All My Sons

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Joe Keller Character Analysis

Head of the Keller family, Joe runs a successful business, J. O. Keller, Inc., with his son, Chris. It is revealed, later in the play, that Joe OK’d the production of faulty plane parts during the Second World War, resulting in the deaths of 21 American airmen, although, at the time, Joe pawned this decision off on Steve Deever, Annie’s father and Joe’s subordinate at the company. After it is revealed by Annie that Larry knew of his father’s malfeasance and killed himself in the war because of it, Joe goes upstairs, pretending he will finally go to jail for his crime, and shoots himself at the close of the play.

Joe Keller Quotes in All My Sons

The All My Sons quotes below are all either spoken by Joe Keller or refer to Joe Keller. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Family and Familial Obligation Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin edition of All My Sons published in 2000.
Act 1 Quotes

She was out here when it broke.
When?
About four this morning. I heart it cracking and I woke up and looked out. She was standing right here when it cracked.

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Chris Keller (speaker), Kate Keller
Related Symbols: Larry’s Tree
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Kate has trouble sleeping, and when she this is the case, she tends to go out into the front yard to observe Larry's tree. The tree is a complex symbol for Kate. On the one hand, it represents Larry, her beloved son who was lost at war. It is a memorial to him. On the other hand, Kate wants to believe that Larry needs no memorial at all—that he is still alive, waiting to be found somewhere in the Pacific.

Thus it is unclear what it means, for Kate and the other characters, when the tree is hit by lightning. Does this mean that Larry himself is dead, destroyed? Or does it mean that the idea of a memorial for Larry is no longer necessary—that Larry is still alive? Larry is in fact dead, but Kate still holds out hope for his return. Later in the play, Kate will learn more information about what has happened to her son—but at that point, Kate is not sure she wants to know that information. 

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The trouble is, you don’t see enough women. You never did.
So what? I’m not fast with women.
I don’t see why it has to be Annie.
Because it is.

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Chris Keller (speaker), Ann Deever
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Both Joe and Kate have trouble with the idea, later revealed in the play, that Chris will marry Ann. This is because Chris's relationship with Ann upsets the agreed-upon order of the families before the war, when Ann and Larry were together. Kate even praised Ann later for "waiting" for Larry for many years after he has gone missing.

But eventually Ann must move on with her life, and she does fall genuinely in love with Chris. Joe and Kate, for their part, however, have trouble accepting the idea that Chris and Ann could be together. Like the tree, this relationship would imply that Larry is really gone—that life has gone on without him after the war. Joe has great difficulty coming to terms with this. Indeed, many in the town have difficulty with the idea of Chris and Ann together, too. Miller has created a setting in which families, though independent, do seem to depend on one another's conception of what is normal and right. Thus Sue and Jim, and Frank and Lydia, speak in passing of Larry and Ann's relationship of years ago—as though any other relationship of Ann's could not be valid. 

The man was a fool, but don’t make a murderer out of him.

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Steve Deever
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe's motivations for justifying Steve's behavior (knowingly shipping faulty parts for airplanes during the war) are complex. We learn later that Joe really is guilty of negligence, and that he is doubly guilty for foisting the blame entirely on Steve. By the end of the play, it sounds as though Steve simply was not strong enough to stand up to Joe and prevent the shipment of the parts. Nevertheless, the prime mover in the shipment was Joe, and therefore he should have paid most mightily for his crimes. Yet Joe walks around the community unpunished—until the very end of the play. 

Here Joe is inclined to say that Steve was only being foolish—that Steve was certainly to blame, but that Steve is no criminal. In this way Joe sounds like he's being generous about his former partner, when in reality he's defending his own actions to himself. It is a rich piece of acting on Joe's part, and a part he has been playing openly in the community since the close of the war and the trial that ensued. 

Act 2 Quotes

The man [Joe] is innocent, Ann. Remember he was falsely accused once and it put him through hell. How would you behave if you were faced with the same thing again? Annie believe me, there’s nothing wrong for you here, believe me, kid.

Related Characters: Chris Keller (speaker), Joe Keller, Ann Deever
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the play, Chris still tries to defend his father. He genuinely believes that Joe has been falsely accused; Chris can not reckon with the possibility that his father really did allow faulty parts to be put in American planes. In this way, Chris's inability to cope with a difficult truth is not dissimilar to his mother's. Chris, for his part, believes that Kate is the most deluded in the family—the least willing to come to terms with the past. But Chris himself has "dark spots" of his memory, with which he'd rather not become reacquainted. 

