All My Sons

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War, Morality, and Consequences Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family and Familial Obligation Theme Icon
Loss and Memory Theme Icon
War, Morality, and Consequences Theme Icon
Wealth and Its Accumulation Theme Icon
Liability, Culpability, and Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All My Sons, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
War, Morality, and Consequences Theme Icon

The Second World War is not just the immediate worldwide precursor to the play; it is inseparable from its action. Specifically, the war resulted in the death of Larry and caused the kind of difficult choices that forced Joe and Steve into their fateful decision to allow the production of cracked parts for American planes. But the war also provided Larry, Chris, and other American soldiers a clear set of black-and-white moral choices: democracy versus fascism, good versus evil. Larry is lost in the war (later shown to have committed suicide), and Chris survives. Although Larry’s death is mourned dearly by everyone, including by Chris, Chris himself must live in the shadow of his brother’s death—he must carry on with “survivor’s guilt,” and wonder why he was the one who was spared. As Chris explains to Annie at the end of Act I, he loved the sense of camaraderie in wartime, the feeling that one man could and must help another, as evidenced by last pair of dry socks another GI was willing to lend him. And Chris mourns the fact that, in peacetime America, this sense of camaraderie has vanished, has been replaced by an overwhelming desire for material gain.

Joe admits that wartime productions was so stressful, and he wanted his business to succeed so much, that there was nothing he could do but allow the defective parts to roll off the assembly line unimpeded. For him, this was a decision made to protect and support his family, but which also obscured the greater cruelty of battle: that these parts would be placed in American planes and would kill Americans, the very cause Steve and Joe wanted to support. War has taken Larry away from Annie, and, on a subtler level, it has made any prospect of Annie’s future happiness nearly impossible, because others in her life, including Kate Keller, will always wonder whether Annie “waited long enough” for Larry, or whether she “hopped into bed” with another man and married him at the first chance. Annie finally reveals the letter Larry sent her—admitting to his impending suicide in battle—in the hopes that this terrible letter will at least show Kate that Annie has not moved on out of callousness.

But the letter, another consequence of war, causes Joe to realize that he has not only killed members of other people’s families—other Americans’ families—but indirectly a member of his own. Joe goes upstairs and shoots himself; he is another casualty of the war. Thus the war was not “over” when the peace treaties were signed. Instead, Chris, Joe, Steve, and others in the play carried the war inside them, transposing into a morally-fraught environment the same life-and-death struggles they had once approached with a definite sense of moral purpose. Now, with that moral purpose gone, the horrors of war and death nevertheless remain.

War, Morality, and Consequences ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of War, Morality, and Consequences appears in each act of All My Sons. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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War, Morality, and Consequences Quotes in All My Sons

Below you will find the important quotes in All My Sons related to the theme of War, Morality, and Consequences.
Act 1 Quotes

She was out here when it broke.
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. 

See? We should have never planted that tree. I said so in the first place; it was too soon to plan a tree for him.
Too soon!
We rushed into it . . . .

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Chris Keller (speaker), Larry Keller
Related Symbols: Larry’s Tree
Page Number: 20-1
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an even more explicit reference, on Kate's part, to the idea that Larry might still in fact be alive. Chris understands that this really cannot be the case. Furthermore, Chris knows that Kate and Joe's unwillingness to accept Larry's death is a way for the family both to deal with the trauma of the war and to refuse to move beyond it.

Chris, however, does want to leave the war behind. He does not want to remain in Larry's shadow, and he does not want to be compared to his brother anymore. Larry is no longer alive, and so he can no longer marry Ann, or raise a family with her, or return to the town and take over the family business. For Chris, life really begins with the acknowledgement that Larry truly is gone. 

As in the quotation above, the tree is a complex, "overdetermined" symbol. On the one hand, it is a celebration of Larry's life. On the other, it marks the fact that he is truly gone, and thus requires a memorial. Thus as much as Kate is drawn to the tree, walking to it in the night, she also knows that the tree itself "replaces" Larry—just as Chris has "replaced" Larry as Ann's lover. 

It’s wrong to pity a man like that [Steve]. Father or no father, there’s only one way to look at him. He knowingly shipped out parts that would crash an airplane. And how do you know Larry wasn’t one of them?

Related Characters: Ann Deever (speaker), Larry Keller, Steve Deever
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Ann states without guilt that if her father, Steve, knowingly was involved in the shipping of faulty parts for airplanes during the war, then he should be punished. Ann believes that the guilt for the airmen's deaths should fall on the heads of those who were negligent in manufacturing the parts. She does not seem to imply that Joe was one of these people—she places the blame squarely on her father's shoulders, despite their close familial relationship.

