Plot Summary of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”
Overview: All My Sons by Arthur Miller is the sad Post-World War II story about the Kellers, a seemingly “All American” family. But the father, Joe Keller, has concealed a great sin. During the war, he allowed his factory to ship faulty airplane cylinders to the U.S. Armed Forces. Because of this, over twenty American pilots died.
Backstory: Before the action of All My Sons begins, the following events have taken place:
Joe Keller has been running a successful factory for decades. His business partner and neighbor, Steve Deever noticed the faulty parts first. Joe allowed the parts to be shipped. After the deaths of the pilots, both Steve and Joe are arrested. Joe is exonerated and released and the entire blame shifts to Steve who remains in jail.
Keller’s two sons, Larry and Chris, served during the war. Chris came back home. Larry’s airplane went down in China and the young man was declared MIA.
The entire play takes place in the backyard of the Keller home. The house is located in the outskirts of a town somewhere in America. The year is 1946.
Important Detail: Arthur Miller is very specific about a particular set-piece: “In the left corner, downstage, stands the four-foot high stump of a slender apple tree whose upper trunk and branches lie toppled beside it, fruit still clinging to its branches.” This tree fell during the previous night. It was planted in honor of the missing Larry Keller.
Joe Keller reads the Sunday paper while chatting with his good-natured neighbors:
- Jim the doctor and his wife Sue.
- Frank the amateur astrologist.
- Bert the little kid who pretends that he is a deputy and Joe is the neighborhood jailer.
Joe’s 32-year-old son Chris believes that his father is an honorable man. After interacting with the neighbors, Chris discusses his feelings for Ann Deever – their old next door neighbor and daughter of the disgraced Steve Deever. Ann is visiting the Kellers for the first time since moving to New York. Chris wants to marry her. Joe likes Ann, but discourages the engagement because of how Chris’ mother Kate Keller will react.
Kate still believes that Larry is still alive, even though Chris, Joe, and Ann believe that he died during the war. She tells the others how she dreamed of her son, and then she walked downstairs half-asleep, and witnessed the wind rip apart Larry’s memorial tree. She is a woman who can hold onto her beliefs despite the doubts of others.
ANN: Why does your heart tell you he’s alive?MOTHER: Because he has to be.
ANN: But why, Kate?
MOTHER: Because certain things have to be, and certain things can never be. Like the sun has to rise, it has to be. That’s why there’s God. Otherwise anything could happen. But there’s God, so certain things can never happen.
She believes that Ann is “Larry’s girl” and that she has no right to fall in love, let alone marry, Chris. Throughout the play, Kate urges Ann to leave. She does not want Chris to betray his brother be “stealing” Larry’s fiancé.
However, Ann is ready to move on with her. She wants to end her solitude and build a life with Chris. She also looks to the Keller’s as a symbol of how happy her child and family life was before her father’s conviction. She has cut all ties from Steve. Joe is unnerved by how firmly Ann has severed ties with her father.
Joe urges Ann to be more understanding, stating: “The man was a fool, but don’t make a murderer out of him.”
Ann asks to drop the subject of her father. Joe Keller then decides that they should dine out and celebrate Ann’s visit. When Chris finally has a moment alone, he finally confesses his love for her. She responds enthusiastically, “Oh, Chris, I’ve been ready for a long, long time!” But, just when their future seems happy and hopeful, Ann receives a phone call from her brother George.
Like Ann, George moved to New York and felt disgusted with his father’s shameful crime. However, after finally visiting his father, he has changed his mind. He now has doubts about Joe Keller’s supposed innocence. And to prevent Ann from marrying Chris, he plans to arrive at the Keller’s and take her away.
After learning that George is on his way, Joe becomes frightened, angry, and desperate – though he doesn’t admit as to why. Kate asks, “What has Steve suddenly got to tell him that he takes an airplane to see him?” She warns her husband to “Be smart now, Joe. The boy is coming. Be smart.”
Act One ends with the audience anticipating that dark secrets are going to be revealed once George arrives in Act Two.
Act Two of All My Sons takes place during the evening of the same day. Chris is sawing the broken memorial tree. (Perhaps this foreshadows the fact that he will soon be learning the truth of his brother’s demise.)
His mother warns Chris that the Deever family hates the Kellers. She suggests that Annie might hate them too.
