Additional Discussion Questions: All My Sons

Questions Relating to Theme The “full loathsomeness of anti-social action”

5. Some critics shy away from branding Joe Keller as a cynical killer. One critic, while acknowledging Arthur Miller’s statement that the Joe Kellers of the world would return us to a “jungle existence”, wrote, “Yet Joe Keller is not villainous. He does not exhibit in his personal life any of the brutality and cruelty generally associated with villains; indeed, he is a loving, dutiful, husband and father.” “Arthur Miller and the Loss of Conscience” by William B. Dillingham, Emery University Quarterly Vol. 16, pp. 40 – 50. Do you agree that Joe Keller is not a villain?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. Good discussions will acknowledge that, while Joe Keller didn’t think of himself as an evil man, his actions led to the same consequences as if he were a villain. In fact, Joe Keller behaved very badly. On the day that he stayed home and told Steve Deever to ship the defective cylinder heads, Keller knew that there was a risk that the defects would be missed and that the cylinder heads would be installed in planes. Yet, for weeks, he did nothing to alert the Army to the risk. Joe’s excuse, he was afraid he would lose his business, is no reason to put the lives of others in danger. A good discussion of this question will also take into account what Joe did to the Deever family by throwing the blame onto Steve. A good answer will also note that even during the play Joe is still actively trying to throw the blame onto Steve. See the conversation that he has with George in which he repeats his lies about Steve and very persuasively argues that Steve’s conduct in shipping the defective cylinder heads was consistent with other incidents in Steve’s life. He is trying to separate George from his father. There is clearly an element of villainy in Joe Keller but like most villains, he is not all bad.


6. This play is an example of how some of mankind’s best intentions can cover some of our worst motives and give rise to our most atrocious actions. In this case love for family, a positive value in just about any culture, applied without limits caused the death of 21 people. Give some historical examples of how motives that usually count for good in the world, such as patriotism and religious beliefs, have given rise to “loathsome anti-social action”.

Suggested Response:

Crimes perpetrated in the name of patriotism have been committed in most countries. For the U.S., they include, massacres of Native Americans, the Mexican-American War, internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and the red scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then there are the atrocities committed by other countries: the Holocaust (Germany); the Rape of Nanking and other acts of genocide committed by the Imperial Japanese Army; and the murderous reign of Josef Stalin in the U.S.S.R. As for religion, we need only look to the Inquisition, the excesses of some Protestant televangelists, and the imposition of Sharia law by radical Muslims to find excesses of zeal which led to criminal conduct.


7. What is an essential step in assessing the ethics of any action you plan to take?

Suggested Response:

To assess the ethics of a potential action, put yourself in the shoes of the other people who will be affected by what you intend to do and apply the Golden Rule. For more on making ethical decisions, see Making Effective and Principled Decisions.


8. Does this play show a struggle between good and evil?

Suggested Response:

Yes, because evil is often dressed in the clothes of some of our best motives. The struggle between good and evil is not always played out in terms of black and white. It is usually played out in tones of grey, of going too far for some goal that would otherwise be good. In this case, Joe took loyalty to his family too far and ignored loyalty to his country and his community. As a result, he committed a terribly loathsome act, a criminal act, a murderous act.


Assaulting the Fortress of Unrelatedness — The Limits of the American Dream — — Pursuing Profit at the Expense of Society


9. Arthur Miller, the playwright, once wrote: “The fortress that ‘All My Sons’ lays siege to is the fortress of unrelatedness.” What did he mean by that?

Suggested Response:

Joe Keller’s problem was that he could not see that he was related to everyone and that his effort to give a good life to his sons could not take precedence over his obligation not to cause the deaths of the sons of others. He didn’t know that in a very real sense, they were all his sons.


10. Did any generation of your family live the American Dream? How did that happen?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response to this question.


11. Joe Keller’s chief strengths are that he was a loving father and husband and a good provider for his family. There is a certain irony in this, what is it?

Suggested Response:

It was these very strengths that got him into trouble. Joe Keller was a family man to the exclusion of his obligations to everyone else.


