Keller’s actions and Larry’s death (i.e. the revelation of secrets), or by the unravelling of Kate and Keller’s collective denial. That is to say, the consequences on the family are triggered by these revelations. The consequences remain on the level of private / domestic tragedy: the audience witnesses no social ramifications, since the 21 pilots’ deaths and the incrimination of Steve Deever are recounted as historical background (as opposed to being reported within the time of the play) and Keller eludes the arm of justice.

For instance, George’s phone call at the end of Act One (p40-41) plays on the audience’s own suspicions of Joe Keller. The immediate ramifications are on the family. Mother ‘comes out of the house‘ (41) to signal a disruption. The sequence of stage directions written for Mother, as she approaches Keller, ‘her eyes fixed on him’, ‘speak(ing) with warning‘ and ‘her tension breaking out‘ (42), relays her internal anxieties unto the Joe-Kate relationship. Joe reacts in equal measure, ‘frightened but angry‘, speaking ‘desperately‘ and turning around ‘in hopeless fury‘ (43). Denial and guilt may indeed cause Joe and Kate to each sink into individual despair, but this scene locates these reactions within their relationship. It is out of fear for Joe that Kate panics. For Joe, it is less guilt than anger that drives him to slam the door. These concepts, however pertinent, are less immediate than that of family.

Symbolism and character relationships
We may apply the same logic to Chris’s ‘discovery’ of Keller’s guilt at the end of Act Two. The furious exchange seems to revolve around murder and honour and justice and grandiose notions, but it is the charging ‘Dad! Dad!’ and ‘for you!’ that strike the audience more. The Chris-Keller conflict is perhaps an ideological battle between public and private duties but it is the shattered familial relationship – that between father and son – that weighs on the audience’s mind.

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Socio-historical context
Taking a short excursion outside the text, we could also attend to the play’s renewed focus on the nuclear family. All My Sons most definitely is a post-war play that interrogates the implications of war on the domestic front. As Kate reminds us, ‘the papers were full of’ news about missing men (28), where ‘every month some boys turns up from nowhere’ (14). The play acknowledges the collective sense of loss felt by the mothers and fathers who are ‘still waiting for their sons’ (28). Miller resurfaces the wounds of his post-war audience and hits them where it hurts most — family.

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