Alone on the porch, Ann is greeted by Sue, the next door neighbor who occupies Ann’s old house. Sue’s husband Jim is a doctor who is unsatisfied in his career. Inspired by Chris’ idealism, Jim wishes to give it all up and go into medical research (an impractical choice for a family man, according to Sue). Sue is annoyed by Chris and his father’s inflated sense of self-importance:
SUE: I resent living next door to the Holy Family. It makes me look like a bum, you understand?ANN: I can’t do anything about that.
SUE: Who is he to ruin a man’s life? Everybody knows Joe pulled a fast one to get out of jail.
ANN: That’s not true!
SUE: Then why don’t you go out and talk to people? Go on, talk to them. There’s not a person on the block who doesn’t know the truth.
Later, Chris reassures Ann that Joe Keller is innocent. He believes his father’s alibi. Joe Keller was supposedly sick in bed when the faulty airplane parts were shipped out.
Joe walks onto the porch just as the young couple are embracing. Joe expresses his desire to find Ann’s brother George at a local law firm. Joe also believes that the disgraced Steve Deever should move back to town after his prison term. He even gets upset when Ann shows no sign of forgiveness for her corrupt father.
Tensions build when Ann’s brother arrives. After visiting his father in prison, George now believes that Joe Keller was equally responsible for the deaths of the airmen. He wants Ann to break off the engagement and return to New York.
Yet, at the same time, George is touched by how kindly Kate and Joe welcome him. He recalls how happy he was growing up in the neighborhood, how close the Deevers and the Kellers once were.
GEORGE: I never felt home anywhere but here. I feel so – Kate, you look so young, you know? You didn’t change at all. It… rings an old bell. You too, Joe, you’re amazingly the same. The whole atmosphere is.KELLER: Say, I ain’t got time to get sick.
MOTHER (KATE): He hasn’t been laid up in fifteen years.
KELLER: Except my flu during the war.
With this exchange, George realizes that Joe Keller was lying about his supposed pneumonia, thus squelching his old alibi. George presses Joe to reveal the truth. But before the conversation can continue, the neighborly Frank urgently declares that Larry must still be alive. Why? Because according to his horoscope, Larry went missing on his “Lucky Day.”
Chris thinks the whole astrology theory is insane, but his mother desperately clings to the idea that her son is alive. At Ann’s insistence, George leaves, angry that Ann plans to stay engaged to Chris.
Chris declares that his brother died during the war. He wants his mother to accept the truth. However, she responds:
MOTHER: Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father.
So the truth is out: Deep down, the mother knows that her husband allowed the cracked cylinders to be shipped out. Now, she believes that if Larry is in fact dead, then the blood is on Joe Keller’s hands.
(Notice how playwright Arthur Miller plays around with names: Joe Keller = G.I. Joe Killer.)
Once Chris comprehends this, he accuses his father of murder. Keller futilely defends himself, claiming that he though the military would catch the mistake. He also explains that he did it for his family, disgusting Chris even more. Outraged and disillusioned, Chris yells at his father:
CHRIS: (With burning fury) What the hell do you mean you did it for me? Don’t you have a country? Don’t you live in the world? What the hell are you? You’re not even an animal, no animal kills his own, what are you? What must I do?
Chris hits his father’s shoulder. Then he covers his hands and weeps.
The curtain falls upon Act Two of All My Sons. The conflict of Act Three focuses on the choices of the characters, now that the truth about Joe Keller has been revealed.
Act Three of All My Sons takes place on the porch of the Keller home. It is now 2 a. m.
Chris has run off and his mother waits for his return, worried. Jim the doctor returns from a house call. He tries to allay her concerns, but he also reveals that he knows the truth about Joe’s crimes.
After Jim leaves, Joe Keller and his wife discuss what should be done. Kate believes that Keller should offer to admit his guilt to the authorities. She does not believe that Chris would allow his father to turn himself in. However, she thinks that by making the offer, it will help Chris adjust to the truth.
This idea exasperates Joe. He does not understand why he needs forgiveness. He argues that his actions are justified because he did it for his family.
Ann steps onto the porch and explains that she has no plans to reveal Keller’s guilt. She just wants to leave with Chris and build a life together.
Kate still insists that Chris must not marry Ann. However, Ann is not deterred. She reveals a letter written by Kate’s son Larry, shortly before he died. It reads:
My dear Ann: It is impossible to put down the things I feel. But I’ve got to tell you something. Yesterday they flew in a load of papers from the States and I read about Dad and your father being convicted. I can’t express myself. I can’t tell you how I feel – I can’t bear to live anymore. Last night I circled the base for twenty minutes before I could bring myself in. How could he have done that? Everyday three or four men never come back and he sits back there doing business… I don’t know how to tell you what I feel… I can’t face anybody… I’m going out on a mission in a few minutes. They’ll probably report me missing. If they do, I want you to know you mustn’t wait for me. I tell you, Ann, if I had him there now I could kill him. [
When Chris returns and discovers the letter for himself, he is furious. He confronts his father and reads the letter aloud to him.
