Sangita Mehta



Sangita Mehta (born on 22 Jan, 1978) is a Sr. Lecturer in Haryana College of Technology & Management Kaithal, Haryana and a research scholar. She has to her credit two books. One is Communication Skills in English for B. Tech and the second is Business Communication for MBA. She has got her paper related to Guilt and Betrayal in Arthur Miller’s plays published in a journal named Impression.  


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Guilt And Betrayal In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
by Sangita Mehta, Senior Lecturer

Literature is a part of society. It cannot be imagined as a separate entity having no direct or indirect relation with society. The writer is a man speaking to men, about men and their affairs. His life is influenced by the conditions of the age. In which he works and creates. His intellectual sharpens a writer’s genius and cultural milieu and the socio-economic forces that interact with him. Thus literature is a direct off –shoot of the society and comes into existence through the medium of the creator’s imagination. This cultural milieu, with the elements of the past tradition and present atmosphere intermixed with it, is the environment in which a dramatist works and which is called his dramatic milieu. Therefore to understand a work, it becomes essential to understand the milieu it embodies.

William wordsworth, one of the greatest romantic poets, has condemned too much material attitude of the modern time. Wordsworth lived in a comparatively non- competitive pre- industrialized society; still as a poet and prophet he could predict man’s obsessive concern for material values. From mid nineteenth century, it started becoming increasingly clear that search for matter brings misery rather than happiness. This was not a revelation, but a realization, which dawned in the wake of industrial revolution. But this knowledge was of no help to the man who was almost blinded by the guilt and betrayal.

There is no denying the fact that everybody wants to achieve success; everybody aspires to live a life full of dignity and respect. There is nothing wrong in these aspirations and ambitions. But the most important thing is the way through which one achieves success. The kind of success, which is attained at the cost of family, has hardly any value. And success, achieves through this way becomes completely meaningless when one’s family refuses to accept this success. The kind of success that results in the breaking up of the relationships breeds alienation. On the contrary, the family, which ignores the society, is equally culpable. There are many playwrights who have written their plays with this aim in the mind. But one of the most important dramatists of the twentieth century is undoubtedly the American dramatist, Arthur Miller.

Miller is usually regarded as an intellectual dramatist i.e., one whose plays express moral, social and political ideas. In themes that frequently recur, Miller is strongly in favour of a positive relationship between the individual and society. He argues against injustice, exploitation, competition, guilt, betrayal and vested private interest. He also exposes the human tendency to put oneself above all suffering. His characters are people who try to escape the consequences of their actions, who try to declare their innocence even than that involves implying the guilt of other. The process of his plays is that brings his characters into confrontation with themselves. Miller shows the same process in his play All My Sons.

All My Sons (1947), Miller’s first successful play won him the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play made its first appearance on the stage in January 1947.There is no doubt that All My Sons deserves a special place in playwright canon because it constitutes his major theatrical achievement.C.W.E. Bigsby makes it a point. “All My Sons is a reassertion of the need for individual to accept the full responsibility for his actions to acknowledge the reality of the world in which the idea of brotherhood is an active principle rather than a simple piety”.

All My Sons reveals the human tendency to commit guilt and betrayal. The play describes the guilt and betrayal of the middle class ignorant man who neither understands himself nor the forces that finally crush him. Harassed by a sense of insignificant in the face of the impersonal forces of the society, this little man remains absorbed with his little dreams and activities.

The play tells us about Joe Keller and Steve Deever who are partners in a manufacturing firm. They are also neighbors because they live in the same locality. During the war they get a contract from the air force to supply the cylinder heads for the military. The whole batch of the cylinder heads produced by them is found to have cracks. It is evidently undesirable for the manufacturers to dispatch those cylinder heads to the authorities. At that particular time, Steve Deever calls Joe Keller telephonically to inform him about the defect. But Joe Keller feels that withholding those cylinder heads would mean a huge financial lose for the firm and he therefore asks Steve Deever on the telephone to weld the cracks and then to dispatch those cylinder heads to the authorities. As a result twenty-one pilots died when the cracked cylinder heads cause their planes to malfunction and crash. Exonerated by the court for his role in the catastrophe, Joe Keller, the play’s central character, triumphantly returns to his community and lives a normal life pretending the crime never occurred and Steve Deever remains in prison for many years. After several powerful scenes, Chris finally discloses his father’s guilt and challenges him to accept the responsibility for his actions.

The problem facing modern man today is that he is becoming individualistic day by day. He cannot think beyond himself and his family. For his family he betrays the society. But Miller says that a man’s conscience can never be completely extinguished when a man has committed a wrong, his conscience would certainly make him feel uneasy about it. This is exactly what Miller wants to depict in All My Sons.

Joe Keller therefore has the feeling of guilt that he has done a great wrong to his country. He is perfectly conscious of the fact that he has also done wrong to his partner, Steve Deever. Joe Keller’s sense of guilt in having done a great wrong clearly shows itself in the offer which he makes to Annie with regards to her father comes out of prison after having served his sentence, he would be provided with a well paid job by him.
Keller’s sense of guilt also comes on the surface when he pleads with his son,” Chris to take his money and use it without shame---------- with joy”. (Cp136) Keller knows that he has used unsavory means to build his fortune and that his son would have nothing to do with the family business if he knew that it prospered only because of the death of innocent pilots including his own brother Larry. He tries to convince his son that fortune earned is “good money, there is nothing wrong to do with money”. (Cp131)

Keller again justifies that he did all this for his family. The fact is that one just cannot live by betraying the society. The basic thing is to strike a balance; to see at what cost one is attaining it. Of course one cannot be a Jesus in this world but he at least can strike a balance between the family and the society.

