Friday, April 6, 2012

A Good Friday Reflection on Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS

“A man can’t be a Jesus in this world!”

So says Joe Keller, the tragic figure at the center of Arthur Miller’s first successful play, All My Sons. It’s a play I’m thinking about these days because, well, both my son and I are in it. That is, we’re in a production of it that opens next week.

But this week, as I’ve been thinking about the play’s harrowing conclusion, I couldn’t help but think of it in relation to Holy Week, and to the passion narrative that Christians remember in a special way this week. In a sense, Joe Keller’s tragic tale is a narrative of crucifixion, of the burden of sin, and—in its final terrible moments—of the tragically distorted pursuit of redemption.

By the way, this post will contain spoilers. If you’ve never seen or read All My Sons but plan to and want to be surprised, you might want to stop reading now.

The play is set in a single day, in a back yard somewhere in Ohio, in the wake of World War II. The yard belongs to Joe Keller, a businessman who, during the war, made cylinder heads for P-40 fighter planes. One day, the cylinder heads were coming out of the production process with cracks. They were shipped out anyway, the cracks covered over…and planes started going down. Ultimately 21 men died.

Keller and his partner, Steve Deever, were arrested, but while both men were initially convicted, Keller was acquitted on appeal. He had plausible deniability: he hadn’t gone into work that day. He’d been sick, apparently, with the flu. And so—at least as Keller tells the story—he never knew what Deever had done.

And now, on a summer day after the war, Keller sits in his lovely yard, enjoying his freedom and his wealth; and the only visible shadow over his life is that one of his sons, Larry, never returned from the war.

But there are portents. A storm has knocked down the tree planted in Larry’s honor. More significantly, Larry’s “girl,” Annie Deever, has arrived in town at the invitation of Joe Keller’s surviving son, Chris. Chris is in love with Annie and wants to marry her—a desire that is complicated not only by the fact that she’s the daughter of the business partner who took the fall for the cracked cylinder heads, but by the fact that Kate Keller, Joe’s wife, has never relinquished the conviction, even after three and a half years, that Larry is still alive.

But as the day’s events unfold, the truth of Keller’s complicity in the crime comes to light, precipitated in part by an unexpected visit from George Deever, Annie’s brother, who has just listened to—and been convinced by—their father’s account of what happened, an account that clearly implicates Joe Keller in the crime. The truth staggers Chris, whose idealism and love for his father never allowed him to believe anything but Joe’s version of events.

And as Joe Keller rallies in his own defense—appealing to the endemic corruption and dog-eat-dog realities of a system that made him no worse than anyone else in the business world, appealing to the bonds of family and his desire to leave a legacy for his sons—as Joe Keller argues his case, Annie comes forward with a letter that reveals the truth about Larry’s death.

Joe Keller utters the fateful words—“A man can’t be a Jesus in this world!”—just as Chris begins to read aloud Larry’s final message, a message written just before he took off in his plane intent on ending his own life. Larry had heard about what his and Annie’s fathers had done. Larry, a pilot himself, identified with each of the men who had died. And he was the son of the man responsible. He couldn’t live with it. He couldn’t go on living, knowing that his comrades, boys who risked their lives fighting for their country and each other, were casualties of his father doing business.

The letter brings home to Joe the full weight of his culpability. His sons, the sons for whom he had built his business and his wealth, for whom he had risked prison (and the lives of pilots) rather than allow the business to go under—these two boys, each in his own way, stood in solidarity with the men who'd died. For Joe, faced with this truth, the message of Larry’s suicide becomes clear: They are all my sons.

Larry killed himself to express, in the only way he knew how, the enormity of his father’s crime. He voluntarily shared in the fate of his father’s victims, declaring in a final fiery act, This is what your sins really mean. But even as he identified with the victims of his father’s crime, he also identified with his father. He could not help but feel that kinship, that connection, to recognize and bear the burden of his father’s crime—a burden he could only cast off by going on one last mission, a mission from which he knew he would not return alive.