Finally, Joe Keller understands the disastrous implications of his actions. Larry was so distraught about his father’s greed and inhumanity that he purposely crashed his plane, ending his own life to eliminate his agony.
Upon realizing this, Keller reflects upon the twenty-one airmen who died because of him. He quietly says, “I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.” Then Keller enters the house, implying that he will turn himself in.
Moments later, a gunshot is heard. Joe Keller has shot himself, leaving Ann, Chris and Kate stunned and grief-stricken.
Like other works by Arthur Miller, All My Sonsis a critique of an over zealously capitalistic society. It shows what happens when humans are ruled by greed. It demonstrates how self-denial cannot last forever. And it is Arthur Miller’s characters who bring these themes to life.
Joe seems like the traditional, amiable 1940s father figure. Throughout the play, Joe presents himself as a man who deeply loves his family, but also has great pride in his business. Joe Keller has been running a successful factory for decades. During World War II, his business partner and neighbor, Steve Deever noticed the faulty parts first. Joe decided to send the parts through because he was afraid that admitting the company’s mistake would destroy his business and his family’s financial stability. By the play’s end, the audience discovers the dark secret he has been concealing: Joe allowed the sale of faulty airplane parts to be shipped to the frontline, resulting in the death of twenty-one pilots. After the cause of the deaths was discovered, both Steve and Joe were arrested. Claiming his innocence, Joe was exonerated and released and the entire blame shifts to Steve who remains in jail. Like many other characters within the play, Joe is capable of living in denial. It is not until the play’s conclusion that he ultimately faces his own guilty conscience – and then he chooses to destroy himself rather than deal with the consequences of his actions.
Larry Keller: The audience does not learn too many details about Larry; the character dies during the war, and the audience never meets him – no flashbacks, no dream sequences. However, we do hear his final letter to his girlfriend. In the letter, he reveals his feeling of disgust and disappointment towards his father. The content and tone of the letter suggest that perhaps Larry’s death was due to combat. Perhaps life was no longer worth living, because of the shame and anger he felt.
A devoted mother, Kate still holds on to the possibility that her son is alive. She believes that one day they will receive word that Larry was only wounded, perhaps in a coma, unidentified. Basically, she is waiting for a miracle to arrive. But there’s something else about her character. She holds onto the belief that her son lives because if he perished during the war, then (she believes) her husband is responsible for her son’s death.
In many ways, Chris is the most admirable character in the play. He is a former World War II soldier, so he knows firsthand what it was like to face death. Unlike his brother, and the many men who died (some of them because of Joe Keller’s faulty airplane parts), he managed to survive. He plans to marry his late brother’s former girlfriend, Ann Deever. Yet, he is very respectful about his brother’s memory, as well as the conflicting feelings of his fiancé. He also has come to terms with the death of his brother, and hopes that his mother will be able to peacefully accept the sad truth. Finally, Chris, like so many other young men, idealizes his father. Because of his strong love for his father, it makes the revelation of Joe’s all the more heart-wrenching.
As mentioned above, Ann is in an emotionally fragile situation. Her boyfriend Larry was missing in action during the war. For months she hoped that he had survived. Gradually, she came to terms with Larry’s death, eventually finding renewal and love in Larry’s younger brother, Chris. However, since Kate (Larry’s seriously-in-denial Mom) believes that her eldest son is still alive, she is mortified when she discovers that Ann and Chris plan to marry. On top of all this tragedy/romance material, Ann also laments the disgrace of her father (Steve Deever), whom she believes is the sole criminal, guilty of selling faulty parts to the military. (Thus, there’s great dramatic tension, as the audience waits to see how Ann will react when she discovers the truth: Steve isn’t the only guilty one. Joe Keller is guilty too!)
Like many of the other characters, George (brother of Ann, son of Steve) believed that his father was guilty. However, after finally visiting in father in prison, he now believes that Keller was in fact primarily responsible for the death of the pilots, and that his Steeve Deever should not be the only one in jail. George also served during World War II, thus giving him a greater stake in the drama, for he is not only seeking justice for his family, but for his fellow soldiers.