Another post, this time rather delayed I fear. Anyway, here it is, a discussion of money, responsibility and the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons. I used the Penguin Modern Classics Edition and hope you enjoy reading.
“Money. Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything.” (page 73)
In Miller’s All My Sons, money and responsibility play a huge role as themes, as does loyalty. However, it is an obsession with the American Dream which not only drives the plot but also drives the characters (sometimes in to madness!). In a new, better educated America, the main character, Joe Keller, struggles to accept that his hard work and dedication to his business is not enough. Desperate to hand the business down to his son, Keller has committed awful sins against his nearest and dearest in order to keep it alive. His son, meanwhile, has dreams and desires of his own, ones which are perhaps not quite in keeping with those of his family. It is a combination of this rebellion and his father’s obsession that make this play so absorbing and fascinating.
Perhaps the most interesting character in All My Sons is that of Joe Keller, the self-made patriarch with a desperation to pass on his business to his son, but also a colder, more hardened ability to shirk blame and gladly hand it to somebody else. At the very beginning of Act One, we are introduced to Keller through the stage directions, which state that ‘When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgements must be dredged out of experience and a peasant-like common sense. A man among men’ (pp.5-6). This element of Keller’s nature, his lack of education, is something which appears more than once during the play and has a particular significance. Keller is something of a self-made man, a hard worker with an almost exaggerated desire to pass on his business to his son, Chris. This burning need to achieve the ‘American Dream’ drives Keller to atrocious behaviour. However, this notion of the ‘American Dream’ has fooled him, it has tricked him into believing that in this new post-war world hard-work is all one needs in order to be respected and good. He rails that “everybody’s gettin’ so Goddam educated in this country there’ll be nobody to take away the garbage[…] It’s gettin’ so the only dumb ones left are the bosses” (p.48). The sensitivity that Joe Keller has regarding his education is fairly clear here. Keller is unable to keep up with the times, struggling to understand how anybody could make money from old dictionaries – “All the kind of business is goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop. Now…” (p.7). Joe Keller has been blinded by his obsession with keeping his secret and his business. Throughout the play, the opinions of others are clearly of great importance to the characters, and for Keller, the thought of losing his business was too much to bear and he was willing to sacrifice literally anything in order to hold on to it. His only defence of his actions is a need to keep the business going, the business which has become his whole life. He explains to his son, “I’m in business, a man is in business[…] you got a process, the process don’t work you’re out of business[…] they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell’s it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?” (p.69).
Of course, the war is a strong undercurrent in this play, and the effect that it has had on its characters is of great interest. When Keller defends his actions, he argues that everything and everyone has been dirtied by the war, asking his son “Who worked for nothin’ in that war?[…] Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes, war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?” (p.82). Of course, it is Keller’s ‘dirtying’ with which the play is concerned. Aside from the initial dreadful decision which had such damning repercussions, there is Keller’s need to have his son inherit the business in order to give his own life meaning, and what this need drives him to. For example, he makes some effort to protect his wife from upset until his son intends to leave and turn down the business. In which case, Keller is willing to break his wife’s heart as it’s all “only for you, Chris, the whole shootin’-match is for you!” (p.17). Keller is cruel and manipulative, willing to appeal to his son’s pity if need be. He tells his son “Chris, I did it for you, it was a chance and I did it for you. I’m sixty-one years old, when would I have another chance to make something for you?” (p.70). Here Keller attempts even to lay blame on his son’s shoulders. Keller’s behaviour and actions were never driven by love for his son (although one cannot comment on whether or not he does indeed feel love for his son), but instead he is driven by an obsession with an ideal, with the American Dream, and with a fear of how he will be perceived by others.
As I previously pointed out, the appearance of oneself before others is a common thread in the play. There is even the ironic moment when Sue, a neighbour, says of the Keller family, “I resent living next door to the Holy Family. It makes me look like a bum” (p.45). The irony being, of course, that the family is anything but holy. Keller tries to seem like an understanding man, sympathising with his old partner, even though there is a more bitter irony in his words. “There are certain men in the world who would rather see everybody hung before they’ll take the blame” (p.64). This from him is incredible. One wonders if Keller is aware of just how much this statement applies to him, or if he in genuinely unaware. After all, Chris accuses his father of having “such a talent for ignoring things” (p.16).
The character of Keller’s son, Chris is an interesting one. In his physical description he is likened to his father, but he just lacks the lying ability, or the self-serving nature. He struggles with his own American Dream, saying “I don’t know why it is, but every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. My whole bloody life, time after time” (p.16). I believe that one could argue that Chris’ feelings stem from being a pawn in his father’s own dream – Chris has never had the opportunity for any individuality, or wants of his own. He and indeed his girlfriend Ann, are shackled by money and expectation. Sue points out to Ann that “he’s [Chris] got money. That’s important you know.” But Ann insists “It wouldn’t matter to me.” (p.44). It is this abandonment of expectation and financial concerns that ultimately frees the couple from the obsession that engulfed Joe Keller and was the ultimate downfall of Ann’s own father.
Joe Keller never accepts his guilt fully. He argues and he makes excuses and he even allows someone else to take the flack. This criticism of the American Dream, a notion used by the powerful to control those less so, is made all the more interesting when one considers that the playwright, Arthur Miller, was himself investigated by the House of Un-American Activities. This period of US history is worth studying in itself (in fact, this is my wife’s topic for her undergraduate dissertation!). Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading and I will hopefully be back with something again soon.