All My Sons Essay Questions

Top 6 'All My Sons' Essay Topics

In 1947 Arthur Miller was a struggling playwright whose first attempt had crashed disastrously on Broadway. In an attempt to improve on this he wrote a second play, All My Sons, which was a great success and established his reputation. The play remains popular today and has been filmed twice. Because of this popularity and the many issues it raises it commonly comes up as the basis for an essay. If you have to write an essay on the play, here are some suggested topics to get you started.

Obligations

The play explores obligations in a number of ways. Many of the characters see a conflict between what they should do in the best interests of different groups. Joe Keller knowingly ships defective aircraft engine parts, ultimately causing the deaths of 21 USAAF pilots, because he sees the obligation to make money for his family as more important than the war effort.

Blame

There are few characters in the play who can't blame someone else for something and they aren't shy about doing so. What they're not so willing to do is to accept any blame themselves. Joe Keller for example, blames his jailed business partner for the defective parts even though he was deeply involved himself.

Business and Society

Miller's politics were generally leftish and he was an opponent of unrestricted capitalism. All My Sons portrays businessmen, in the shape of Joe, as people who put their own interests above those of society.

Idealism

Joe's son Chris is perceived by the others as an idealist. In fact he doesn't show this characteristic very often, with the exception of reacting angrily to his father's profiteering. Joe Keller himself seems to perceive his lost ideals at the end; confronted with the reality of what he has done, he shoots himself.

Self-Deception

Most of the characters are deceiving themselves at least to some extent. Joe's wife Kate refuses to believe that her other son Larry, who has been reported as Missing In Action, is dead.

The American Dream

In the play Miller criticizes the idea that success in America is defined purely in economic terms. Joe Keller is a successful businessman, but he has achieved this at the cost of many of the ideals that Miller sees as being truly American - human decency and mutual support, among others. Ironically for a man who was persecuted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Miller also seems to be advocating patriotism; by shipping defective parts Keller was placing his own interests above those of America.

All My Sons is obviously a very complex play and can be approached from a number of angles. Whatever one you choose, it's possible to write an engaging and high quality essay on it.

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  • 1

    Several characters in the play believe in forces outside their control that influence the events of their lives. Kate turns to astronomy and God, while Keller argues that the pressures of business forced him to act as he did. Examine the role of personal agency in the play. For example, does Keller's suicide reflect a new acceptance of his misdeeds? Does he kill himself out of choice or mainly as a result of external pressures?

  • 2

    Keller argues that no one "worked for nothin' in that war," insisting that if he has to go to jail, then "half the Goddam country" is similarly culpable. Is this an indictment of capitalism or of the wartime mentality? Does he believe this argument, or is it mainly another attempt to deflect blame?

  • 3

    Did Kate (Mother) know that Larry was dead? Did Chris know that his father was guilty? How might the actors and director of the play keep these questions ambiguous or suggest that these facts were known all along? Did Miller possibly intend that the audience never know how much Kate and Chris had suspicions, or is the play better if the audience gradually learns that Kate and Chris knew the truth all along?

  • 4

    Which kinds of facts are better to face immediately, and which kinds are better to deny as long as possible? Consider personal, family, and social values. Use the play for possible anecdotal evidence.

  • 5

    The tone of much of the second and third acts is accusatory, with a strong emphasis on questions and questioning. How do the characters use questions to deflect blame? Or, how does Miller use questions to pace the dialogue and heighten the tension? What counts as evidence of the facts? (Consider the courtroom scenes in The Crucible for comparison.)

  • 6

    How does Miller introduce the past and show the effects of the past on the Kellers without employing flashbacks?

  • 7

    How does Miller manipulate information? The entirety of the first act is exposition, yet the audience is kept guessing and alert through Miller's careful pacing of the revelation of facts. How does our experience of the play change after we have seen it the first time and know all the history? Do successive iterations of reading or watching the play help us pick up on additional details of the themes and characters?

  • 8

    The common theatrical device of "the letter" provides a way for Larry to personally enter the play after his death. What else makes the letter work well in this particular play? Consider, for instance, Miller's careful manipulation of information throughout the play.

  • 9

    How does Miller characterize Larry, who never appears on stage but who is so fundamental to the events and the people? How can we reconcile or add together the various accounts of his character?

  • 10

    If the focus is on the Keller family, what is the point of including the Deever family as more than just a set of foils for the Kellers?

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