Chris explains this to Ann, even as he realizes that Ann's own father, who worked with Joe, has taken the brunt of the blame for the plane parts. Steve has suffered far worse than Joe has suffered. For while both have seen their reputations crumble, only Steve is actually in prison—and only because Joe allowed him to take sole responsibility for the negligence at the plant. Thus Chris, for all his good intentions, seems to be explaining to Ann a situation she understands better than he can possibly know. 

. . . you and George . . . go to prison and tell him [Steve] . . . “Dad, Joe wants to bring you into the business when you get out.”
You’d have him as a partner?
No, no partner. A good job.

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Ann Deever (speaker), Ann Deever, George Deever, Steve Deever
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe's comments to Chris and Ann are as complicated as many of his other emotional responses in the text. Joe and Steve were partners in the airplane-part business—thus, Joe offering Steve a job is, at best, a less-valuable offer than the job Steve originally had. Of course, it is later revealed that Joe also testified against Steve and put him in jail, allowing him to take the fall for the entire faulty-part affair. Many have repudiated Steve and his actions—including Ann—although George, Ann's brother, seems more willing to defend their father. 

Joe, in short, feels that he owes at least something to Steve for the time Steve has served in prison. But Joe cannot come out in public and say that he, Joe, blamed Steve for the problem, or that this "generosity" on his part is really a feeble attempt to ease his own guilt in the affair. Thus, as in other parts of the play, the characters are damned both by their crimes and by their inability to expiate for them. Joe, at the end of the play, is horrified when his guilt is revealed, and he kills himself as a result. But he is also obviously relieved at having made plain the internal burden he has borne for so long.

The court didn’t know your father! But you know him. You know in your heart Joe did it.

Related Characters: George Deever (speaker), Joe Keller, Chris Keller
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, George becomes even more explicit in his condemnation of Joe Keller, the man he has believed, all along, to be guilty. George references the idea that Chris could "know" that his father is guilty "in his [Chris's] heart," and that all Chris would have to do to understand the matter would be to think about it squarely, to approach it honestly. For George, trained in the law, the facts of the case are relatively straightforward, and Joe's alibi during the time of the crime does not make sense.

But George is also pointing to perhaps the most powerful desire in the town after the war—the desire to proceed as though nothing happened, to state that everything is still normal, just as it was before. Chris is willing to participate in this to a degree—at least insofar as wanting to marry Ann, to continue working for his father, and to begin his own life after the war. For her part, Ann is also torn between Chris's perspective and her brother's—she too seems to sense that something is wrong with the Keller family, although she is unwilling to blame Joe, at this point, for his alleged crime.

And now you’re going to listen to me, George. You had big principles, Eagle Scouts the three of you [Larry, George, Chris] . . . Stop being a philosopher, and look after yourself. Like Joe was just saying—you move back here, he’ll help you get set, and I’ll find you a girl and put a smile on your face.

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Joe Keller, Chris Keller, George Deever, Larry Keller
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Kate more explicitly addresses what she perceives to be George's "problem." Kate believes that everything can be solved by the creation of an intact family unit. This is perhaps why she is most haunted by Larry's loss—because Larry was not able to return, marry Ann, and begin his own family. Although Kate also wants Chris to have a family, she is cooler on the prospect of Chris's marrying Ann, who is "Larry's girl," and who belongs therefore to a different family unit.

Kate ignores, then, what George is really saying—that Joe is a criminal and a liar, and that he has been living his lie for some years. That is a fact Kate cannot approach—just as she cannot tell herself that Larry is really gone. It is much easier for Kate to believe, instead, that the problem is George's—that George has not recovered from the war, and that he just needs a wife and family to set him straight. 

You, Joe . . . you’re amazingly the same.
Say, I ain’t got time to get sick.
He hasn’t been laid up in fifteen years.
Except my flu during the war.

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Kate Keller (speaker), George Deever (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a turning point in the play—a juncture wherein it becomes clear that Joe is, in fact, lying about what he did, or didn't do, during the production of the faulty airplane parts. Joe has previously claimed that he was not at the plant that day because he was sick with the flu. But his inveterate pride also causes him to proclaim, here, that he is never, ever sick—thus essentially contradicting his own alibi. Joe's bluster, his desire to be the alpha male in all situations, here gets him into trouble—and George, ever astute, seems to pick up on this.

Joe has had to manage his lie carefully ever since the war. A great deal of his life, indeed, has been consumed by the maintenance of the lie—the argument that Steve is solely responsible for the faulty parts, and that he, Joe, has maintained his integrity. Joe has even gone so far as to offer Steve a job (though not his co-ownership) after his prison sentence. But even Joe seems to realize, at this point in the play, that the lie is fraying—that his own guilt is becoming more and more clear.

