An Analysis of Sacrifice in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
In All My Sons sacrifice plays a crucial role in almost every part of the play. Miller explores the impact of sacrifices made for one’s family versus humanity as a whole, explicitly the direction and intention of a sacrifice. As part of this essay, I will identify and explain what I consider to be the most important in the play.
The second aspect of sacrifice in All My Sons which I will examine in this essay involves the idea that not all sacrifices are actually conscious decisions; many of the acts of ‘sacrifice’ in the play could be explained simply by an ‘escape’ – does Joe Keller kill himself as a final realisation of the crimes that he has committed or just as an escape from the pressure around him?
When we first encounter the characters in All My Sons, it is clear that the family is well integrated with its surroundings: as neighbours happily stroll by, and children are free to roam around the area, Jim Bayliss, the Keller’s neighbour, confidently discusses such informal matters as the weather and the news. Clearly the Keller family is content, however later in the play we discover that there is a sub-story which will turn out to cause more destruction and chaos than previously assumed.
In his autobiography, Arthur Miller, upon reflecting on his play, says: “This kind of placid American backyard was not ordinarily associated, at least in 1947, with murder and suicide. ” This is an indicator that the setting of All My Sons was planned deliberately by Miller- it was a literary way of making the events that occur in the play seem more unexpected to the audience. It is also a subtle pointer that maybe ‘murder and suicide’, as Miller phrases it, is just as common as the suburbs in which it resides in All My Sons.
Miller is subverting common assumption about the disconnection between normal, day to day domestic sacrifices and those made on an entirely different scale on a war front – to rephrase, he is indicating to people that the war was everywhere; it is inescapable. This notion is again reflected when Miller explains in the first stage direction that the house is “hedged by tall, closely planted poplar trees which lend the yard a secluded atmosphere” this enforces a sense of claustrophobia in the audience.
The first example of sacrifice in the play is when we discover that Joe has sacrificed general morality in order to save his family: he is willing to lie in court and therefore put Steve Deever, a colleague, in prison. The whole issue starts when Joe inadvertently causes an aerial-adversity when he willingly tells his colleague, Steve Deever, to weld over 120 cracked cylinder heads which were, that day, to be built into several planes. This results in the death of 21 pilots. The denial of this command in court leads to the jailing of Steve Deever.
This mistake, two years later, still affects the family deeply. In this way we encounter the primary sacrifice in the play: that Joe Keller has indirectly sacrificed his son and twenty-one pilots in order to protect his family from an economic abyss. Joe Keller, when he notices Chris bringing up the subject of the incident and how Keller himself might have caused the death of his own son, Larry, by manufacturing defunct cylinder heads, gives the retort “Those Cylinder heads went into P-40’s only. What’s the matter with you?
You know Larry never flew a P-40” Later on in that same page, Keller identifies (and also blames to some extent) Steve for the pilot’s deaths: “All of a sudden a batch comes out with a crack… A fine, hairline crack… So he takes out his tools and welds over the cracks”. The way in which Miller structures this sentence is praiseworthy: the deliberate inclusion of “A fine, hairline crack” is a reminder of the seriousness of the consequences of Joe’s actions: something similar to some major elements in the plot is only revealed after close inspection.
This symbolism, although minor in the theme of sacrifice, is a linkage device between the small and the large: between the microscopic hairline crack and the macroscopic outcome: the family sacrifice and the humanity sacrifice. Furthermore, the concept of a fine hairline crack could also be grafted onto Keller as a person: he has a serious and life threatening flaw which is only revealed after close inspection.
In a sense, throughout the play Miller is also suggesting that just as an individual can thoroughly disrupt a family, so can an individual completely eviscerate a society – linking back to the idea of a small crack and its massive outcome. Just as Joe Keller’s denials lead to his family being torn apart, so Miller is implying that the same is true on a much larger humanitarian scale. As well as sacrificing morality, it is clear that towards the climax of the play, Joe sacrifices responsibility in order to preserve himself.
On page 55 George is having an argument with Chris, Joe Keller’s son when he says: “And he’s the kind of boss to let a hundred and twenty-one cylinder heads be repaired and shipped out of his shop without even knowing about it? ” This questioning towards Keller is interesting because it shows us that George thinks he is responsible and he even comes up with a diligent retort later on the same page which makes Joe seem like a responsible boss; even to the audience: “The same Joe Keller who never left his shop without first going round to see that all the lights were out. This seemingly un-arguable confirmation that Joe is a responsible person is torn apart when we witness George, in a very accusatory manner, shout at Ann: “He simply told your father (Steve Deever) to kill pilots and covered himself in bed” This sentence is quite a surprise in the play as directly before it there is a page or so of harmless and jocular salutations; Miller places this revelation in a specific location in the play in order to cause the most potency of the truths held within it, as the tone is very different from the one before it.