Joe just cannot understand- why he should ask forgiveness from his son? He argues-“ you wanted money, so I made money. What must I be forgiven? The wife replies- I don’t want it that way and the husband frowns at her: I didn’t want it that way, either!”(Cp; 120) and the wife (Kate Keller) threadbares the naked truth that:” it do not excuse it that you did it for the family……….. there is some thing bigger than family too”. (Cp120). But Joe is not ready to come out of his private shell saying: “for you Kate, for both of you, that’s all I ever lived for ………”(cp: 121) keller again justifies that he did all this for his son as he asserts-“it was a chance and I took it for you. I am sixty-one years old, when would I have another chance to make something for you”.(cp:121)And the son turns on him burning with fury:” for me! Where do you live, where have you come from? For me! I was dying everyday and you were killing my boys and you did it for me?………don’t you live in the world?”(Cp: 115-116)

The problem with keller is that: he is an engaged man but not to man or to men, only to his family more precisely to his sons, not all the sons of the title but two sons he has fathered. So, Miller reminds us that there is a universe of people outside of which we are the part and we are responsible to it. So, what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world andloses his soul? Kate Keller also suffers from the fault of egotism, and a sense of guilt. She also plays a significant role in the cover up of her husband’s war profiteering crime. She clings to her belief that Larry is still alive in spite of all available evidences which goes to show that Larry must be dead. This persistent belief of hers is nothing but a sign of her betrayal. She wishes to be regarded by others as a most loving mother. Then we see her sense of guilt when she tells Chris that, if Larry is dead, the responsibility for death rests upon Larry’s father: “ Your brother is alive, darling, because of / he’s dead your father killed him----/ God does not let a son be killed by his father.”(CP: 114)

Even Annie has a sense of guilt. Because ever since the news of Larry’s death she had been waiting Chris to propose marriage to her. In order to purge her sense of guilt Annie brings out the letter, which Larry wrote to her before committing suicide? The last line of the letter shows a complete break up of relationship between the father and the son. He cannot bear the wrong done by his father to humanity and he finds no other alternative but to commit suicide.

All My Sons shoes remarkably how the father in his desires to earn more and more destroys one of his sons and that son, in his turn pronounces the sentence of death on him, while at the same time to the other son the father offers the future and his son, in rejecting it, destroys his father in pain and love. Joe finally realizes his guilt and commits suicide. Therefore, it is not difficult to see how Joe’s guilt and betrayal has caused the destruction of the keller family.

The purpose of Miller in All My Sons is to make Joe realize through various experiences that the sense of guilt is larger than the family’s interest: That one should not try to achieve success by betraying others. Miller too believes that the society is equally responsible for the destruction of Keller’s family. He represents capitalism as creating an exploitive system, which denies the sense of guilt. Capitalism, according to Miller, creates false needs. In order to fulfill those false needs man betrays others. In this way we can say that society creates such circumstances in which man has to betray each other means society betrays the, man and man betrays the society – Miller insisted on: “Society is inside man and man is inside the society”. The play All My Sons shows how the impulse of guilt and betrayal when left ungoverned, can rampant and wreck havoc on the individual, his family and his society. Joe’s problem is that he cannot admit he personally has viable connection with his world, his universe or his society. What is right in Joe’s ethos- is the familial obligation, the father’s duty to create something for his son. Joe is a man of limited view point. For Joe nothing is bigger than his family but Chris believes in the theory of achieving success without betraying others.

One should achieve through a proper channel- the channel that is appreciable in the eyes of the members of a family. Man should expend his activity from the narrow limits to his small family and enhance it to embrace as large a circle as possible. Joe Keller’s offerings to Annie’s father and his own son are the expressions of his subconscious of guilt; his sense of guilt is due to the great wrong which he had done to both his country and to his business partner. Thus Miller wants to say that there is a limit to the guilt you feel. After all a man conscience can never be completely extinguished, means guilt can be hidden only for a short time and not forever and that a person who closes his eyes to the stark realities of life or the consequences of his actions, as does Joe, is likely to end up tragically. Miller seems to believe that harmonious relationship between the society and the individual can be maintained only when the society as well as the individual tries to understand each other’s complexities. There should be a balance between the dreams and obsessing of the individual and the harsh realities of the society. It is only by achieving and maintaining this balance that man can avoid the feeling of guilt, betrayal and resultant suffering.



1. Arthur Miller, “ All My Sons,” Collected Plays (New Delhi: Allied Pub. Pvt. Ltd.1973), p115.
2. Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (New York: Grover Press, 1981) p 12-14.
3. Christopher Bigsby, “ Introduction,” The Cambridge companion to Arthur Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1977), p 1-8.
4. C.W.E Bigsby, A critical introduction to tweniteh century American Drama, Vol.II (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1984),p 167-168.
5. N.S. Pradhan, “ Arthur Miller and the Pursuit of Guilt, “Studies in American Literature: essays in honour of William Mulder; ed. Jagdish Chander and N.S. Pradhan (New Delhi: Oxford university Press, 1976),p 29.
6. Barry Gross, “All My Sons and the Larger Context,” Critical Essays On Arthur Miller, p 12.
7. Thomas E. Porter, Myth and Modern American Drama rpt. (1969; Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1970),p 13.


Last updated : 7 October, 2009