Act 3 Quotes

What’d Joe do, tell him?
Tell him what?
Don’t be afraid, Kate, I know. I’ve always known.
How?
It occurred to me a long time ago.

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Dr. Jim Bayliss (speaker), Joe Keller
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an immensely important moment in the play. Jim reveals that he has known all along that Joe must have been guilty—that Joe's alibi has never stood up to scrutiny. But Jim also states that this is okay—that sometimes, in the course of a person's life, a man has to lie in order to put himself in a better position to succeed. The world is composed of people who have done this, and Jim does not except himself from this company. He talks, later in this passage, of a time he briefly left his wife, and says that the two swept this behavior under the rug as if it never occurred.

Thus Chris learns here that it is not so important that the town has to actually forget all that has happened during the war. The problem is not total suppression of the truth—the problem is Chris's concern with finding that truth out. Jim states that one does not need the truth—what one needs, instead, is a willingness to plow on regardless, to maintain the status quo and avoid causing trouble. 

You have no strength. The minute there’s trouble you have no strength.
Joe, you’re doing the same thing again; all your life whenever there’s trouble you yell at me and you think that settles it.

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Kate Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Joe blames Kate for not having strength. This is ironic at best, and at worst cruel of Joe, who has asked Kate to keep many of the family's secrets for years, including his own guilt in the case of the faulty parts (a guilt that Kate has always understood). Joe's bursts of anger punctuate the play. They are as much a fact of life in the town as other, more pleasant interactions between families. 

Kate stands up to Joe here, however. She implies, as she has not before, that she has stood by Joe during the terrible trials their family has endured. And she has placed her faith in Joe—she has not wavered in her support, even as their neighbors more or less acknowledge that Joe is probably culpable, at least in part, for the faulty plane components. Kate thus argues that Joe only knows how to oppose, how to get angry—he will do anything to defend his name. What Joe cannot do, however, is justify his behavior during the war, as it was Joe's negligence that caused the parts to be shipped.

Joe, Joe . . . it don’t excuse it that you did it for the family.
It’s got to excuse it!
There’s something bigger than the family to him.

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Joe Keller
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation Joe offers the central justification for his behavior during the war. He admits that it was wrong, or at least implies it—he knows that his actions resulted in the deaths of American servicemen. But he argues that there is an even greater obligation for the patriarch of a family—and that is the obligation to his wife and children. Joe believes that he did what he could to protect his company during war, and that this resulted in a better life for those who depend upon him.

This reasoning (essentially, that the ends justify the means) will prove to be wishful thinking as the play goes on, however. For Ann and Chris realize that Larry really did die because of the faulty parts—he decided to kill himself in his shame and guilt over his father's sins. That is, Larry was essentially killed by Joe's negligence, his willingness to cut corners. But even if this weren't the case—even if Joe had only killed other people's children—his behavior still would have been wrong. Joe finally believes this and acknowledges it when he says that all the servicemen were "his sons," toward the end of Act 3.

What are you talking about? What else can you do?
I could jail him! I could jail him, if I were human any more. But I’m like everybody else now. I’m practical now. You made me practical.
But you have to be.

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Chris Keller (speaker), Joe Keller
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

"Practicality" is an important concept for all those in the Keller family, as well as for George and Ann. Joe believes it was "practical" to cover up his guilt and let Steve take the fall for the parts. After all, Joe thought, Steve was guilty of not standing up to Joe—and someone had to keep going and keep the firm alive. Kate is "practical" in her belief that Larry will return—even though this "practicality" is actually an irrational unwillingness to accept the overwhelmingly likely scenario that Larry is really gone.

And Chris's "practicality" takes on many forms. He knows that it is "practical" to get married and start a family. But love is also not a practical consideration in its fullest form—and Chris really does love Ann. He is not marrying her because he is just "standing in for" Larry—he is doing so because he loves Ann and wishes to start a family of his own. The only practical consideration for turning Joe in, then, would be to expiate the family's guilt, and to atone for their sins. 

If you can’t get used to it [the Keller family money], then throw it away. You hear me? Take every cent and give it to charity, throw it in the sewer. Does that settle it? . . .

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Chris Keller
Page Number: 81-2
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe wonders whether the guilt that Chris feels is related to the money that the firm has made. Of course, this is a part of it—Chris has expressed, here and elsewhere, that the company's profits, if indeed they are tied to a willingness to overlook the faulty plane components, would be stained with the blood of those who died in the airplanes during the war. Joe, in his qualified willingness to expiate the family's guilt, argues that the money can be refused—and that, in taking the money, Chris is complicit in the family's crimes.