12. There are at least two things going on in this dialog, one relating to theme and the other a dramatic device. What are they?

MOTHER: Joe, Joe . . .. It don’t excuse it that you did it for the family.

KELLER: It’s got to excuse it!

MOTHER: There is something bigger than the family to him.

KELLER: Nothin’ is bigger.

MOTHER: There is to him.

KELLER: There’s nothin’ he could do that I wouldn’t forgive. Because he’s my son. Because I’m his father and he’s my son.

MOTHER: Joe, I tell you —

KELLER: Nothin’s bigger than that. And you’re going to tell him, you understand? I’m his father and he’s my son, and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head! Act II, p. 151.

Suggested Response:

(1) This passage shows Joe’s inability to understand that we are all related and that duties to community and nation are sometimes more important than duty to family. (Theme #2.) The dramatic device is foreshadowing. At the end of the play, it turns out that something is bigger than family and Joe Keller puts a bullet in his head.


13. Obviously what Joe Keller did was wrong. But what should the limits be on the profit motive? Explore three situations: (1) You are a manufacturer. You can save money by sending jobs overseas to India or China, but you can still make a reasonable profit if you keep your factory in the U.S. paying reasonable wages to your employees here. You will, however, make more money by building a new factory overseas and paying your employees 1/10th the wages you pay your U.S. employees. (2) The same scenario as #1, except that unless you move your production overseas your competitors, who have already moved their plants overseas, will be able to reduce their prices and drive you out of business. (3) You are a manufacturer selling plastic combs. You can package your combs in a completely non-biodegradable plastic container or you can package your combs in biodegradable plastic for 10¢ more per comb. It will raise costs by 10% and cut your profits in half. (4) You are a fast food restaurant chain. Restaurants usually keep coffee at a temperature of 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit because liquids at more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit cause serious burns. A consultant for one company told it that the taste of the coffee would be better if it was kept at a temperature of 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. People will buy more coffee and related items and the restaurant’s profits will increase by tens of millions of dollars. In the ten previous years more than 700 people had been burned by spilled coffee at the restaurants of this chain. Should the restaurant chain increase the heat of the coffee to improve its taste? See The Actual Facts About The McDonalds’ Coffee Case. For each of these situations who are the stakeholders? What are their interests? What should the executives in the company do?

Suggested Response:

In each of these cases, modern executives will respond to the profit motive, but many would question the ethics of their actions. (In the last example, the company was sued and hit with a large punitive damages award and the probability of even more lawsuits if it didn’t lower the temperature of its coffee. Thus, it became unprofitable to keep the temperature of the coffee high and, last we heard, it had lowered the temperature of its coffee.) Try to get the class to come up with a theory of how to tell when the profit motive should give way to other concerns.


Parent/Child Conflict


14. This play explores the relationship between a father and a child. What happened to those relationships through the course of the play?

Suggested Response:

During this play, Chris undergoes the maturation process in which he realizes that his father is not perfect, but a man with good points and bad points. Most children have this realization about their parents in their teenage years. Chris has managed to postpone this process until he is in his 30s and then is forced to acknowledge that his father is a criminal who caused the death of 21 men and drove his brother to suicide.


15. Children and parents often have conflicts over lifestyle, ideals, and what is right and wrong. This play involves a conflict over ideals. In terms of inter-generational relations what is it about the family and how children mature that leads to these conflicts?

Suggested Response:

To a small child, parents set the standard for what is a good life and what is right and wrong. But children grow. As they become teenagers and young adults they develop their own ideals. These ideals can come from what their parents have taught them or the outside society. Chris and Larry got their ideas of the relatedness of human beings, one for another, from the outside society. In addition, there is a natural psychological need for children to establish their own identity and, as they mature, children begin to see their parents as people, with strengths and weaknesses just like anyone else. If the parents don’t measure up to the ideals that they have set for themselves, or the ideals that children have absorbed from the outside society, there can be conflict. Usually, the conflict is not as basic or as catastrophic as the conflict in this play. Each family develops its own way of handling differences in lifestyle and ideals. Often parents and children will limit their relations to the areas in which they can allow their love for each other to be expressed and try to ignore the areas in which they cannot agree. See also Parent/Child Theme in the Helpful Background Section.