From this we can see clearly that Joe has sacrificed responsibility of the problem in order to preserve his own image: he fears that if he gets involved and the worst does occur, he will be blamed. For this reason he merely calls into the plant, rather than taking the option to go in to the shop and take reparatory action. In this way, as we learn about the consequences of this action by Steve Deever, Joe is also denying responsibility for his country’s men who are flying the aircraft; in fact, interestingly, later on in the play we get a glimpse of a heated argument between Joe Keller and his son.
After Joe and Chris had disputed for several minutes about Keller’s prescience about the twenty-one deaths, Chris alleges Keller: Chris: Then you thought they’d crash. Keller: I was afraid maybe… Chris: You were afraid maybe! God in heaven, what kind of a man are you? Kids were hanging in the air by those heads. You knew that! Keller: for you, a business for you! In this exchange a lot of information can be collected about the characters; for example, Keller is clearly willing to repudiate his responsibility for other’s lives, and perhaps symbolically the welfare of his society as a whole in order for his children to thrive.
Steven Centola, a critic of All My Sons, believes that “so long as he acts to preserve the welfare of his family, Keller believes that anything he does can be justified”. In All My Sons, Keller justifies the death of the pilots indirectly by saying that his actions were based on an intense desire for prosperity in his family: Keller is arguably using the cloak of fatherhood to do whatever he pleases – whether that be social or unsocial, or morally right or wrong. This can be identified in the example of the death of the twenty-one pilots, for example.
The theme of social responsibility, it seems, is elaborated further when we witness Chris actively not turn his father in to the police, even when he knows what Keller has done and is fully aware of the consequences: Chris is also not serving society; he is choosing not to sacrifice his family for the sake of humanity and justice. To further analyse this statement, it is necessary to consider the situation of Chris in this play. Chris has also fought in the war, however he has now returned, albeit with the emotional imprint of the war.
He says “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”. He feels that the people in America are comparatively lazy and un-devoted towards their society: he feels that they are not willing to give up much, and let alone their lives, for the cause of war and their community. A sense of embarrassment is also evident when Chris is speaking: he clearly has a sense of guilt that his father can take advantage out of innocent fighter pilots and his country all for personal gain.
Chris’s attitude to the subject of money and particularly the way in which it is made is interesting- he feels that some money is ‘dirty’- especially his father’s, because he knows that his father was able to keep going because he lied in court and took advantage of his ‘innocence’ to get money. On one occasion these emotions are visible: Keller to Chris “Because sometimes I think you’re… ashamed of the money” Chris also says: “For me?… what the hell did you think I was thinking of, the Goddam business?… Don’t you live in the world, don’t you have a country?
What the hell are you? ” From Chris’s very frustrated and accusatory tone we know that he is angry- suggesting a very strong emotional attachment to the words that he is speaking. These emotions are also supported by Larry, Chris’s dead brother, in a suicide note: “every day three or four men never come back and he sits there doing business” Miller’s sentence structure provides a stark contrast to the selfless sacrifices made in the war zone to the selfish and domestic occurrences such as wealth and moneymaking.
The playwright also uses the word ‘sits’ to imply a sense of laziness and indolence. The tone is very accusatory and direct, even though the sentence is found in a letter. This is another reminder directly from Larry and Chris that sacrifices for other men and indeed society, are much more important than personal sacrifices. This point is evinced when we witness Chris being honest with his fiancee, Ann, describing to her a wartime sacrifice: “For instance, one time it’d been raining several days and this kid came to me and gave me his last pair of dry socks”.
In this case the boy was helping not just one person, but in a deeper sense a whole nation; the child was sacrificing something and giving it up wholly and completely for the betterment of a society. Interestingly, All My Sons adopts many links to Greek tragedies, including the works of Sophocles. It is common in these tragedies for there to be a normal, seemingly uncorrupted domestic setting, with a protagonist who has a hidden flaw (called a Hamartia or by Aristotle in his book, Poetics. This is one of the reasons that All My Sons is called a classical tragedy- because the book is typical of Sophoclean tragedy literature: the play concludes with a feeling of ‘catharsis’ or wash of emotions. The plays were often set in one place with few scenery changes over a time period (within the play) of less than twenty four hours and, at the end of this time the protagonist is made to realise his offence and he is forced to make some sort of repayment, this can, sometimes, be suicidal.
Through this repayment and sacrifice the ‘moral weighing scales’ of the universe is supposedly balanced and the Gods are vindicated. To Miller, these plays were an influence, certainly, but what evidence of this can be observed in All My Sons? To start with, clearly Joe Keller is the protagonist with the hidden past: he has committed a heinous crime which for years he has denied and obscured. As well as this, Keller takes his own life near to the end of the play, as he sees it the only way to rebalance the burden which he has created on his family and even his society.