But the guilt runs much deeper than this, and Joe and Chris both appear to realize it. The only way to atone for what has happened in the past is to admit it. This means, for Chris, that Joe would have to acknowledge and take responsibility for his actions. Yet Joe still seems incapable of doing this—which is what frustrates and saddens Chris most of all.

Chris, a man can’t be a Jesus in this world!

Related Characters: Joe Keller (speaker), Chris Keller
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe's statement is fraught with meaning. "Chris," the name of Joe's son, echoes "Christ," itself a tragic pun when joined with the "Jesus" of his following exclamation. Joe believes that he cannot behave perfectly—that no man can. But, of course, Chris has not asked that his father be perfect. Chris would naturally have preferred that the past didn't take place—that Larry would instead be alive, and that Joe would not have been responsible for the crimes he has committed. But given all that, Chris only wants Joe to admit his guilt.

This does not mean that Joe would have to be a perfect man, or an example to others. Rather, Chris is just asking that his father be a moral man, one capable of, and willing to, acknowledge his flaws. This, Chris believes, will help the family to move forward. This is the only way to deal with the traumatic past—by admitting what really did take place and facing it directly. 

The war is over! Didn’t you hear? It’s over!
Then what was Larry to you? A stone that fell into the water? It’s not enough for him [Joe] to be sorry. Larry didn’t kill himself to make you and Dad sorry.
What more can we be!

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Chris Keller (speaker), Joe Keller, Larry Keller
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Kate's statement—The war is over!—means that the past is really in the past, that there is nothing anyone can do to change it. Kate believes that, whatever crimes Joe committed, whatever guilt the family bears, they must be ignored if the family is to continue on into the future. This is why the Kellers remained in the neighborhood and lived their lives as though nothing had happened.

But Larry also remains the reason why the Kellers cannot fully let go of the war. Because Kate holds out hope that Larry will, in fact, return, the war is never truly relegated to the past in the Keller household. Instead, Larry's continual "possibility" of reappearance, though it really is no possibility, forces Kate to relive the war each day. She cannot, and will not, move beyond it.

Chris points out that Larry did not die to hurt anyone. Indeed, Larry was a victim of Joe's sins, and Joe must acknowledge this in order for everyone's lives to continue. The past must be addressed. Joe finally does this, quickly and summarily, before killing himself, and only then does Kate tell Ann and Chris to move away, to begin new lives apart from the Keller family.

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Joe Keller Character Timeline in All My Sons