16. What is a “generation gap”?

Suggested Response:

When many of the children of one generation share similar differences with their parents over lifestyle, ideals or what is right and wrong.


17. Describe how Chris viewed his father at the beginning of the play and how this changed through the course of the play.

Suggested Response:

At the beginning of the play Chris viewed Joe like a small child views a father. Joe was Chris’ hero. At the end of the play Chris realizes that Joe is a flawed man who has committed criminal acts.


18. Did Chris do the right thing just before Joe killed himself by refusing Mother’s plea that he not take his father to the DA?

Suggested Response:

Yes. Joe deserved punishment for what he had done.


19. Who had a healthier reaction to their father’s crime, Larry or Chris?

Suggested Response:

Obviously, Chris. Suicide is not a healthy reaction. There were several things that Larry could have done to distance himself from his father’s crime. See response to the first question in the Discussion Questions on Suicide. As it was, killing himself and destroying a plane were not patriotic actions. The government had spent a lot of money to train him and to purchase the plane. The United States needed its fliers in that war.

Appearances vs. Reality — How Refusing to Acknowledge the Truth Warps People and Relationships


20. What role did the psychological mechanism of “denial” play in this film?

Suggested Response:

Mother refused to accept the fact that Larry was dead. This prevented her from nurturing her living son, Chris, when he wanted to marry Ann. It also set up her conflict with Joe and led to the slip of the tongue with George about Joe not being ill a day in his life and her eventual disclosure that Joe was guilty.


21. How did Mother’s refusal to acknowledge the truth that Larry was dead, warp her relationships with others.

Suggested Response:

See the response to the preceding question.


The Dangers of Inaccuracies of Self-Image


22. Did any of the Kellers have an accurate self-image?

Suggested Response:

No. Joe didn’t see the criminality of his conduct. Chris didn’t see that he was a hypocrite by suggesting that others live lives without compromising their dreams and ethics, while he had compromised his by not following up on his suspicions of his father while working in his father’s business. Kate saw herself as a nurturing and loving woman.(See the stage directions.) Yet, she failed to nurture Chris by opposing his marriage to Ann. She was so conflicted about her husband’s crime that she exposed him.


23. George charges Chris with being a liar to himself, Act II, page 132. Is George right?

Suggested Response:

In a way, because Chris has never confronted his doubts about his father’s innocence, all the while espousing an ethical position very different than Joe’s.

The Law of Unintended Consequences


24. Give three examples of how the law of unintended consequences worked in this play?

Suggested Response:

See Helpful Background Section on The Law of Unintended Consequences.


The compromises people make

25. Name two characters in this play who had made serious compromises. Describe their compromises. Were they the wrong thing to do?

Suggested Response:

Jim Bayliss compromised by giving up his dream to be a research scientist to became a practicing physician and support his family. The play shows that he is pretty unhappy about it. Jim’s dilemma is a common one for many adults. The right choice varies with each situation. Jim’s wife had put him through medical school and he had obligations to her and to his children.

Chris compromised by coming into his father’s business and burying his suspicions. This was clearly not the right thing to do. When he knew the truth and after taking his long drive, Chris agreed to compromise again by deciding not to report his father. However, he retained a core of integrity by deciding to quit the family business and move away. This may have been a reasonable compromise but it left Chris feeling polluted and as if he had let his fellow soldiers down. Certainly, Arthur Miller doesn’t like this compromise. Chris rejected it after he learned of Larry’s letter and when his father appeared willing to go the District Attorney. Ann decided to compromise from the beginning of the play and again during the play as the revelations about Mr. Keller came out. Her compromise was to ally herself with the Keller family, and later the son of the man who had tried to throw all the blame on her father. This compromise is not criticised in the play and it was probably the right thing to do, especially after Chris had announced his decision to leave the family business and move away. Chris wasn’t responsible for what his father had done. The neighbors compromised their ethics by accepting Joe as a pillar of the community after his conviction was overturned. In the play, this is seen as a symptom of the cynicism of society. Under the law, people are innocent until proven guilty. However, respect in society is something different. Joe should not have been accepted as an upstanding member of the community.


