Arthur Miller creates several conflicts in All my Sons in order to keep the play captivating for the audience. For example he portrays Chris to be a man that feels guilty about the money he owns because he gets it out of a business that does not value the labor it relies on, but on the other hand Joe, his father, is portrayed to be a man that will sacrifice almost anything, including his dignity, for the success of his business. The play revolves around conflicts such as this, about the question of morality, individualism and society as a whole. One might think that the exceptional circumstances of the family in which one son is dead while the other not only lives, but also plans to marry the former fiancé of his brother, that the play takes place after World War Two and that the setting is a backyard of a middle to upper middle class home in a small town in America might be the only reason for such dilemmas. However it is important to note that the roots of these conflicts are both timeless and placeless; they happen to everybody, every day, making this play a universal drama.
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The central conflict of the play revolves around the question of morality, a universal dilemma. Joe has the morality of a man who places his responsibility to his immediate family above everything else, including his responsibility to all the men who rely on the integrity of his work for survival. For Joe “It was only for Chris, the whole shootin’-match was for (Chris)” (59). In short, “He just wants everybody happy” (28). Chris’ morals are guided by the belief that a man’s duty and contribution to his fellow countrymen is paramount. He believes that “there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it” (69). One might argue that it is the experience of war that has changed him to believe this way, but the fact is that there is always a question being asked about whom one is working for-the greater good for oneself, or for the greater good for humanity? This might be exaggerated in this play because Chris has just been through a war where the men “[…] didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other” (31). He is angry at the fact the world has not changed and that the selflessness of his soldiers counts for nothing. This is the central conflict of the play- a belief of working only for the good of the immediate family versus a belief that one should work towards the greater good of humanity. This is dilemma that it universal, however much it might be exaggerated by the circumstances of the play.
The pressure to succeed, uncertainty of the future, and the question of individualism as faced in the play are universal dilemmas. Joe feels a pressure to succeed. He thinks that it’s “only for Chris (15)” that he worked so hard so that his sons wouldn’t have to start from scratch like he did. He believes that the means by which he made money are legitimate and justifiable. He also puts forward the point of no one “worked for nothing” and the world is all about “dollars and cents, nickels and dimes” (67) and that war is just a shadow passing over it. He also believes his sons are more important than society as a whole which motivates him to compromise his honour and integrity by shipping out defective parts. Unlike Chris, he does not see a universal human family which has a higher claim on his duty. Chris sees this as ridiculous, making a point of how he’s “no better than most men” (67). To Chris this whole idea of individualism and working solely toward the prosperity of your immediate family is only a form of egoism. He feels “wrong to open the bank-book, to drive the new car, see the new refrigerator (31).” He believes “that it came out of the love a man can have for another man” (31) and so there’s blood on it, making him feel guilty about all of his possessions. There is also a certain air of uncertainty in the play. Chris cannot decide upon what to do with his life and he cannot find a purpose or goal to work towards. He wants to change the world but realizes that even to change his family is a massive task. These dilemmas, again, might be exaggerated by circumstances of the play but the dilemmas are most universal.
The continuous denial by the characters about the actual events and the catch-22 situation it creates is universal. Joe continuously denies the truth about the engine parts to his own son. This creates a fragile situation that is worsening by time and when it finally cracks Joe still denies it, covering it up by saying “it was for you, Chris, a business for you! (59).” Joe expects forgiveness saying “There’s nothin’ he could do that I wouldn’t forgive. Because he’s my son …I’m his father and he’s my son, and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head! (63)” Ann denies Larry’s death because to believe it, for her), would be to believe his death was a result of Joe’s crime-an intolerable thought, so she must persuade herself that Larry still lives. Joe sees this idea to be ridiculous, but must tolerate it to secure Kate’s support for his own deception. This situation creates a time bomb waiting to explode. However, as Chris says “We used to shoot a man who acted like a dog, but honour was real there […] But here? This is the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him. That’s the principle; the only one we live by – it just happened to kill a few people this time, that’s all. The world’s that way. (66)” The continuous denial leaves no honour to be salvaged. This situation might have been lead up to by the course of the play, but the root of it is universal.
Overall this play should most certainly be classified as universal, only exaggerated by the special circumstances of the family and the timing of it. Conflicts such as this have taken place, and will always take place, all the more so in capitalist society. The conflicts may come in different forms and shapes and the results are entirely dependent on the situation, but the root always remains the same.
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