Arthur Miller’s Depiction of the Effect of Deceit as Illustrated in His Play, All My Sons
As long as there has been communication between people, there has been dishonesty. Everybody lies, and there are as many reasons for the lie as there are people uttering untruths. People can lie to save someone’s feeling or to make them feel terrible. In Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons”, it seems that every character is lies; from a small white lie, to a big, destructive lie that tears a family apart. The immoral family patriarch, Joe, destroys his entire family because of his inability to face consequences (Savran 1995). His need to shroud the truth to avoid reality is what drives the death of man, including himself.
Lies tend to be separated into two groups: small, white lies and big, destructive lies. With the former, they tend to be to spare someone’s feelings in a certain situation, but this play also shows that a white lie can turn destructive. In “All My Sons”, the patriarch Joe Keller and his son, Chris, have a conversation regarding the fact that they are feeding into Kate, the mother’s, delusions that Larry is still alive. The dialogue is:
Chris: We’ve made a terrible mistake with Mother… being dishonest with her. That kind of thing always pays off, and now it’s paying off
Keller: What do you mean, dishonest?
Chris: You know Larry’s not coming back and I know it.
In this quote, Chris is having a breakthrough. He realizes that by letting his mother labor under the delusion that Larry is alive, he and his father have stunted Kate in many ways. Since they have been deceiving her for years by not helping her see the reality of the situation, Kate has not been able to get any kind of closure nor has she been able to work through her grief; instead, she clings obsessively to the hope that Larry will be returning at any time. This shows the sinister nature of lies; even the white lies can become destructive (Gross 1975). What started out as a way to save Kate from the grief, her family undoubtedly thought they were doing the right thing by not being honest with her.
Over time, this has warped Kate to the point where she cannot accept progress and change. She absolutely refuses to believe that Ann is not waiting for Larry just like her, and this leads to another white lie when Chris doesn’t come forward right away with his intentions towards Ann. Again, he is trying to shield Kate from the truth for her own good, because at this point they fear that the trauma she would endure when confronted with the truth would be just too much for her to bare. When it comes to lying, it seldom stops after just one; here has to be a continual cycle of lies that come after to keep the first one going.
The moral implications of this white lie, and the subsequent lies that follow, is that Chris and Joe essentially abandon Kate in her time of need. What they are doing can seem well meaning, but it ends up emotionally crippling Kate. She is not given the tools she needs to deal with anything in her life, and instead is living in a deep state of denial in regards to both her son and her husband. Instead of dealing with the ugly truth and moving on from it, they choose to remain in a sort of limbo, where Kate will forever be delusional (Gross 1975). Chris and Joe do not offer Kate what she truly needs: the support, love, and honestly from her family in a time of extreme sadness and pain. Without going through this difficult time, she will never be able to heal and actually move on with her life. For a mother, the death of a child is the most intense pain imaginable, and Chris and Joe though that if they lie enough, this problem will just disappear. The lie is covered up by just passively agreeing with Kate, it doesn’t seem like either Chris or Joe have much to say on the topic of Larry, it’s always Kate going on and on. However, it soon becomes apparent that they are very wrong about the harmlessness of this dishonesty; lies do have consequences that will catch up sooner or later.
Unfortunately for both the pilots who lost their lives, and for Ann’s dad Steve, Joe takes the same blind eye to lying in regards to making faulty plane parts. Instead of being honest and suffering the initial consequences, Joe has a tendency to maintain a lie until it is capable of literally destroying people’s lives. The pilots whose lives were lost and the fact that Steve will rot away in prison doesn’t seem to have any effect on Joe. He is living his life in the shadow of an enormous tragedy with the blame squarely on his shoulders, and continues to be oblivious and in denial. Ann’s brother, George, also has been destroyed by Joe’s lies; he turns to drugs to deal with the impact of his father’s actions and subsequent imprisonment. Unlike the dishonesty between him, Chris and his wife, the lie about the plane parts does not just negatively affect their small family unit; it destroys the lives of the pilots, their families, Steve and his family, and has a very far reaching impact (Savran 1995).
Joe’s lie spirals out of control: first he tells Steve to just cover the cracks and send them out, saying everything would be fine. This leads to the deaths of many, and possibly even the death of his own son Larry. The issue of Joe’s dishonesty comes to a head when Kate says “You have no strength. The minute there’s trouble you have no strength. Joe, you’re doing the same thing again; all your life whenever there’s trouble you yell at me and you think that settles it.” This quote is showing a moment of clarity for Kate; she is realizing exactly the type of person her husband is. Joe is too weak and always takes the easy road at the expense of everyone around him. He has very weak moral fiber, and he is under the impression that if everyone looks like they are happy on the surface, then there is not much need to dig deeper for the truth. Throughout the play, Kate engages in cognitive dissonance when it comes to Joe; it is simply too painful and unfathomable for her to accept the fact that Joe may be responsible for Larry’s death. Kate, who stands by Joe’s side through all his lies and manipulations, is finally becoming aware of the monster her husband truly is (Savran 1995). For Joe’s part, it seems that Kate is the last person to believe him, and when she finally understands the truth, Joe is truly overcome by the magnitude of his actions and commits suicide.
Although it can be argued that Joe commits suicide because of the immense guilt he’s feeling for the lives he lost, but the fact is, Joe’s primary motivation throughout the whole play seems to be financial. It seems that his lies often lead to financial gains; Joe places wealth above being a moral person. Joe is confronted about this by Kate, when she says “Joe, Joe . . . it don’t excuse it that you did it for the family. It’s got to excuse it! There’s something bigger than the family to him.” Again, it takes Kates moment of clarity to finally be able to give Joe the truth that he’s spend a long time hiding from himself. He can’t understand why everyone is so angry with him, in his mind, his intentions were good in that he wants to support his family financially to the best of his ability. Kate is realizing this, that Joe’s moral compass is completely non-existent, and his measure of happiness is neither love nor family, but rather how much money he is able to make. His greed has destroyed lives, and his family is finally seeing Joe for the soulless man he really is.
Arthur Miller’s “All My Son’s” paints a vivid portrait of a family destroyed by lies. From the seemingly harmless white lies, to a lie that led to the untimely death of many, Miller is able to show that lies often spiral out of control. Even at the end, Joe cannot truly face the consequences of what he has done, he does not want to answer to his family, friends, neighbors, etc. Instead, he ends it before anyone is able to force him to face himself. Miller is showing through this play that lies, no matter now seemingly small and insignificant, are able to snowball to destructive proportions. This is especially true in a family unit, where the dynamics can already be strained simply because you are not able to choose your family. Although “All My Son’s” takes place several decades ago, these themes are just as relevant today as they were then, and Miller beautifully illustrates the often destructive quality of lies.
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