Friday, 2 December 2016

Essay 4: All My Sons - Family as an Excuse

This passage answers the question: Do you think that there is some legitimacy in Joe Keller’s argument of some wrongs being excusable in the name of family?

The play All My Sons by Arthur Miller can be seen as a modern day tragedy due to the protagonist – Joe Keller – possessing a fatal flaw, that eventually leads to his downfall. Keller’s fatal flaw in this case, is his limited worldview. He thinks that his responsibility is only limited to his business and family, and thus he ignores the ‘social contract’ we are all bound by. Hence, when Keller argues that some wrongs are excusable in the name of family, it seems like a rather feeble attempt to regain his dignity, in light of the fact that he has blood on his hands regardless.

Undertones of Keller’s guilt are visible from the start. In the name of defending Steve Deever, he keeps trying to justify his own crime, to provide some sort of solace to his own self. When Ann and Chris chastise Deever for his crime, Joe attempts to defend his former partner repeatedly. In an emotional outbreak, he reminds them that a “father is a father!” This voices his insecurities of being reprimanded severely by his own son if the truth were to come out. We also see how his family’s perception about him matters the most, even if there “is not a person on the block who doesn’t know the truth”. This further accentuates how his mindset of being bound solely by a familial contract instead of a societal one.

All his life, Keller has worked hard for the business, and has reached where he is, taking a step at a time. However, he is so indulgent towards his business, that it becomes everything to him - enough to betray his partner. The only thing that Keller thinks about is how he can provide for his family, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however this blinds him and he adopts the wrong means to do so. His money minded nature is evident when Chris claims, “the business doesn’t inspire him (me)”, to which Keller spontaneously responds- “must you be inspired?” This highlights that even the thought of Chris doing anything but carrying the family business forward unnerves Keller.

However, towards the end of this play, when the truth does finally surface, Keller’s misguided notion of providing for the family and keeping the business going regardless of the path taken to do so is finally dismantled when Chris, his own son thinks of him as someone who is “worse than an animal”. This truly leaves Keller broken, for his own son, the one for whom he has worked so hard all his life, has now turned against him. The meaning of this bond is evident when he tells Kate he is Chris’s father, and he is his son, and “if there is something bigger than that, he’ll (I’ll) put a bullet in his (my) head”. This foreshadows the end of the play, where he does commit suicide, for he is a villain in both Chris and Larry’s eyes, Larry who “couldn’t bear to live anymore”, shadowed by his father’s crime. Keller being broken completely after Chris’s outburst and Larry’s letter typify how much family meant to Keller. The only thing that kept him going was the comfort of doing what he did for his family, however once his sons see him as an evil man, he is overcome with the long-suppressed feeling of guilt. However this time, it is to such an extent that he can’t bear to live with it.

Chris is particularly hurt due to the residual guilt of surviving war, while his fellow soldiers gave their lives fighting for their country. He “felt wrong to be alive”, and it was a time where he truly understood the immense value of the societal contract we are all bound by. This is ironic since Keller’s perception of his duty towards society is exactly the opposite. Hence, when Chris finds out his father ignores this contract, all his conceptions about his father, who he looked up to, come crashing down. He can’t fathom how his father ignored the fact that “there’s a universe of people out there and you are responsible to it”.

Even though one can’t say there is much legitimacy is Keller’s argument of some wrongs being excusable in the name of family, it is interesting to note that this mindset came about due to the extensive focus society placed on money.  Miller makes it evident that the American society was fairly money minded, made most prominent by Joe Keller’s mindset of it everything during “dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war and peace”. Keller uses the American ideology of capitalism and war profiteering to excuse his crime.  He keeps trying to justify his crime by pleading with Chris, claiming “he did it for him (you)”. Also the fact that everyone “knows the truth”, and yet nobody did anything about it testifies to the fact that society easily accepts the fact that money can achieve anything, even if it means the death of twenty two brave pilots, or the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent man. Miller also employs dialogues of secondary characters to convey how money was placed above all in the American society; be it Jim’s comment about helping the society on a “Warner Bros salary”, or Sue’s comment on Chris being rich as a bonus for Ann if she married him. Miller takes this opportunity to criticise the American ideology of focusing excessively on materialistic pleasures and privileging money above one’s ethics and responsibility. This does make us sympathise with Keller to an extent, for he too was a victim of this mentality, and fear of “going out of business” consumed him completely.

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