26. Did Ann make any compromises in this play? Did she do the right thing?

Suggested Response:

See response to the preceding question.


Idealism vs. Cynicism

27. What kind of a relationship did Chris find among his fellow soldiers in battle and what did he find when he came home?

Suggested Response:

This is how Chris describes it. “. . . that’s the kind of guys I had. They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that exactly; a little more selfish and they’d ‘ve been here today. And I got an idea — watching them go down. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of — responsibility. Man for man. You understand me? — To show that, to bring that onto the earth again like some kind of a monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him. Pause. And then I come home and it was incredible. I – there was no meaning in it here; the whole thing to them was a kind of a — bus accident. I went to work with Dad, and that rat-race again. I felt — what you said– ashamed somehow. Because nobody was changed at all. it seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys. I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator. I mean you can take those things out of a war, but when you drive that car you’ve got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, you’ve got to be a little better because of that. Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there’s blood on it. I don’t want to take any of it. And I guess that included you.” Act I, p. 115.


Questions Relating to “All My Sons” as a Tragedy

28. Some people have seen this play as a tragedy. What is the difference between the structure of “All My Sons” and the structure of a classic Greek tragedy such as “Oedipus Rex”?

Suggested Response:

The basic structure of a Greek tragedy is as follows: The main character does something that is contrary to the moral order of the universe. This is called the “main action”. Sometimes the protagonist doesn’t even realize that he has done something wrong. Situations follow that force the protagonist to come face to face with his mistake (confrontation/realization). Through the confrontation/realization, the protagonist either learns from his fault or dies (resolution). Whatever the outcome, balance, harmony and moral order are restored, and the other characters are able to move on freely. “All My Sons” follows this basic structure.


29. How does “All My Sons” differ from Ancient Greek tragedy?

Suggested Response:

There are several differences. First, in Ancient Greek tragedy, the protagonist is someone of stature like a king or a prince. Joe Keller is just a successful businessman. Second, in Ancient Greek tragedy the community suffers until the hero learns from his fault or dies. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Thebes has poor harvests while Oedipus is King. In this play there is no economic consequence suffered by the community. Instead, it is the illness of cynicism that infects the neighbors. Third, there is no chorus in “All My Sons”. Mother has some lines that remind us of a chorus, but Miller has clearly substantially modified this element.


30. Is Joe Keller’s suicide necessary to allow Chris to live free from guilt?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. Here are some thoughts. Certainly, if asked, Chris would not have wanted his father to die. But from Joe’s standpoint, as a man who wanted to do what was best for his son, was there any other way out? The answer is that there was. He could have accepted the fact that he had acted wrongfully and taken his punishment. He could then have tried to find a way to atone for his crime and redeem himself. Keller had always been a coward, from the time he shipped the defective cylinders rather than face the ruin of his company, to the time he shifted all the blame onto Steve Deever, through to the end when he killed himself to avoid facing the consequences of admitting guilt. But when Keller put the gun to his head he could very well have been thinking that this was a final sacrifice for his son. Keller was very good at self-deception. He could have been thinking that if he were out of the way, it would be easier for Chris to grieve the loss of his image of his father.


31. Compare and contrast the characters of Oedipus Rex and Joe Keller.

Suggested Response:

There are many interesting points to make in response to this question. This list is by no means exhaustive. Both Oedipus and Joe Keller commit crimes many years before the play opens and they are destroyed as a result. They both enjoy the fruits of the crime for many years (Oedipus marries Jocasta and Joe Keller keeps his business.) Both commit their crimes due to lack of knowledge, but the knowledge is of different types. Oedipus doesn’t know the identity of his father. Joe Keller lives by the false code of unrelatedness to members of society outside his family. One of the differences is that Oedipus is both the investigator/prosecutor and the tragic hero, while in “All My Sons” the role of prosecutor is taken by Chris Keller.


