".Then She Came, and She Cried. and I Went Back Home with Her": Arthur Miller's All My Sons and the Prison-House of Gender

By Gleitman, Claire | The Arthur Miller Journal, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

".Then She Came, and She Cried. and I Went Back Home with Her": Arthur Miller's All My Sons and the Prison-House of Gender


Gleitman, Claire, The Arthur Miller Journal


As more than a few critics have observed, Arthur Miller's dramatic landscape is one in which relationships between men are privileged, a "pastoral male community" is the always longed-for if never achieved mythic goal (Stanton 70), and male and female priorities are sharply dichotomized. In Death of a Salesman, a frequently discussed example, Linda Loman is at once "the model post-World War II wife" (Stanton 75) and the incarnation of the proverbial ball and chain: she rarely appears without her laundry basket and she urges Willy to resist the machismo allure of the wilderness and remain in his "beautiful job" and the domestic realm it supports (Miller, Death 85). While Willy's brother Ben offers Willy "a new continent" and a chance for "me and my boys," in Willy's words, to be in "those grand outdoors," Linda assures her husband that he is "doing well enough" as he is and works to reorient his gaze toward hearth and home (85). Because both Ben and the jungle into which he strives to coax Willy are vanished emblems of a lost past, Linda's antipathy to them seems sensible. Nevertheless, Linda lives up to Willy's description of her as his "foundation and...support" in the most practical possible sense (18), quietly but persistently opposing dreams of adventure and self-reliance that may endanger Willy and that certainly exclude her. Much more overtly, the female characters in All My Sons, which Miller wrote in 1947, are depicted as figures who actively blunt male idealism and who stand in opposition to a righteous commitment to the larger social good that, the play suggests, no one can really achieve but to which only men aspire. The narrowness of Joe Keller's sense of responsibility, for which he ultimately punishes himself by suicide, is aided and abetted by his wife's deeply provincial value system, one that is echoed in the Kellers' coldhearted neighbor, Sue Bayliss, and even in the more ostensibly appealing Ann Deever, whom Joe's son hopes to marry. Though Ann wavers in her position, the play's older females do their best to squelch what they view as "phony idealism" (Miller, All My Sons 38) and to redirect male energies toward compromised, bourgeois interests which the women regard as the essence of their lives and, indeed, as life itself. Complicating the play's representation of women as corrupt guardians of the bourgeois prison, however, is its covert suggestion that they are also the play's hard-headed adults, who see the world and "life" as they are. While the value system upheld by the men is morally admirable, it is also shown to be vague, unformed, hopelessly impractical and selfdefeating-another kind of prison-house with no viable egress.

Most analyses of All My Sons, Miller's first serious foray into Ibsenite realism, focus on the conflict the play stages between social responsibility and individualism-or, in Christopher Bigsby's words, between "idealism and justice" and "materialism"-and the father/son relationship that pivots upon this conflict (78). The play is about an ordinary "Joe" who manufactured engines for war planes during the second World War. One fateful day, Joe knowingly sold a batch of faulty cylinder engines to the Army Air Force, resulting in the deaths of twenty-one pilots. Joe successfully evaded responsibility for his act by scapegoating his subordinate, who was sent to jail; meanwhile, Joe rebuilt his business so as to provide a secure, suburban lifestyle for his family as well as a thriving business that he hopes to pass along to his surviving son. The action of the play takes place roughly three and a half years later, when Joe is forced to confront the bankrupt nature of his value system, which prompted his older son Larry, a pilot in the war himself, to take his life. Discovering that Larry believed that "there's something bigger" than the devotion of a father to his son, Joe comes to see that "they" (that is, the dead pilots) "were all my sons," and he kills himself in atonement for his crimes (63). …

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