Arthur Miller stated that the issue of relatedness is the main one in All My Sons. The play introduces questions that involve an individual's obligation to society, personal responsibility, and the distinction between private and public matters. Keller can live with his actions during the war because he sees himself as answerable only to himself and his family, not to society as a whole. Miller criticizes Keller's narrow worldview, which allows him to discount his crimes because they were done "for the family." The main claim is that Keller is wrong in his opinion that there is nothing greater than the family, since there is a whole world to which Keller is connected. To cut yourself off from your relationships with society ge is to invite tragedy of a nature both public (regarding the pilots) and private (regarding the suicides).
The Nuclear Family
The contrasting side of Miller's relatedness argument is his downplaying of the family as the nucleus of society. People should feel a more general caring for others that is not created by family ties. What, then, is the place of the family in the larger social system? Discussions of the family serve mostly to contrast characters' opinions about an individual's responsibilities to the family versus society at large. The family is also presented as a unit that can be corrupted and damaged by the actions and denials of its individuals, a small-scale example of the way individual actions can corrupt society.
All My Sons is a play about the past. It is inescapable--but how exactly does it affect the present and shape the future? Can crimes ever be ignored or forgotten? Most of the dialogue involves various characters discovering various secrets about the recent history of the Keller family. Miller shows how these past secrets have affected those who have kept them. The revelation of the secrets is presented as unavoidable--they were going to come out at some point, no matter what, and it is through Miller's manipulation of the characters involved that the truths are all revealed on the same day. While the revelations are unavoidable, so are their fatal consequences.
Denial and Self-Deception
How do we deceive ourselves and others? We select things to focus on in life, but do we also need to deny certain things in order to live well? What price does denial take on the individual, the family, and society? Two main facts about the Keller family history must be confronted. One is Larry's death, and the other is Keller's responsibility for the shipment of defective parts. Mother denies the first while accepting the second, and Keller accepts the first while denying the second. The result is that both characters live in a state of self-deception, ignoring one of the truths so that the family can continue to function in acceptable ways.
Chris is described by other characters as an idealist, although we do not see this in his behavior except for his angry response to the wartime profiteering. Yet the others define him by his idealism, setting him apart as a man of principles. Chris decides that he must abandon these principles in favor of practicality when he is faced with the dilemma of whether to send his father to jail or not. Is idealism possible in a complex world? If ideals must be sacrificed, is there any higher ideal or principle to help us decide which ideals should be sacrificed in which circumstances?
Keller argues that his actions during the war were a result of his need to keep his business going so that he can give it to his son. He defines himself as an uneducated man, taking pride in his business success without traditional learning. Yet, his business sense actually leads to his downfall. This failure is connected with Miller's leftist politics and the play's overall criticisms of a capitalist system that encourages individuals to value their business sense over their moral sense. How could rules that govern business ignore the moral norms and laws of the rest of society?
Each character in the play has a different experience of blame. Joe Keller tries to blame anyone and everyone for his crimes during the war, first by letting his partner go to jail. Later, when he is confronted with the truth, he blames business practice and the U.S. Army and everyone he can think of--except himself. When he finally does accept the blame, after learning how Larry had taken the blame and shame on himself, Keller finally realizes that the principles of putting the family and his business before everything else, were wrong. He has, in fact, caused his own son's death. Unable to live with these thoughts, he kills himself.
Chris, meanwhile, feels guilty for surviving the war and for having money, but when the crimes are revealed, he places the blame on his father. He even blames his family for making him practical so that he is unable to send his father to prison.
The American Dream
Miller points out the problem with seeing the American Dream as financial success only. Miller criticizes a system that would encourage profit and greed at the expense of human life and happiness. The challenge is to recover the full American Dream of healthy communities with thriving families, whether or not capitalism is the economic system that leads to this happy life. For example, there is a rift in the Bayliss marriage over Dr. Bayliss's desire to do unprofitable research, because his wife wants him to make more money instead of do what he enjoys and what will help others.