32. What is Joe Keller’s tragic flaw?

Suggested Response:

Joe Keller’s tragic flaw has been described in many ways. Here are a few: His commitment to his family, to people that he loved, made him blind to his obligations to people in the larger society. — He didn’t realize that in a very real sense the young pilots of the planes that used the defective engine parts were “all my sons”. — “He was unable to visualize the public consequences of the was for him a private act” Welland, p. 26


Questions Relating to Characters in “All My Sons”

Many Discussion Questions, including the questions in the Social-Emotional Learning and the Moral-Ethical Emphasis sections, relate to characters in the play. Here are a few others.


33. Joe, Chris, and Kate each have different flaws in their character. What are they?

Suggested Response:

Joe fails to see his relatedness to people outside of his family. Chris, at 32 years of age, has not progressed through normal adolescent maturity that allows him to see his father objectively. Chris also fails to follow up on his suspicions about his father. Sue’s charge that he is a hypocrite has validity. Mother assists Joe in hiding his crime. She refuses to face the reality of Larry’s death and its implications for her family.


34. Describe the role of Kate Keller in the play.

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background section on Characters — Mother.


35. Why is Joe Keller the tragic hero/protagonist in this play?

Suggested Response:

He is the one who committed the crime. He is the one who comes to the realization of the moral bankruptcy of his actions. He dies in the end to restore the moral order of the universe. Mother’s part in the crime is only to assist Joe. She knew that what she did was wrong and comes to no new ethical understanding through the course of the play. Chris is not a mature individual who must reconcile his past transgressions with the moral order of the universe. At the beginning of the play he is child-like in his love for his father and just starting to assert his independence by deciding to ask Ann to marry him. By the end of the play he has a more mature view of his father. His journey is that of all children who come to a mature view of their parents. It is not the journey of a tragic hero.


36. Was there any character in this play that you admired? Describe why you admired that character.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.


37. Some critics take Sue Bayliss’ position and brand Chris Keller a hypocrite. “Society’s case against Chris Keller is stronger than its case against Joe Keller because Chris knows better.” All My Sons and the Larger Context by Barry Gross, Modern Drama, March, 1975. Do you agree or disagree?

Suggested Response:

The argument against Chris is based on the fact that Chris has been through a war and he has seen men sacrifice themselves for their fellow soldiers and for their nation. He should know that lying to yourself and ignoring suspicions are goods way to get hurt. He knows that someone who killed American soldiers in the war should be hunted down and prosecuted. Joe, on the other hand, really doesn’t know any better. His morality is not as well developed. However, Chris didn’t cause the death of anyone (except enemy soldiers). There is a big difference between being a hypocrite and causing the deaths of 21 men.


38. Why is Kate Keller called “Mother” by Miller in the stage directions?

Suggested Response:

There are several reasons. First, she is the instrument of causing the death of Joe Keller for killing her child, something a mother would do. Second, her character is too strong, Miller must keep it in bounds. Depersonalizing her is a clear message to readers and directors that she is not the tragic heroine of the play. Third, she serves as sort of a proto-chorus and must be depersonalized for that role.


39. Why does Mother tell Chris that his father was guilty?

Suggested Response:

See Helpful Background Section on “Mother”


40. Was Joe Keller a coward?

Suggested Response:

Yes. See response to question # 30.


41. Mother says, “In my worst moments, I think of [Ann] waiting, and I know again that I’m right.” This statement is an example of multiple uses of one statement in a play. There are at least three. Describe two of them.

Suggested Response:

The statement builds suspense because we know that Ann has not been waiting for Larry. We are curious to know what will happen when Mother discovers this. The statement is ironic, because Ann has been waiting for Chris. The statement is also an example of Mother’s delusions, because Ann is not waiting for Larry and Mother knows that her acceptance of Chris’ invitation indicates this.


42. Two characters in this play can be said to be foils for other characters. Identify one of them and describe why that character is a foil.

Suggested Response:

Bayliss is a foil for Chris because Bayliss has compromised his life away but Chris, while compromising by working with his father and being willing to compromise further, always maintains a core of his own ideals. A full compromise for Chris would have been to stay in the business with his father after he knew what his father had done. George is, in some ways, a foil for Ann because he cannot see Chris as separate from the corruption of the Keller family.


