‘[…] the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what or who we are in this world.’- Arthur Miller, Tragedy of the Common Man.
The fear of not being that which you want to be.
A pervasive fear; one that everyone falls prey to at one point or another- one that can only be displaced by cynical realism or ruthless self-deprecation. In which case, would one rather be truly sad or foolishly happy?
Conflicting thoughts, circular complexes.
The best books and plays, in my opinion, are those that enlighten you of a very human, social condition and force you to think deeply about life and all that it entails. A good book is one that can be read over and over again, and with each read more can be discovered; more can be appreciated of how the author/playwright encapsulates hidden messages in single words, triggers familiarity and resonating chains of thought with single symbols, and draws links between characters with single strands of thought. All My Sons is a play that embodies everyone of these aspects- a play that leaves you aching, leaves you hurt, and leaves you brooding.
After all, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” – Oscar Wilde
At present we’re studying this play for IB Literature (Language A SL), and quite frankly, the first skim through left a less-than-content impression and left me wondering how I would ever get myself to write about it. A play that takes place entirely in a domestic setting? A household- set in WWII, no less?
It resonated monotony and portended clichéd messages, as well as presaged an uninspiring plot.
How wrong I was.
A whole three hours on a breezy, radiant Saturday dedicated to soaking up every little word from this thin slither of a book.
A world of thought.
Perhaps it would be a bad idea to go into the intrinsic details of the play; after all I’m not here to regurgitate the plot and then finally go into the brilliance of the words, the irony of the characters, etc, etc. That would be much too monotonous (and also it would make the future temptation of referring back to this post for all my essays much too hard to resist).
Perhaps just a brief highlighting of the central themes and why I absolutely love this play.
Firstly: Appearance and Reality.
Joe Keller, the protagonist of All My Sons, clearly demonstrates this notion of hiding from reality. Hiding from the truth about himself, and hiding from his guilt. He is so wrapped up in his veneer, he doesn’t even realize that he is in the wrong. He hides from reality because he is a ‘practical’ man, a man sworn to holding his family together, building a good future for his son- but in the end the façade crumbles and reality is forced upon them, harsher than ever.
Surprisingly, when you reread the play- you realize that Chris isn’t who he thinks he is. He isn’t even remotely like the idealist he aspires to be; and in that he has the same flaws as his father. Like father, like son. Although he speaks of a higher moral grounding, a higher purpose- does he ever speak out against his father when he suspects him? It is only when the truth is inevitable that he starts to develop a profound aversion of his father. His self-professed higher moral ground is only an ideal, not the reality. Herein lies the irony in the fact that Larry is the only one who is capable of self-immolation; the only true idealist even as Joe claims that Larry ‘would understand.’
In that way, it grapples with ethics and morality- what is good? What is right? What is truth? How do we even know if anything is true? Deceit isn’t always underhanded; sometimes it is only for the greater good, and sometimes even the deceiver is well-intentioned and unknowing.
The play is very modern, yet has something very classically Greek about it- after hearing Mrs.Wood mention the Oedipus complex, some reading up about it (as well as the Orestes complex) made me realize how similar the circumstances in the play were to the Greek tales of old. It is less about how Oedipus marries his own mother or how Orestes kills his; but more about how each ended up doing exactly what they wished not to do.
And that is what happens.
In trying to prevent something, one becomes the agent for it. The sort of harsh, heart-rending irony that arises from it permeates every nook and cranny of the play; whether in Kate’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge the possibility of Larry’s death in full knowledge that accepting it would mean Joe killed his own son (which leads to Ann pulling out the letter from Larry; which resulted in Joe’s suicide); in Ann’s hope to heal a family but resulting in hurt; in Joe’s struggle to provide for Chris but the consequential alienation.
Miller emphasizes the cause and effect of actions- and then highlights the distinction between intended effect and consequential effect in glaring, gaudy irony.
That is the beauty of his work, and that is the beauty of literature.