His sacrifice is, in this case not only for his family but also humanity as a whole. (This idea links back to the idea of a universal ‘moral order’ which becomes just upon suicide). It does not take much research to also uncover some hidden links to Greek Sacrifice which Miller may have known and subsequently incorporated elements of in his plays. One notable one is some information about animal sacrifice in the times of the Ancient Greeks from scholar in animal sacrifice Karl Meuli. According to Meuli, “Greek sacrifices are derived from hunting practices.
Hunters, feeling guilty for having killed another living being so they could eat and survive, tried to repudiate their responsibility in these rituals. ” Although the sacrifices mentioned here are admittedly not self-sacrifices, the clause ‘feeling guilty for having killed another living being so they could eat and survive’ relates closely to the happenings in All My Sons; Joe Keller, to ‘eat and survive’ (in this case the less feral ‘make money and support his family’) kills 21 others and later tries to deny and escape this fact.
In some senses the rest of the sentence is also realised because Joe Keller has sacrificed Steve Deever (in prison during the play) by diverting the blame which would usually be on him; just as in Ancient Grecian times the guilty would kill an animal to relieve this guilt, so does Keller in a modern scenario by ‘getting rid of’ what he believes is a worthless ‘animal’. Interestingly, George, Steve Deever’s son, calls his father a ‘mouse’ (p. 59) and then later on in act two Keller himself describes Steve as ‘a little man’: “that’s the way they do, George.
A little man makes a mistake and they hang him by the thumbs… ” From this we can learn that Miller was almost definitely influenced by not only Greek mythology, but also perhaps some basic information about Grecian sacrifice. So far we have seen sacrifices for the sake of family and for the betterment of a larger scoped society. Another interesting, if minor sacrifice is the sacrifice by Chris and Joe about the fact of Larry’s death. Even though it is evident that both men believe that Larry is dead, they play along with Mother, not objecting when Mother tells them “… just don’t stop believing… It is evident from this phrase that Joe and Chris Keller are sacrificing reality in order to maintain the sanity, to some extent, of Mother. On the same page as the previous quotation, we are reminded about the seriousness which mother believes that Larry is not coming back “… because if he’s not coming back then I’ll kill myself”. This is extremely useful because it strengthens the fact that the sacrifice of reality and truth are made by Joe and Chris. Another sacrifice in the play is that of Jim, the Keller family’s neighbour. In response to Frank announcing that he had seen a film in which a doctor “works in a basement iscovering things” Frank adds that he thinks Dr Jim should do something to help humanity. Jim’s reply is that “he would love to help humanity on a Warner brother’s salary” This is one of the countless times that Dr Jim demonstrates his sardonic humour and intellect. As well as this, he does display some episodes of affability (for example he demonstrates much kindness to Ann, the fiancee of Chris) this quote makes it clear that Jim is sacrificing his dreams in order to remain realistic. This reminds us that this pragmatic approach to life is also an effort from Jim to accommodate for his wife’s lifestyle.
One quotation which supports this is when sue is having a conversation with Ann, Chris’s Fiance, about relationships: “And he’s (Chris) got money. That’s important, you know. ” This suggests that Sue’s lifestyle is quite money-orientated, as she clearly values that Chris has money as a reason for Ann to have a relationship with him- and Jim has sacrificed many things for in this case, his family. There are also many references to Henrik Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’ in All My Sons, and some of these references are on the subject and notion of a sacrifice.
The relationship between this play and All My Sons can be interpreted on a myriad of different levels; most importantly, that Hedvig, just like Joe, has sacrificed herself to save her family – she has taken her own life so that her relatives may live happily. This is just one of many references to the wild duck in All My Sons. Ibsen implies by the end of the play that sometimes a sacrifice for the benefit of one’s family can sometimes be effective as occurred in the wild duck: Gregers insists that Hedvig did not die in vain, because her suicide unleashed greatness within Hjalmar.
At the end of the book, we encounter a very important sacrifice. Joe Keller, the father of the Keller family, sacrifices his own life in order to save his family from utter disgrace. When “[A shot is heard from the house]” this fact is confirmed. The significance of this action by Joe is unarguable; mostly because it is such an extreme sacrifice, however there is some evidence to suggest that Joe’s action in the last few lines of the play are not sacrifice, but merely an escape from the clamping pressure around him.
