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All My Sons Summary and Analysis

by Arthur Miller

Act II

The second act takes place later the same day. Mother tells Chris that she fears that George is coming to open up the case again. Mother leaves, and Ann tells Chris that they ought to tell her about the engagement soon. Chris leaves, and Ann gossips with the neighbor Sue for awhile. Sue complains that her husband resents her for having put him through medical school, saying that "you can never owe somebody without resenting them." Sue says that Jim wants to do medical research and that Chris is the one who put idealistic thoughts of helping the world into her husband's head. She thinks that Chris makes other men feel guilty about their lives, while Chris lives on his father's business--she implies that this is not clean money.

Chris enters, and Sue speaks cordially to him, then leaves. Ann tells Chris that Sue hates him and says that everyone thinks Keller is guilty. Chris says that there is no suspicion in his mind whatsoever, asking if she thought he could possibly forgive his father if he had been guilty. Keller enters, and they lightheartedly banter about his lack of education. Keller says that everybody is getting so educated that there will be no one left to take away the garbage. "It's gettin' so the only dumb ones left are the bosses ... you stand on the street today and spit, you're gonna hit a college man." Keller changes the subject and offers to give Ann's father a job when he gets out of jail, ostensibly so that he will not freeload on the newlyweds. Keller takes it as a personal insult when Ann implies that she would never have anything to do with Steve, father or not. Keller leaves.

Jim announces that George is about to enter, and he warns Chris that George has blood in his eye--he should not fight this out in front of his mother. George enters, and there is some cordial but strained small talk for awhile. Eventually, George cuts to the chase and tells Ann that she is not going to marry Chris, because his father ruined her family. George explains that he went to the jail to tell their father that Ann was getting married, and he discovered that they had been wrong all along. They did a terrible thing in cutting their father out of their lives. Steve had been alone at work when the cracked cylinder heads came in, so he called Keller. Keller told him to weld the cracks and send the parts on to the army, but Steve was afraid to do it alone. Keller claimed that he had the flu and could not go into work. This excuse made it possible for him later to deny any involvement in the shipment. Chris says he heard all this before in court, but George says it was different hearing it directly from his father, a "frightened mouse" of a man who would never do such a thing on his own volition. Chris counters that he certainly would, and because he was such a frightened mouse he would throw the blame on someone else because he was not man enough to take the heat. George accuses Chris, saying that he must know the family secret, and that this is why his name is not on the business. Chris warns him not to start a fight.

Mother enters; there is a general pause. She gushes over George for a while, and he responds kindly, since they have always gotten along. Lydia stops by (she and George were old sweethearts), and it saddens him to see her. Everyone is happy and friendly until Keller enters. George says that his father is not doing well, and Keller is sympathetic. George tries to be hostile, but he keeps getting disarmed by Keller's friendliness. Keller says he is sad to hear that Steve is still angry at him and that Steve never knew how to take the blame. He rattles off a list of incidents in which Steve tried to blame others to save face. George knows that this is true, and his anger is diffused. He decides to stay for dinner after all, and he comments that everything looks the same and everyone looks well.

Mother responds proudly that her husband has not been sick for fifteen years. Keller hastily adds the exception of his flu during the war. Mother takes a moment before she realizes what he is talking about, and George notices the awkwardness. His suspicion is reawakened.

Frank enters and announces that he has finished Larry's horoscope. The day he disappeared was his favorable day, so Larry probably could not have been killed on that day. Mother insists that Larry is alive, and she says that she has packed Ann's bag and it is time for her to go. George keeps insisting on returning to Mother's slip-up on the matter of Keller's flu during the war, and George tries to get Ann to leave with him. She says she will not leave till Chris tells her to, and Chris throws George out. Ann runs after him, after all, to try to calm him down.

The Kellers are left alone. Chris yells at his mother for packing Ann's bag, but she replies that everybody has to wait for Larry to come home. She is very insistent on this point. Chris says that he has let Larry go a long time ago. Mother cries that Larry is alive, because if he is dead, then Keller killed him. "As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father." She runs out.

Chris turns to Keller, finally understanding. Keller does not deny it; he ordered those cracked cylinder heads to be shipped out. Yet, they did not go into the type of plane that Larry flew. Chris says that Keller killed twenty-one men, and Chris then calls him a murderer. Keller explains that it was a matter of business: you work forty years, and in one moment, one failed shipment, the contracts can be torn up and you can lose everything. He thought that the military would notice the cracks anyway and that if they did not, he would warn them. But it was too late--the news was all over the papers that the planes had crashed, and the police were knocking on the door.

Chris is flabbergasted that his father suspected the planes would crash. Furious and betrayed, he asks why his father would do such a thing. For him, his father replies--for Chris, for the family, for the business. Enraged, Chris rants about his father's small-mindedness, in particular his lack of empathy with his countrymen and the human race. "No animal kills his own, what are you? What must I do to you?" He stumbles away, weeping, as his broken father cries out to him.

