Mother Knows Worst: Kate’s Role in All My Sons
In the play All My Sons by Arthur Miller, Kate Keller – Joe’s wife, and Chris’ as well as Larry’s mother – shows the audience that, at the end of the day, she is still mainly concerned about her own family instead of about paying the rightful tribute to the wider world. Kate opens up her true nature to the audience, just as Joe does. Subsequently, and despite such revelations, the audience does not completely sympathize with her or her set of values.
During the play’s action, Kate tries to undermine the one character she thinks weakest – Ann. Whenever Ann tries to talk some sense into Kate, she refuses to listen. Her mind is too congested to squeeze any more reason into it, and perhaps a reason for this mentality is that she has been trying too hard for too long to stop the light of reason and morality from entering. In this play, one of the most redeeming lights is Ann. She carries the letter, acting as the deliverer of truth, her arrival essentially breaking everything down. In the opposite direction, Kate clings on with all her might to the one conviction she holds to be “true”: Joe is not guilty, in defiance to Ann and all that she symbolizes. Starting with a slightly casual “You gained a little weight, didn’t you, darling?”, Kate continues to bombard Ann with requests to pack up and leave, then an explicitly spiteful “You’re going in the morning, and you’re going alone. That’s your life, that’s your lonely life.” In these two sentences, there is a clear pattern of repeating the first part of the sentence, then adding something else to it at the second sentence (“going”, “going alone”; “life”, “lonely life”), both related to loneliness. That repetition in turn emphasizes Kate’s own self and her own patterns of unhealthy repetition, since she has long since sensed that revelation is not too far away, perhaps ever since she said “You above all have got to believe, you….” She knew loneliness will get to her somehow, but she tries to put this quality on Ann instead. The audience should sense this unpleasant situation somewhat, causing pity for Kate to arise. However, Kate presses on: “How did he die? You’re lying to me. If you know, how did he die?” The more persistent she is, the less sympathy from both her companions and the audience will she get, and that in itself would lead to loneliness. The loneliness will increase as the audience begins to realize that Ann symbolizes the community, not the family, the truth, not the lies, and the love, the “un-loneliness” when she sympathizes with Joe, as she chooses to spare him from reading the letter. “[Kate] grasps Ann’s wrists” with the clear intention of putting pressure on her; here Miller intends to make the audience lose affection toward her as she resorts to violence, right after the war, in a family in which past deeds are intimately connected with the war.
In terms of personality, Kate is a sly, clever and manipulative woman. She is the one who represents capitalism the most: she knows what she wants, she gets what she wants, and she knows how to exert control. When there is trouble and her subject of manipulation – namely, Joe – panics, she evades conversation, saying “Don’t ask me, Joe,” an imperative which shows who she is – a person who controls. Next, she says “whenever there’s trouble you yell at me”: this statement turns him into a victim in the flash of a second. The audience picks up this hint and notices her power. In fact, Kate does whatever it takes to reach her goal – a sign of practicality, and the emblem of capitalism – without caring a bit about the outer community. Arthur Miller shows this side of Kate in subtle dialogues, as when Kate tells Joe: “it don’t excuse it that you did it for the family”, making Joe feel guilty. Then, she says “There’s something bigger than the family to him,” not forgetting to repeat “there is to him.” The audience should be aware of the fact that the “to him” part is especially important here. Kate scolds Joe, all the while feeding him the reasons that get him into trouble. After that, she comforts him (“I know, darling, I know…”), acting like nothing ever happened. Pity is usually reserved for the weaker ones – the underdogs – so naturally, Kate would not get a lot of it after Miller chooses to show her for who she really is.
It eventually becomes clear that Kate’s point of view has not changed throughout the play. At the start, she was the one who was the most devastated, knowing that the apple tree fell down. The apple tree was a symbolic protection against the truth; with it gone, Ann arrived at the Kellers’ and started to reveal the whole incident. Kate’s aversion to Ann means that she is on the capitalists’ side, the selfish side, the evil side. That is in Act 1. In Act 2, Kate still wants to convince the whole family to “never let [Larry] go”. In the height of her argument, she slipped and told Chris that “if [Larry’s] dead, [Joe] killed him,” causing a major outburst between Chris and Joe, leading to Chris’ leaving the house to watch his own star of honesty go dull. However, Miller shows Joe’s inclinations most clearly in Act 3, when Joe says “Nothin’s bigger than [the family].” The audience should have an indication or two that he is under heavy influence from Kate, so this professed idealism of his also stems from her. This influence is what chains him and pulls towards his demise, since similar impulses pushed him to ship the defective cylinder heads.
The fact that Kate is an adamant person who would defend her point to the very last moment is shown through the last few lines, in which she comforts Chris. After all that they went through, even after the crime has been admitted and retribution has been paid, she still insists on defending the last of her family members. Kate has yet to learn her lesson, that she has to let go sometimes, that there is a bigger world out there. She has to grow up, to mature, like Chris, Larry, and Joe have. Before, Joe has described Larry thus: “To him the world had a forty-foot front, it ended at the building line.” Now he has matured and decided to do what he thought was right for the world he is living in. As for Chris, he has also matured, but in the other direction: he became “practical,” and now he is one of the selfish people, but he spits at himself. On the other hand, Joe followed Larry’s footsteps. All of them made good impressions on the audience because at least they knew that they had to change sooner or later. Kate does not. She does not want to, and it is natural that few people would want to talk to a person who does not possess an open-minded view on life. Therefore, it is hard to sympathize with Kate, whose point of view is already antithetical to what is “morally responsible” as it is; now, she is not even willing to change. Thus, it would be difficult to imagine a lot of people wanting to pity her at the end.
By the time the play has run its course, Kate from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is still the person she has always been: mulish, manipulative, and mercenary. She is prepared to protect the family that she has at all costs, even sacrificing the truth and maintaining the darkness she thought would always be sufficient to cover the decaying bones behind the closet’s closed doors. She is prepared to shut the light out with her intransigent mind. She is prepared to stop dead at the road, not taking any turn, any move, any action. She begins to pay the price, though, when the audience leaves, shedding on her little of the sympathy that illuminates the other characters.
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