But, of course, the other characters in the play recognize that Joe might very well have been responsible for the shipping of the parts as well, and that Joe might even have "sold out" Steve in order to protect his (Joe's) family, at Steve's expense. Ann appears not to believe this. But others in the community wonder if Ann hasn't returned to "check up on" the Keller family, to see whether Joe has been unfair to her father, who is currently in prison for his crime. 

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. 

. . . one time it’d been raining several days and this kid came to me, and gave me his last pair of dry socks. Put them in my pocket. That’s only a little thing—but . . . that’s the kind of guys I had. They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other . . . .

Related Characters: Chris Keller (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dry Socks
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Chris's memory of a boy giving him a pair of dry socks is perhaps his lasting image of the war. For Chris, it contains both the brutality of battle—the fact that dry socks were at a premium in war-time—and the possibility of human generosity even during terrible circumstances. Chris seems to believe that the brotherhood of men at war was a real feeling, something he can hold onto even in the tragic aftermath of that conflict. That is why the image has remained so intensely in his mind—it is an indicator of the good that can come of a difficult, trying, and even traumatic circumstance.

Chris brings up this memory because he is trying, in his way, to wrestle with the demons of his past—his guilt, for example, over surviving the war while his brother Larry was killed. Chris knows that war can tear people apart, so he tries, in conjuring this image, to remind himself that war can also forge friendship and trust. 

Act 2 Quotes

. . . it’s very unusual to me, marrying the brother of your sweetheart.
I don’t know. I think it’s mostly that whenever I need somebody to tell me the truth I’ve always thought of Chris . . . . He relaxes me.

Related Characters: Ann Deever (speaker), Sue Bayliss (speaker), Chris Keller, Ann Deever, Larry Keller
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Sue makes no bones about telling Ann that her behavior—marrying Chris after being Larry's girlfriend during the war—is "strange" to her. Ann, for her part, admirably replies that she loves and admires Chris, and that the two themselves have had a long friendship, dating back even to when Larry and Ann were together. Ann thus parries Sue's attack—trying to brush off her concern while defending her choice to be with Chris.

Sue seems to want to sow discord between Chris and Ann. She, like Jim and some of the other neighbors, is heavily involved in the privates lives of those she lives near to. Miller creates an atmosphere in which private business, things that belong within a home or to one family, become instances of public drama. Joe, Kate, Chris, and Larry are public, tragic figures in their town, and their neighbors know nearly as much, or more, about their lives than they do. 

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.

How is he [Steve]?
He got smaller
Yeah, little. He’s a little man. That’s what happens to suckers, you know. It’s good I went to him in time—another year there’d be nothing left but his smell.

Related Characters: Ann Deever (speaker), George Deever (speaker), Steve Deever
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

George is clearly the most embittered character in the play. He is desperately angry at the Keller family for what he feels is their injustice toward his father. George seems to understand that his father, Steve, could not have acted alone in the faulty-part affair. He senses instead that Joe perhaps directed the production of the parts, or at least knew about them, and did nothing to stop their shipment.

George therefore does not participate in much of the "performance" of goodwill and friendship that others in the town, and especially in the Keller family, try to put on. George is not interested in coming back to the town he once knew. He is a lawyer now; he has moved away, and has distanced himself from his father and family, although he remains somewhat close to Ann. But George knows that the way to deal with the traumas of the war is to make plain what exactly happened and to face it directly. This is why he has returned to town—to pursue his hunch about his father's behavior, and Joe's guilt, and get to the bottom of the matter.

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.

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.
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.

My dear, if the boy was dead, it wouldn’t depend on my words to make Chris know it . . . .The night he gets into your bed, his heart will dry up. Because he knows and you know. To his dying day he’ll wait for his brother!

Related Characters: Kate Keller (speaker), Chris Keller, Ann Deever
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Kate's bitterness over the loss of Larry knows no bounds. She is even willing to compromise Chris's happiness in order to "prove" that Ann ought to wait for Larry, and that Chris is merely moving in on "his brother's girl." Kate appears to need this illusion—that of Larry's safe return—in order to keep living. But she does not seem to realize, or does not care, that her insistence on Larry's lingering presence is ruining the happiness of those around her, even her own son.

Kate's argument here, too, echoes what she and Joe feel all the time: a deep-down, half-conscious guilt. Each character in the Keller family—those who have survived—nurses a different form of guilt. Joe knows that he has negligently killed Americans. Kate knows that Joe is guilty, and that she has helped him to cover up his guilt. And Chris feels, rightly or wrongly, that perhaps he is achieving happiness at Larry's expense—a happiness Larry did not survive to feel.

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.