And Joe Keller—who has been shifting responsibility for his crime to the broader system of which he’s just a part—now finds his scope of responsibility expanding beyond his immediate family. They are all my sons. Once ready to make the world responsible for his actions, he suddenly finds himself responsible to the world.

And from this new perspective he knows that “being sorry” is not enough. As he goes into the house, on the pretext of getting his jacket so that Chris can take him to the police station, Chris shares with his mother what he sees as the alternative to merely being sorry: “You can be better.”

Maybe Joe doesn’t believe it. Maybe what’s happened has convinced him of a paradoxical truth: His duty to the world exceeds what the world’s realities make possible. Confronted with what he’s done, and with a vivid personal awareness of the human capacity to rationalize and evade responsibility, he doesn’t believe he can be good enough. To be good enough, you need to be a Jesus in this world. But a man can’t be a Jesus in this world.

And so, Joe Keller’s moment of moral awakening is also his final moment. In that very moment when he realizes and internalizing the scope of his moral responsibilities, when he casts away denial and deception, he finds himself faced with a chasm of sin he cannot possibly cross. What he’s done is too terrible, and what he must do to be better is too unattainable.

And so the final gunshot rings out. Joe’s solution to the agony of it, to his moral crucifixion, is to follow in the footsteps of his son.

The play comes to an end with Chris weeping, saying “I didn’t mean to,” while his mother, Kate, urges him not to take it on himself.

Those final words are telling: “Don’t take it on yourself.”

But what is the alternative? One son takes on himself the weight of his father’s sins, and it drives him to a fiery end. A father refuses to take on the weight of his guilt, and it festers. A partner sits in prison, bearing alone the penalty for the crime. And the truth pushes its way to the surface. The gravity of the offense will be felt—somehow, irresistibly felt even through the veneer of pretense and rationalization, in spite of our efforts to hide behind pleasant routines, in spite of our carefully constructed imitations of the gardens of innocence.

Are these the only alternatives? Moral crucifixion or denial?

It is this dilemma that sits at the very heart of Christian theology. It is this dilemma that Good Friday is about. In a sense, Christian theology begins with a question: How do we face the truth of the human predicament, both our responsibility to the world and our inadequacy, without needing to crucify ourselves?

I don’t believe that Jesus’ passion story—from betrayal to crucifixion, from death to an empty tomb—can be understood unless and until the weight of this question is fully experienced, and the passion is understood as offering a narrative answer. That doesn’t mean the answer is easy to articulate in theoretic terms, terms that abstract from the details of the story. But Christians are united in part by their conviction that here, in the symbols of the cross and the empty tomb, lies God’s solution.

“A man can’t be a Jesus in this world.”

“Don’t take it on yourself.”

Joe Keller is right. He can’t be Jesus. Neither can Chris, or Larry, or any of the others in the play. And because none of them can be a Jesus in this world, all of them are trapped by the same intolerable dilemma.

Unless. Unless something greater than we are makes it possible for us to follow Kate Keller’s advice without sacrificing truth or integrity. Unless we can stand in the truth without being crushed by it, because there is someone who is taking it on Himself, someone better than we can be who is lifting the impossible burden of it without requiring that any of us deny its reality.

We can't be a Jesus in this world. But the hope offered by the Christian narrative is that this grim reality, played out in such harrowing terms in Arthur Miller's play, isn't the end of the story. Because we don't need to be. Because there's someone who is.


  1. Yes, no one can be Jesus in this world. The duties of a world driven by the need to sell one's soul are just inexplicable. A few lucky souls escape this horror. Here is a poem from the most recent issue of The New Yorker.


