Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Joe Keller's Motivation for Suicide in All My Sons: A New Reading

Academic journal article The Arthur Miller Journal

Joe Keller's Motivation for Suicide in All My Sons: A New Reading

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most enduring uncertainty concerning an understanding of All My Sons has been in identifying the motivation for Joe Keller's suicide at the end of the play. Although an extensive but not exhaustive survey of the scholarship reveals all the seemingly possible different positions taken in interpretation, I will argue that still another one, not yet expressed, should be considered: Joe's determination to preserve his business success and pass it intact to Chris, his only surviving son and heir. For the absence of precise clarity in this matter some scholars blame Miller's lack of sureness in his art or his immaturity as a playwright at the time he composed the play. Terry Otten writes that "Miller reaches for a moral complexity and tragic resolution in All My Sons that he never fully achieves, largely because of the limitation of the recognition scene and the underdeveloped motivation for Joe's suicide" that "the suicide's motivation and ultimate meaning . . . remains nebulous rather than intentionally ambiguous" (17, 40). Pamela Loos calls the play's resolution too simple because it was written early in Miller's career (31). Robert Scanlan's view is that the play is "rickety" in craft (181). Leonard Moss argues that "Miller mishandles the resolution. Joe Keller's inexplicable decision to commit suicide is the most obvious sign of this mishandling" (41). Edward Murray challenges Miller's belief "that every step in All My Sons was carefully calculated" and states that "Miller, in his second full-length play, had not as yet thoroughly mastered certain difficult problems of craft" (50). Philip Wissbeck states, "The play's tragic ending . . . is never completely motivated in the script, so the actors cannot be blamed whenever this moment rings false" (51).

The following two positions interpreting the motivation for Joe's suicide, seen in a review of previous scholarship, will be discussed in order: first, that Joe has an epiphany and, second, that he has other reasons for shooting himself. Finally, a new argument will be presented in this essay, that Joe's motivation is consistent with the textual elements of the play and should be seen not only in the light of Ibsenite or Greek direct descent as commonly related to Miller's ideas on and Ibsenite examples of tragedy but also, as argued here, related to the narrative and dramatic craftsmanship of Chekhov, whom Miller admired (Timebends 94).

Most scholars connect the self-inflicted gunshot death of Joe to what he feels following the reaction of Chris to the latter's discovery of his father's culpability in sending out faulty aircraft parts and subsequently lying about the deed and from Joe's reading the letter that Larry wrote to Ann before his own suicide or suicide mission. This dominant and still persistent scholarly reading is that Joe recognizes his guilt for his serious willful acts of fraud and perjury, comes to understand that the pilots killed were all his sons, as the play's title indicates, and takes his own life as accepting responsibility, driven to do so by Chris's harsh blame and determination to turn him in to prosecutorial authorities. According to Samuel Yorks, "In his title Miller gives us to understand that Joe commits suicide because of his final recognition of all who fought as his sons" (403). Richard Middleton-Kaplan also holds this view, calling Joe's recognition an "epiphany" (191). W Arthur Boggs states that Joe is "[c]onvinced suddenly of his guilt" (560). For Arvin Wells Joe accepts "personal guilt" and "individual responsibility" (46), repents (47), and has a "shocked realization" of "considerations" beyond the family (48). Charlotte Goodman believes that Joe shoots himself because he is "guilt ridden" (135). June Schlueter thinks Joe has "sudden remorse" (113). Qun Wang sees the suicide of Joe as "his way of accepting his responsibility in a self-imposed trial, judgment, and sentence" (97). Christopher Bigsby, in his various analyses of the play, argues that Joe's suicide is "the only absolution available to him" after he accepts culpability ("All My Sons" 90-91), that Joe realizes "moral responsibility extends beyond the family" (Arthur Miller 1915-1962 265), and that Joe cannot "live with his guilt and his suddenly intensified sense of loneliness" ("Realism and Idealism" 108). …

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