Questions Relating to Literary and Dramatic Devices in “All My Sons”


See Questions 41 and 42 above.


43. In literature (and in life) people often describe themselves when they talk about others. Give two examples of when this occurs in this play.

Suggested Response:

(1) Mother talks about people like George, “They can hate so much that they tear the world to pieces.” Act II, p. 120. In fact, part of Mother hates her husband so much for killing the 21 pilots and implicating her in the death of servicemen, that she will tear their world to pieces by telling George that Joe was not sick a day in his life and by telling Chris that Joe was guilty. (2) Joe Keller describes Steve Deever as a frightened little man who shipped the defective cylinders out of fear. In fact, it is Joe who is the fearful one: fearful of losing his business; fearful of exposure; and afraid to face the consequences of his actions.


44. Analyze the passage in which Mother tells Chris that Joe is guilty, beginning with Mother’s line, “Nothing. You have nothing to say.”. What important thing happened to cause this outburst? Describe at least three different dramatic events that are occurring in this speech. Describe how it is ironic.

Suggested Response:

See An Example of the Beauty of Dramatic Literature.


45. The characters in this play ask a lot of unanswered questions. What is the role of those questions in this play?

Suggested Response:

See the section on Use of Language above.


46. Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, reportedly said that “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” This is a plot device which occurs several times in “All My Sons” Describe two of these occasions.

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background section on Plot.


47. Irony is basic to the structure of “All My Sons” Describe the underlying irony and two additional instances of irony in the play.

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background section on Irony.


48. What is the driving force of the plot?

Suggested Response:

Chris’ desire to marry Ann. An alternative answer is the working out of the consequences of Joe’s crime.


49. In this play, important events happen off-stage. Several occur before Act I and one occurs in Act III. What are they?

Suggested Response:

Before Act I many things occur that set the stage for the play. They include: Keller commits the crime; Keller blames the crime on Steve Deever; Larry commits suicide; Chris has his experiences at war and then comes home to a country he didn’t expect; Chris decides to marry Ann and invites her home; the storm blows down Larry’s tree. In Act III, Joe commits suicide off-stage.


50. Analyze the plot of the play in terms of classic Greek tragedy?

Suggested Response:

Long before the curtain rises, Joe Keller, the protagonist, has done something that violates the moral order of the universe. He knew he was committing a crime, but he thought that it was justified because he did it for his family. Thus, like many tragic heroes, he violated the moral order of the universe without even realizing it. This is called “the main action”. In addition, a number of other important actions have occurred leading up to the events portrayed in the play. See response to preceding Discussion Question. On stage, situations follow that force Joe Keller, the protagonist, to realize his mistake (“confrontation/realization”). Through the confrontation/realization, Joe dies (“resolution”), balance, harmony and moral order are restored, and the other characters are able to move on with their lives without the burden of Joe’s error. (Mother will bear her own burden of her complicity, but that isn’t really important to her. She will be able to mourn for Larry.)


51. List four symbols in this play and describe how they relate to the themes of the play or to an attribute of a character in the play.

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background section on Symbols.


52. Give three examples of foreshadowing in the play.

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background section on Foreshadowing.


53. Describe how Miller sets the scene in the first part of Act I.

Suggested Response:

The essential concept is that he sets out a situation of a normal day in suburbia, USA. See the Helpful Background section on Setting the Scene.


54. What is the significance of the fact that the entire play occurs in the Keller’s back yard?

Suggested Response:

On one level, this is a domestic play, about families. Joe Keller’s life is focused on his family to the exclusion of all obligations to anyone else. 55. Define the American Dream and describe how this play shows the limits of the American Dream. Suggested Response: Click here for one definition of the American Dream. The definition is not set and there are assuredly other valid definitions. Whatever the definition, the American Dream does not include cheating or hurting others in order to become wealthy. Joe Keller believed that he could keep his American Dream if he sold defective aircraft engine cylinder heads to the Army. However, in doing this he lost his sons, which were the most important thing to him, and a vital part of his realization of the American Dream.