    Cabbage- the first word put down
    with his new pen, a trophy pen,
    like a trophy wife, not cheap,
    absurd to use a ballpoint pen

    for a task like this, a challege,
    for which he'd also bought a new,
    but ancient, rolltop desk recently
    restored, with matching chair,

    also not cheap, and for which he'd
    renovated the attic room with
    pine-pannelled walls, bookshelves,
    and good light for his new office

    or weekend office, a place planned
    for many years, even before college,
    back in high school in fact, a resolve
    rare in his life, but about which

    he's dreamed in free moments
    at his office, and which kept him
    sane during those tedious years
    of doing the taxes of strangers,

    but now at last begun, excitingly
    begun, as he leaned forward with
    pen raised to put down on paper
    the first word of his novel. -Stephen Dobyns

  2. Alternatively, one might argue that the dilemma is not central to the human condition, but rather is the price we pay for particular cultural constructs.

    In many societies there is a premium on measuring up to some standard against which failure is inevitable (be it Jesus, financial success, perfect mother, perfect body, environmental angel... the list is long). The burden we then place upon our children is that of believing life is a quest to achieve some elusive and often personally inappropriate state.

    The alternative, the acceptance that we are each different, will all make mistakes, but along will find opportunities for joy, offers another way out of the dilemma. Believing being Jesus is in some sense a desirable goal may be in effect be part of the problem. What is Joe's weakness here? His inability to cope with his shame, and his guilt.

    Something stops him saying, well, I screwed up, and I wish I hadn't, but I did. Something makes his son so psychologically vulnerable that he takes ownership for his father's misjudgment. It may well be that the Christian narrative offers a way out, but equally there is a chance it is exactly this type of narrative (of right and wrong, good and evil, success and failure) that traps us in the first place.


  3. Bernard: There are versions of the Christian narrative that certainly do "trap us in the first place"--that is, versions of the narrative according to which Jesus is not only offered as a kind of exemplar in our own efforts to put together a life lived well (a source of inspiration and aspiration) but becomes a standard of adequacy (a source of judgment).

    I think this is a crucial distinction--between, on the one hand, a set of moral principles, goals, and exemplars (collectively constituting what I'll call one's ETHIC) that functions as a guide in decision-making, and an ethic that functions as a measure of personal worth. The problem, as I see it, is a product of the latter.

    I define "moralism" as the practice of using one's ethic primarily to judge people (others and oneself)--whereas morality is about using one's ethic in personal decision-making. "High ideals" are, I think, wonderful for the purpose of the latter; but the higher your ideals when you use them to judge people, the worse it is.

    I think humanity cannot do without morality--something to help guide our decision-making. But it is very difficult to have morality without moralism creeping in. And because it is so hard to have the one without the other, we downgrade the ideals we live by so as to avoid passing the sorts of harsh judgments that high ideals would call for when invoked moralistically. Or we keep to our high ideals and end up either being self-righteous jerks (because we primarily use them to judge others) or beating ourselves up (because we primarily use them to judge ourselves).

    In having an ethic that functions morally but not moralistically, I think it helps for the ethic to be flexible enough to accomodate differences (we shouldn't assume that the best decision for me, given where I am in my life, is the best decision for you, given where you are in your life). And it helps for the ethic to be embraced fallibilistically and with an openness to revision in the light of critical reflection and discourse. But while these things help, I'm not sure they're always enough.

    The Christian narrative--at least as I understand it-- offers at least one way of erecting a kind of wall between the moral use of a very high ethical ideal and the moralistic use. In Christian theology, this wall is characterized in terms of the dichotomy between a theology of grace and a theology of works.

    None of this is to say that Christians haven't been prone to extreme moralism. Rather, my claim is that to the extent that Christians are extremely moralistic, they have lost sight of the meaning of the Christian narrative.

  4. Hi Eric

    Thanks for that. Yes, the balance, no matter what one's personal philosophy, does seem tremendously difficult to maintain. Maybe it comes down, as much as anything, to the way the message is delivered. I have a taste for the belief that so long as the child growing up experiences something in the way of unconditional love and approval, they will have a fighting chance of coping with their inevitable failings. I'm just reading Imran Khan's biography/history of Pakistan, and in considering his upbringing, both tremendously strict and fear based and yet, as he tells it, underpinned by fierce love and loyalty, I'm struck by the great range of ways in which this approval might be expressed.