One piece of evidence which supports this is on the last page of the play. Joe simply says “I can’t sleep here; I’ll feel better if I go”. This suggests that he can’t bear being with his family anymore; he clearly feels intensely embarrassed – as we have learned, Keller is a family man, so for him to not feel able to sleep under even his own roof suggests an enmeshed emotionality to the reason for his exiting. Just before this, we realise that another piece of evidence lies simply in the way that Joe uttered these words. [He speaks almost inaudibly]” from this stage direction it is very obvious that Joe feels very emotional at this point, even though ironically the emotion is not as obvious as, for example an emotion related to happiness if it were to be expressed as a stage direction. This phrase could be construed as being an indicator that Joe did not make an intentional sacrifice: he has clearly realised the scale and potency of his crime and he is making an effort to outrun it, just as he has been doing since the court case.
Another quote which again suggests this escapist attitude is when Keller is talking somewhat openly with Chris and Ann: “Kid, walkin’ down the street that day I was guilty as hell, except I wasn’t, and there was a court paper in my pocket to prove I wasn’t… ” This is just one reminder about the immense confidence which we usually associate with Joe. If we are however to maintain a balanced viewpoint, we must consider the notion that Joe’s self sacrifice was entirely intentional and deliberate- a final epiphany of the true magnitude of felony which he committed.
One quote which supports this idea is found in the last act of the play when Joe quietly and calmly slips away from his family: Keller: [he speaks almost inaudibly] “I think I do. Get the car; I’ll put on my jacket. ”[He turns and starts slowly for the house] This subdued and submissive exit from Joe suggests that his sacrifice is intentional; he doesn’t want his family to make a fuss, and he wishes for the whole thing to be quiet. Joe also presents us with another submissive action when he realises, to some extent at least, the significance of his actions: Keller: Larry. Larry. [He slumps on a chair in front of her] What am I gonna do Kate . Mother/Kate: Joe, Joe, please . . . you’ll be alright; nothing is going to happen . . . Keller: [desperately, lost]: For you Kate, for both of you, that’s all I ever lived for . . . The stage directions are an indication from Miller that Joe has an attitude of resignation about him; as referenced before he has realised how much his actions have eviscerated the lives of others and indeed the emotions of his family. When Miller uses the word ‘slumps’ a mood of passiveness and indolence is washed as if by a tide into the scene – and the use of ellipses implies a sense of contemplation and introduces an almost cavern-like depth nd meaning to the conversation, as if each line is falling into an emotionally surging abyss – trailing into silence. This is partially supported when Miller places the direction ‘[desperately, lost]’ before Keller’s speech. In this essay I have examined the theme of sacrifice In All My Sons. The role of sacrifice is to make the audience aware of Joe Keller’s myopia- by highlighting his error as his willingness to sacrifice his responsibility to his country and his humanity, the audience see Keller as an evil, malevolent but at the same time family oriented figure.
In a sense, Miller is demonstrating that, essentially, there is a blurred boundary between sacrifices made for family and humanity as a whole. Although there are some sacrifices that are made at opposite ends of the ‘humanity-family’ scale (for example Dr Jim is sacrificing his ambitions for success and prosperity in order to remain realistic and support his wife’s lavish lifestyle), Miller is implying that in some cases the boundary is so blurred that the sacrifice does not have a specific direction.
In All My Sons, society is family, especially for people like Larry and Chris- humanity to Miller is like one big, self embracing family. Miller uses the notion of the ‘Fine, hairline crack’ and the seemingly disproportionate outcome; the small scale family sacrifices which are dwarfed but are at the same time similar to the macroscopic humanitarian-scale sacrifices made by (to Miller) so few. W/count = 4,140 BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Miller, Arthur, All My Sons, Penguin Classics, 2009 2. Miller, Arthur, “Timebends: A Life”, Methuen London (1987) ISBN 0413414809. 3.
Ibsen, Henrik, “The Wild Duck”, Methuen (2005) 4. Centola, Steven R. “All My Sons. ” Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller, Cambridge University Press, 1997. 5. Karl Meuli, Scythica, 1935. 6. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/The_Wild_Duck 7. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Arthur_Miller 8. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Theater_in_the_United_States 9. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Greek_mythology 10. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Sophocles 11. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Oedipus 12. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Hubris 13. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Nemesis_(mythology) 14. http://en. ikipedia. org/wiki/Hamartia 15. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Nicomachean_Ethics 16. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Aristotelian_ethics 17. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Aristotle 18. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Poetics_(Aristotle) 19. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Catharsis 20. http://dictionary. reference. com/browse/catharsis 21. http://classics. mit. edu/Aristotle/poetics. html 22. http://grammar. ccc. commnet. edu/grammar/marks/ellipsis. htm ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Miller, Arthur, “Timebends, A life”, Methuen, London (1987) ISBN 0413414809 [ 2 ].
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