‘All My Sons’: Questioning the Morality of the “Bottom Line”

Analysis of All My Sons by Arthur Miller

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All My Sons: Questioning the Morality of the “Bottom Line”

One of the most troubling yet slippery questions at the heart of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons relates to the play’s suggestion that commonly accepted commercial practices may be the root cause of all the turmoil, conflict and disaster that tear apart the Keller and Deever families. Joe Keller is not merely rationalizing his decision to sell faulty parts to the military when he claims that an interest in staying in business and in “the bottom line” drove him to it. To him, this is not an excuse.

The need to remain profitable and to stay in business is, perhaps, Keller’s most deeply felt reason for knowingly providing a shipment of cracked cylinder heads to the U.S. military in war time. And, even more than wanting to provide a legacy and inheritance to his sons, Keller wants to hold on to his own viability as a man in the world. Pushed to confess and to explain by his son Chris, Keller makes this clear in his defense:

I’m in business, a man is his business; a hundred and twenty cracked, you’re out of business; you got a process, the process don’t work you’re out of business; you don’t know how to operate, your stuff is no good; they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell’s it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they know you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away? (69)

Miller’s play emphasizes the human costs of Keller’s decision. Across three acts the ripple effect of disaster spreads from this single shipment of faulty parts until it finally comes back to Keller in a full-circle completion of damaged lives. The play begins with Keller’s partner in prison and his own family straining to remain intact, but Keller is eventually faced with the revelation that his eldest son knew about the cracked cylinder heads. And this favorite son sees his father’s act as egregious, cowardly and maybe even treasonous.

With his family broken, Keller also breaks down but for a time he clings to the reason behind his choice. Before he abandons his defense and submits himself fully to the judgment of his son Chris, Keller casts a wide-ranging critique at the ethics of a capitalistic war-industry. He poses some questions that should give us pause, asking, “Who worked for nothing in that war?” and “Did they ship a gun or a truck outa Detroit before they got their price? Is that clean? It’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes; war a peace, it’s nickels and dimes, what’s clean?” By allying himself with the generic ethos of capitalism (where protecting the bottom line functions almost as a moral code), Keller presents us with a complex question. While Miller’s play does not invite us to simply forgive Joe Keller and certainly maintains a focus on the consequences of Keller’s rationale for selling unsafe products, the play still manages to put the audience in a position to understand Keller’s point of view.

Keller’s reasons may not be good enough to truly justify his decisions, but his thought process may seem to be implicitly defended by the whole-cloth philosophy that commerce is a good unto itself; that business is “the life blood of the nation.” The belief in the value of hard work and success in industry is a bedrock principle in American life, even today. Thus when, early in the play, we see Keller’s son Chris refusing to accept a role in his father’s business because, he says, “The business doesn’t inspire me,” we are also seeing the establishment of a rather profound and systemic dis-union with Keller with his traditional American capitalistic values on one side and Chris with his post-war sense of entitlement on the other. No less than the definition of success in America is being called into question here. And we should recognize that All My Sons is not proposing a simple answer.

On the contrary, All My Sons leaves us to consider the core conflict of the play as a fundamental clash of philosophies with no clear winner, with each side given equal voice through the various characters in the play.

Writing about the nature of tragedy in The New York Times a few years after All My Sons was first produced, Miller argues that tragedy derives from a “balanced concept of life.” Implying that social forces and personal drives must be weighed against one another, Miller claims:

No tragedy can therefore come about when its author fears to question absolutely everything, when he regards any institution, habit or custom as being either everlasting, immutable or inevitable. In the tragic view the need of man to wholly realize himself is the only fixed star, and whatever it is that hedges his nature and lowers it is ripe for attack and examination. Which is not to say that tragedy must preach revolution.

If we take these words as a commentary on All My Sons, we might come away with the idea that the dramatic fall of Joe Keller is meant to illuminate issues that go beyond one man’s moral weakness and point to the weaknesses of an entire system of (commercial-philosophical) thought. At the same time, we should key in on Miller’s well-tempered conclusion. There is no call for revolution or an abandonment of long-standing ideals. That would mean the play had all the answers when, in fact, All My Sons is a play that insists on leaving the audience with vital questions about where our own moral ground-work; our assumptions and our beliefs.

We, as the audience, have to decide for ourselves the extent to which we can accept Joe Keller’s view of himself as being defined by his business. Can we allow for some truth in the notion that Keller’s business is his own “life blood” and a valid identity in American society? Should we side with Chris and Ann in demanding a new kind of self-definition that is separate from professional life and plainly distinguished from profit motives and financial ambition?

Taking a step back to look at the larger picture presented in the play, should we recognize that the “new” philosophy espoused by Chris and Ann is probably actually dependent on the material success of the “old” philosophy embodied by Joe Keller?

Like the play itself, we do not have to make a definite decision between these two ways of approaching professional life and identity in America. But when we finish the play we should acknowledge — and to some extent grapple with — the question of capitalist ethics at the heart of All My Sons. It is not enough to judge Joe Keller. We have to try also to understand him.

Placing the principled dis-union between Keller and his son Chris in conversation with additional psychological themes of guilt, denial, and the recurrent nature of personal history, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons can be said to act as a complex modern tragedy, probing the division between “bottom line” morality and the priceless-ness of human life. (The concept of identity hovers above and below these questions as well, as the play ponders issues of how a person comes to be defined by self-assertion, by the family and social world around him, and by actions taken whose results can never be undone.)

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