All My Sons Is A Modern Tragedy

  • Category: English
  • Words: 1651
  • Grade: 90
Throughout literature works of tragedy have been significant, for example, Hamlet or King Lear. Their plots were generally tragic, but the themes introduced such as the tragic hero brought up deep ideas that could be discussed and thought about extensively. One problem with modern literature is that very few tragedies have been written. One of the few authors that did write tragedies was Arthur Miller. He even wrote an essay commenting on the lack of modern tragedies, believing this to be because people thought they were "fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly" . He believed that the "common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were"i. From this belief he wrote several tragedies that won him awards and respect from his peers. One such tragedy was All My Sons, which was about the lies and immorality of a man and the resulting actions and consequences. The themes presented-dishonesty and immorality-intensify the tragic mood of the play. These themes are developed due to the actions of one man, Joe Keller, who could be a considered a tragic man. These negative themes that are brought up by the actions of Joe Keller, the tragic man, prove why this play is a modern tragedy.
        The themes in All My Sons are mainly derived from the concept of morals, the laws that man follows through our conscience. One of the themes that branches out from this is morality, the principles about human life. This theme is evident when related to the Keller family, where a conflict between morality and the loss of it takes place. Joe Keller, the father of the Keller family, was responsible for sending out faulty cylinder heads during World War 2, which resulted in the deaths of 21 fighter pilots. He believed those deaths were justified, because he kept his business, which in turn kept his family fed and healthy "You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do"¦Chris, I did it for you"¦For you, a business for you!" (All My Sons, pg. 69,70). His wife, Kate Keller, supported him because if he was responsible for those deaths then he could have been responsible for his sons death, Larry Keller, a fighter pilot "Your brother's alive, darling, because if he's dead, your father killed him." (All My Sons, pg. 68). Just like Joe, she did not see the full scope of his crime, only caring about the family. Joe's justification and Kate's ignorance of murder for the benefit of the family causes the loss of morality to be evident in the Keller household.
The two children of the family, Chris and Larry Keller, have views on morality that contrast those of their parents. Once Chris found out about his fathers crimes, he demanded an explanation for his actions "Then you did it. To the others"¦you killed twenty-one men"¦You killed them, your murdered them!"
(All My Sons, pg. 68,69). He was disgusted that his father did this, and when his father tried to justify it, he was shocked and furious
For me!-I was dying every day and you were killing my
boys and you did it for me?"¦You're not even an animal,
no animal kills his own, what are you?"¦I ought to tear
the tongue out of your mouthii

Chris' views on morality began the conflict with his father, but once Larry's views were revealed, this conflict escalates "I read about Dad"¦How could he have done that?"¦if I had him here now I could kill him"¦I can't bear to live any more." (All My Sons, pg. 83). Due to his embarrassment of his father's crime Larry committed suicide. The sons of the Keller family had different views on morality from their parents, holding them to a very high standard. These conflicting views between the parents and children resulted in the suicide of Joe Keller. His morals encompassed only his family, therefore when he realized his actions resulted in the death of his son, he committed suicide not being able to bear the moral crime he committed. This conflict resulted in suicide, making this a tragic theme.
        Another theme that branches from morals is honesty. This theme is significant because it involves mostly every character from the play. One character that is significant is Joe Keller. He lied to all his friends, even to parts of his own family, stating that he was not involved with the production of the faulty cylinder heads. The truth about his crime was revealed when his wife did not go on with the lie about being sick during the war "Well, sure"¦I meant except for that flu. Well, it slipped my mind, don't look at me that way."(All My Sons, pg. 65). Only when Chris interrogated Joe did he reveal the truth about his crime. He even lied to Herbert after telling him he would take the blame for the faulty cylinder heads. When the time came to admit he was the one that ordered the shipment of the faulty cylinder heads, he denied involvement and resulted in Herbert going to jail. The loss in honesty spread to other characters. Dr. Jim Bayliss was not fond of Chris, but he never told him this. It was revealed to the audience because Sue, Jim's wife, told Ann, Chris's fiancée "My husband is unhappy with Chris around"¦Every time he has a session with Chris he feels as though he's compromising by not giving up everything for research."(All My Sons, pg. 44). The neighbours' dishonesty was primarily directed at Joe, believing he was responsible for the faulty cylinder heads, from Sue "Everybody knows Joe pulled a fast one to get out of jail"(All My Sons, pg. 45) to Jim "What'd Joe do, tell him?"¦Don't be afraid, Kate, I know. I've always known."(All My Sons, pg. 74). This dishonesty encompassed most of the characters in the play, making this theme tragic.
        Joe is described as a bad character with no sense of morality or honesty, but he once was a good and honest worker and was a very friendly person. His flaw is tragic because it turned a good and honest man into a killer. This is called a "tragic flaw", present in the tragic hero in tragedies. Miller believes that tragedy does not only befall a hero, but the common man as well "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kinds were"i. This belief lead him to create the tragic man, and with the creation of the tragic man came Joe Keller. He is seen as a polite man through his personality, a man who likes to socialize and keep everyone on a positive spirit "Without Frank the stars wouldn't know when to come out"¦Take it easy, Frank, you're a married man."(All My Sons, pg. 28). This is true for the common man and hero as well, who by Aristotle's definition has good and bad characteristics. Joe had bad characteristics as well, which ended up being his tragic flaw. Miller believed the tragic flaw was "the flaw, or crack in the character and was really nothing"”and need be nothing"”but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity"i. Joe's unwillingness to let his company go bankrupt forced him to decide whether his family's wealth or the lives of fighter pilots was more important to him. Unfortunately, he chose wrong, loving his family so much he would do anything for them "Chris, I did it for you"¦For you, a business for you!"(All My Sons, pg. 70). This was his tragic flaw because due to his decision, his son committed suicide, which in turn caused Joe to commit suicide realizing his guilt in the matter "Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were"(All My Sons, pg. 83). The tragic hero is meant to create sympathy because of the lost potential. Due to Joe Keller's tragic decision with the faulty cylinder heads, he went from a polite and friendly man into a disrespected man among his neighbours and his own family.
        Great tragedies have always focused on the tragic hero, like Hamlet in "Hamlet", Macbeth in "Macbeth" and Oedipus in "Oedipus Rex". These plays show that focusing the story on the tragic hero is not a bad idea, giving good reason why Arthur Miller did this in All My Sons. Miller's purpose was to bring the beauty of tragedy to modern literature, proving it wasn't only meant for the upper classes of aristocracy. He succeeded, making a modern tragedy partially based on the form of past Shakespearean masterpieces, leaving the death of the tragic hero towards the end of the play for example. The conflicts between the Keller family and between all the characters brought up tragic themes. These themes, in conjunction with the plot, made a tragic hero out of Joe Keller, or in Miller's case, a tragic man. This tragic man fits the play perfectly with the themes associated with him. All My Sons can be considered a modern tragedy because of the creation of the tragic man and how his actions created several tragic themes. These actions resulted in his death, which occurs to most tragic men and heroes in great tragedies

1)        Miller, Arthur. All My Sons. Penguin Books, New York, 2000.
2) Miller, Arthur. Tragedy of the Common Man, 1949.

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