The timeline below shows where the character Joe Keller appears in All My Sons. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Family and Familial Obligation Theme Icon
Wealth and Its Accumulation Theme Icon
The play opens in the hedged-in backyard of the Keller home, with Joe Keller, head of the family, father of two boys, husband to Katie... (full context)
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As the play begins, Frank Lubey, Joe’s neighbor on the side of the property opposite Jim’s, enters the backyard and tells Joe... (full context)
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Frank asks Joe what’s happened to a tree in the backyard, a tree Joe reveals was planted as... (full context)
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Chris comes downstairs, and Joe greets him, asking how Annie’s doing; Chris says she’s doing fine and asks for the... (full context)
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Chris and Joe look at the shorn tree that once memorialized Larry. Chris tells Joe, to Joe’s surprise,... (full context)
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...battle three years before. Chris has given up all hope of Larry being found alive; Joe seems to think it is possible, however slightly, that Larry is still living, but he... (full context)
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Chris pulls closer to his father and continues talking. He tells Joe that he invited Annie to visit because he wants to ask her to marry him,... (full context)
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Joe is nervous about how this news will affect Kate, and he refuses to tell Chris,... (full context)
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...to New York City—where Annie currently lives—in order to start a new, married life there. Joe is shocked that Chris would consider giving up the family business, one that Joe has... (full context)
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Joe grumbles about needing a maid around the house to help his wife, and Kate reminds... (full context)
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...Kate asks Chris to fetch her aspirin, instead of answering him directly, and turns to Joe, still in the yard, asking Joe why Annie has come to visit. Joe claims he... (full context)
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Kate reminds Joe of the other Americans presumed lost in the war who have returned home, but Joe... (full context)
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Just then, Annie comes out with Chris to say hello to Joe and Kate. Joe is happy to see Annie and tells her how beautiful she is,... (full context)
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Annie tells Chris, in front of Joe and Kate, that she’s surprised he has so many clothes, but Chris reveals that Annie... (full context)
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Joe and Kate also ask after Annie’s father, Steve, and mother—there seems to have been some... (full context)
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...they aren’t, Annie worries that the issues have never gone away in the small town. Joe, who seems also to have been involved in the trial, says that, when he was... (full context)
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Joe tells Annie that her father and mother should move back to town after her father... (full context)
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...was responsible for Larry’s going missing—Kate cannot handle this possibility and goes inside, clearly upset. Joe turns, somewhat angrily, to Annie, and explains to her that she knows Larry never flew... (full context)
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Joe continues, explaining to Annie what her father has done (and, simultaneously, providing the audience with... (full context)
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Joe tells Annie that her father is not a bad man, that he just made a... (full context)
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Joe goes inside, leaving Chris and Annie alone. Annie tells Chris he’s been acting strange so... (full context)
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...and Chris, having snapped out of his reverie about war-time versus peacetime life, kisses Annie. Joe comes outside again and briefly teases the two of them for kissing, then tells Annie... (full context)
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...visit would have nothing to do with George, and that Annie harbors no grudge against Joe for her father’s fate (in fact, she strictly blames her father), Joe appears cheered, saying... (full context)
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...town, and that he has something important he wants to discuss regarding his father with Joe. Annie, clearly shaken, tells Chris she wants to go for a drive, and the two... (full context)
Act 2
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...not yet dressed for dinner, to see what Chris is doing. Kate tells Chris that Joe is sleeping—that he always sleeps when he’s worried—and that Chris has to “protect” Kate and... (full context)
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...even more pointed in her criticisms: she tells Annie that she and Jim “know” that Joe merely lied to get out of jail time and to put Steve in prison; she... (full context)
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...that she’s a good nurse, but Annie snaps, immediately, that Sue “hates” Chris and the Kellers—she doesn’t understand how Chris can be so nice and forgiving to everyone. Annie asks Chris... (full context)
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Joe comes outside and seems happy at the idea, now, that Chris and Annie are in... (full context)
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...Jim is worried that George’s anger, which Jim believes to have to do with the Joe-Steve affair, will only cause Kate grief, and Jim is worried about Kate’s fragile state of... (full context)
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...make a sucker of a man once, not twice. Chris presumes George is talking about Joe’s relationship to Steve. (full context)
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...Columbus to see Steve, where Steve told him, in person, the true story of the Joe-Steve affair. (full context)
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George tells Annie and Chris, in the yard, that Joe ordered Steve, on the phone three years ago, to weld over the defective parts, then... (full context)
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...timid man who wants to shift the blame to someone else; but George counters that Joe was such an overbearing and exacting boss, it seems almost impossible that he would have... (full context)
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At this, Joe comes downstairs and strains his “joviality” to welcome George. He asks how George is doing,... (full context)
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...and get on the midnight train instead; George seems ready to agree, and, looking at Joe with a kinder eye, says Joe has not changed at all over the years. Kate... (full context)
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...Kate appreciates this information and sends Frank back to his home; Kate then turns to Joe and Chris, while Annie walks to the driveway to George to talk sense to him,... (full context)
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Kate then screams to Joe and Chris that Chris has to understand something: if Larry is dead, then Joe “killed”... (full context)
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...can’t believe that his father is responsible for the murder of 21 pilots, and though Joe keeps arguing that he’s not responsible for Larry’s death, Chris is too horrified by his... (full context)
Act 3
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...is waiting for Chris to come back; he took the car, after his argument with Joe, and drove to an unknown place. Kate also tells Jim that Annie is upstairs in... (full context)
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Jim alludes to the possibility of an argument between Chris and Joe over Annie, but Kate tells him, flat-out, that the argument was about George and Steve.... (full context)
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Joe comes outside to see how Kate is doing, and Jim goes offstage, saying he will... (full context)
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At this, Annie comes out to the porch, and sits silently for a moment with Joe and Kate. They find they have difficulty saying anything to one another—they all know what... (full context)
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In the meantime, Joe has gone upstairs, unable to handle the family’s trauma, and so he does not learn... (full context)
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...solve anything, now, nor would it truly punish the deed that his father has done. Joe comes outside to join Annie, Kate, and Chris, and tells Chris that, if Chris wants,... (full context)
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...with him, since Larry is truly dead. Chris reads aloud, despite Kate’s efforts to move Joe away from him (to keep Joe from hearing), that Larry was aware, overseas, of Steve... (full context)
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This news is horrific and devastates Joe, who always felt that, though he was responsible for the deaths of some pilots, he... (full context)
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...to others in the world, not just to themselves—that their responsibilities lies outside the immediate Keller family. Upstairs, a gunshot is heard, and Kate screams again, calling for Jim; Joe has... (full context)