Analysis

Much of Miller's drama focuses on the unexceptional man. His Death of a Salesman is a fanfare for the common man, putting the dreary plights and small ambitions of the lower middle class into the anti-hero of Willy Loman. Miller finds high drama in the life of a man so common that he could be anyone in the audience, and that is why Death of a Salesman continues to resound so strongly with audiences, especially men of a certain age. Likewise, in The Crucible Miller takes commonplace people and puts them in the extraordinary situation of the Salem witch trials. The drama of the everyman is a trope throughout Miller's oeuvre, and it begins to surface as well in All My Sons, his first prominent play. The theme is first made apparent when Keller tries to justify Steve's actions during the war. He calls Steve a "little man," who buckled under pressure from the military when a shipment of cracked cylinder heads came through his inspection. Keller draws a distinction between men who are easily pressured and are natural followers (Steve) and men who can stand up for themselves and make the difficult choice in a bad situation (himself). The irony, of course, is that he is defending Steve a little too vehemently, because only he and his wife know that Keller actually belongs in the former category of the common follower. Keller may talk big, but we learn at the end of the second act that when the military was on the phone and he had to make a decision, Keller was the one who caved in to circumstance. The little man whom the hero patronizingly defends at the beginning of the play turns out to be rather like the hero himself.

Despite Keller's insistence that he was thinking of his family in the choice, it seems more likely that his first thought was on keeping his business. This emphasis, if true, reflects poorly not just on Keller but on the profit orientation of the capitalism within which he acts. Wartime racketeering and the merciless pursuit of business profit to the exclusion of human decency are, in Miller's worldview, part and parcel of the American capitalist system. Miller's leftist sympathies are no secret; the witch hunts of The Crucible are a thinly veiled allegory of the show trials of the McCarthy era, and Death of a Salesman is a virulent attack on a society that uses a man up during his working years and then leaves him out to dry when he is no longer useful. All My Sons was first produced before Miller's fame gave him the ability to launch more direct assaults on the ways that the profit-seeking elements of capitalism can tend to destroy American social structure, but the implicit critique is still salient here. Keller is not presented as a villain but as an ordinary man caught up in a bad situation and who makes a choice according to his own values. Indeed, if Keller really was thinking of his family, it would have been hard for him, in the Weberian, steel-hard shell of capitalist culture, to make a different choice. He might have lost the business and landed his family in poverty after all. Through Chris, nevertheless, Miller challenges Keller's individual or family values as misguided, ignorant, and destructive in relation to the larger social and cultural values he could have been paying attention to.

Even so, everyone intends to act in view of what one thinks is the good. Like Willy Loman, Keller is a tragic antihero, a relic from a simpler time before higher education and professionalization were widespread, when the nuclear family was truly the nucleus of a man's world and his community did not seem to extend to the whole world. Keller sees himself and his business as just one small cog in the American war machine, which is part of a world far beyond himself and his real influence. What he does not understand is that the actions of this small cog do have implications far wider than what he can see with his own eyes. He is answerable not to his family, but to his society. The issue is how to balance the competing claims of self, family, and society. Is it really acceptable to cause twenty-one people to die? His society thinks not, which is why Keller's associate was put in jail.

Moreover, Keller prefers to see himself as a victim of others. Instead of dealing with his complicity in a scandal that sent pilots to their deaths, Keller denies his involvement and passes off the blame, protecting his self-image and preserving the illusion that he has legitimately maintained his rightful place in society. When George opens up the old accusations, Keller is ready for him with a list of incidents in which George's father endangered the business. He is blind to the impulses within himself that make him just as dangerous as his meek and unassuming former partner, preferring to think of himself as a man among men, minding his own business (literally and figuratively). That is the true flaw in Keller's character; though he may not be fully faulted for imprecisely calibrating the complex values involved in his life, he denies the responsibility that he knows he should own up to. His denial, which keeps him out of jail, is paradoxically what ends up eating through his family's tranquility and locking him in his own self-imprisonment of shame and deception. And when the truth is finally revealed, at first through his wife's slip of the tongue, Keller tries to mitigate his guilt by portraying himself as the victim once more, dealing with forces outside his control.

Whereas before he belittled Steve for caving under the pressure, now he claims that the very same actions were the only sensible, businesslike things to do. He rationalizes that he was just serving the principles of good business, and that he thought the parts would hold up just fine in the air. But when Chris forces him to admit that he had his doubts about the planes' safety, he again justifies his decision by claiming that he was just one of thousands of men on the wartime profiteering bandwagon. "Who worked for nothin' in that war?" he asks. Yet his denials and deflections of blame, rather than assuaging his son, lead to Chris's complete disillusionment in the moral fiber of his father. (See Centola, 1997, on this topic.)

The dialogue in the second act varies between long, explanatory speeches, and fast exchanges characterized by extensive questioning. As the tension mounts, the questions grow shorter and more rapid-fire, increasing the pressure on Keller line by line. At the climax, the staccato dialogue heightens the drama of the courtroom-like confrontation between father and son. The stage directions indicate that "their movements now are those of subtle pursuit and escape." Where first Chris was asking questions about what happened and Keller was explaining, now Chris is hurling accusations and Keller is answering in defensive questions: "Dad, you killed twenty-one men!" "What, killed?" They are replaying the ancient dance of the archetypal father-son conflict. The act finishes with Chris's speech, building through eight questions, until he asks finally, "Don't you live in the world?" He then pulls back from that peak by redirecting the last question to himself, confessing that he does not know what to do. A son may find his father guilty, but how can he punish him? (See Griffin, 1996.)

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