To what extent is All My Sons a tragedy concerned with the concept of American Materialism?
All My Sons is a play concerned with capitalistic culture being pitted against human decency, in which the culprit is the ‘self-made’ man; an image promoted by the American dream, which states that even an impoverished, disadvantaged youth can attain prestige and wealth through determination, hard work and moral integrity. Joe Keller is this self-made man, one who came from a working class background to become a factory owner. He frequently defines himself as an uneducated man, taking pride in his commercial success without the aid of conventional book learning; however, his business oriented ideology leads him to sacrifice his domestic happiness for his materialistic gain.
From the opening page, we get an idea of how fixated the play is with wealth:
“The house is two stories high and has seven rooms. It would have cost perhaps fifteen thousand in the early twenties.”
Doing this, Miller promptly establishes in the setting that the Keller’s financial comfort defines them.
It seems that Joe Keller is almost obsessed with the idea of making money in order to pass it on. However, it also seems that his good motives are hugely undermined by his interest in material success:
“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, and I walked... past... the porches. Result? fourteen months later I had one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again, bigger than ever.”
This shows that what matters to Keller is that he eventually restored his business to prosperity. To him, material success is the ultimate goal.
Joe is the complete opposite of Chris. His ideals separate him from his father’s materialistic ways. Whereas Joe is fixated with material gain, Chris hopes to maintain a balance between making money, and building a life he can believe in. This idealism prevents him, initially, from acknowledging the reality of the business he is inheriting:
“If I have to grab for money all day long at least at evening I want it beautiful. I want a family, I want some kids, I want to build something I can give myself.”
However, even Chris’ moral and financial idealism is tested by the lure of material gain. His reference to his money as “loot” from the war is quickly turned around by simple persuasion from Annie:
“...there’s nothing wrong with your money. Your father put hundreds of planes in the air...a man should be paid for that.”
In response to this, Chris quickly comes around to a perspective that more closely resembles that of his father: “Oh Annie, Annie I’m going to make a fortune for you!” (C.K-act one)
It seems that Miller is intent on pointing out the flaws with a merely economic vision of the American dream as business success alone. To accentuate this ever present, recurring moral, the character of George is employed to reveal the trail of destruction created by Joe in his quest for economic gain: “I saw your factory on the way from the station. It looks like General Motors.” For George, the success of the factory is a symbol of the injustice Joe inflicted on both George’s father and the twenty one pilots, of which George is fully aware.
Another pivotal character concerning this issue is Sue Bayliss. Presented as a parallel opposite of her husband Jim, she is an exemplary example of how material wealth is the source of significant malcontent. In belated riposte to her husband’s aim to go into research for a living, she states: “research pays twenty-five dollars a week, minus laundering the hair shirt.” This avaricious view of her husband’s preferred employment undermines the prosperous sentiments behind the American Dream, as does her cynical conclusion regarding Annie and Chris: “...and he’s got money. That’s important you know.”
If any individual of All My Sons provides as a character...
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