It is evening. As the Kellers await George’s arrival, Chris saws off the broken apple-tree and tidies it away. Kate asks Chris to protect her and Joe, but Chris does not understand what she means. She says that Steve always blamed Joe for the cylinder head incident, and that if he re-opens the case, she will not live through it. She thinks the whole Deever family hates them.
Ann wants to tell Kate later that night about her coming marriage to Chris, as she hates secrecy.
Sue Bayliss appears, looking for Jim, and discusses Ann’s marriage with her. Sue says it is good that Chris has money, though Ann says she does not care. Sue says when she married Jim, she was the breadwinner, which made him resent her. Sue asks Ann to live somewhere else after she marries Chris, as Jim is unhappy around Chris. Chris’s influence makes Jim feel he should give up his physician’s practice and do medical research. Sue implies that Chris is a hypocrite, as he takes a salary out of the family business even though “Everybody knows Joe pulled a fast one to get out of jail.” She calls Chris’s idealism “phony.”
Sue goes into the Kellers’ house to nurse Kate, who is “all worked up.” Ann rebukes Chris for not telling her that all Joe’s neighbors think he is guilty. Ann wants Chris to face the truth about his father, as she believes she has about hers, but Chris assures her that Joe is innocent. Joe enters and banters with Chris about his (Joe’s) ignorance. The implication of the exchange is that those who are best at making money are also the most ignorant.
Joe suggests to Ann and Chris that he could set George up in a lawyer’s office in town. He further says that when Steve gets out of prison, he will offer him a good job in his firm. He says this will take his bitterness away and make things easier between Chris and his future father-in-law. Ann, shocked, tells Joe that he owes Steve nothing, and Chris flatly refuses to have him in the firm. Joe angrily insists that however badly Steve may have behaved, “A father is a father!”
Lydia arrives and goes into the Kellers’ house to fix Kate’s hair for their evening out. Jim arrives, having picked up George from the train station. He tells Ann and Steve that he has asked George to wait in the car. George has come to take Ann home. He is furious. Jim asks Ann to take George somewhere else to fight it out in order to protect Kate, but this angers Chris. At that moment, George walks in, wearing his father’s hat. He acts coldly towards Chris. When Chris asks after Steve, George describes his father as “a little man” and a sucker (a person who has fallen for a deception). George tells Ann that she must not marry Chris because his father, Joe, has destroyed her family. George says that he and Ann have done their father a terrible injustice.
George tells Ann Steve’s (true) version of the cylinder heads incident. When Steve arrived at the factory, the foreman had shown him the cracked cylinder heads. Steve had called Joe and told him to come to the factory, but Joe stayed away. Steve called again later, by which time the army was “screaming” for more parts. Joe had told him to weld over the cracks and ship them out. Joe had claimed he was sick with influenza and could not come in. Later, in court, Joe had denied that the phone call ever happened. Chris refuses to believe this version of events, but George points out that Joe is not the kind of boss to let twenty-one faulty cylinder heads be repaired and shipped out without his knowing about it. Moreover, everyone agrees that Steve is a “frightened mouse” who would never do such a thing on his own initiative. George says he only believed the court verdict because Chris did. But now that he has heard the story from Steve, and believes it. George wants to confront Joe, but Chris does not want a fight in front of Kate.
Kate comes out of the house and greets George with motherly affection. In spite of his anger, he obviously loves her. But he insists that Ann is leaving with him on the eight-thirty train. Chris says he will drive George to the station now, or, if George stays, he must not create arguments.
Lydia comes in and greets George with affection. George was once in love with Lydia, but since then, she has married Frank and had three children. Unlike George, Frank was always one year ahead of the military draft. Kate advises George to “Stop being a philosopher, and look after yourself.” In other words, George should pursue self-interest, as Joe has.
Joe enters, and greets George with forced joviality. Joe asks after Steve, and George replies that he is not well in his “soul.” Joe repeats his offer of a job for Steve at his firm, but George says that Steve hates Joe and everyone else who profiteered in the war. Joe self-righteously says that Steve “never learned how to take the blame,” and lists some examples of this that George cannot deny. The Kellers and Ann invite George to stay for dinner at the lake, and Kate even promises to find him a date to bring. George is charmed, saying that he never felt so at home anywhere but here.
Then Joe and Kate drop a bombshell. Joe says he does not have time to get sick, and Kate reveals, “He hasn’t been laid up in fifteen years.” Though Joe quickly adds, “Except my flu during the war,” the damage is done. George knows that Joe’s claim that he was ill on the day of the cylinder heads incident was a lie. He asks Joe what really happened. At that moment, Frank comes in with the news that he has finished Larry’s horoscope. It shows that November 25, the day that Larry went missing, was his favorable day, so he cannot be dead. Chris angrily tells Frank to stop filling Kate’s head with such nonsense. George again tells Ann to leave with him, and Kate agrees. But Chris insists that Ann stay. Ann tells George to leave, and he does.
Kate tells Chris that he will never marry Ann, as she is “Larry’s girl.” Joe intervenes, accusing Kate of “talking like a maniac.” Kate hits Joe. Chris says he will marry Ann. Kate tells Chris, “Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me?” This is the possibility that Kate has been trying to block out with her conviction that Larry is alive.
Kate retreats into the house. A horrified Chris asks Joe if it is true that he was responsible for the deaths of the pilots. Joe keeps repeating that Larry never flew a P-40, the type of plane into which the faulty cylinder heads were fitted, but Chris wants to know about the other twenty-one pilots. At last, Joe confesses that he allowed the cylinder heads to be shipped out because he was afraid that the government would close down his business if he failed to supply them. He thought they would be spotted before being installed. Chris realizes that Joe is responsible for the pilots’ deaths. Joe says that he did everything for the business, which in turn was for Chris. Horrified, Chris demands, “Is that as far as your mind can see, the business?” Chris stumbles away, weeping, leaving Joe alone to lament the emotional loss of his second son.
Analysis of Act Two
Joe’s crime of sending out faulty cylinder heads to the army for the sake of keeping his factory running (and thereby making money) exemplifies the theme of money versus humanitarian ideals. It questions the idea of the American Dream: the idea that everyone, regardless of background, can become financially successful. Chris, in contrast, is more idealistic: he wants to do what is right and is not motivated by money.
Sue Bayliss’s attitude to Chris mirrors Joe’s priorities. She wants Ann and Chris to live somewhere else after they marry, as Chris’s idealism makes Jim feel unhappy around him: “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.” Jim then feels as if he should give up making money for his family and do medical research to help mankind. Thus Sue’s story becomes a parallel plot to the main backstory of the play. Just as Joe sacrificed humanitarian considerations for the sake of money, so Sue is sacrificing Jim’s desire to do research for the greater good of mankind. Both Joe and Jim are, figuratively speaking, in a prison constructed out of the perverted values of the American Dream.
Joe’s plans to set George’s law practice up in town and to offer Steve a job in his firm when he gets out of prison are loaded with dramatic irony (a literary device in which the audience knows something more than one or more of the characters, lending a different meaning from the superficial meaning of what is said or done). While Joe says that he wants to offer Steve a job to make relations easier between Chris and his future father-in-law, the audience suspects that Joe’s plan may be a “sweetener” to keep Steve quiet about Joe’s guilty secret. Joe’s plan also raises the question as to whether stealing a man’s liberty and reputation can be atoned for in material terms, by offering him a paid job.
When Chris asks after Steve, George replies bitterly, “He got smaller…. He’s a little man. That’s what happens to suckers, you know. It’s good I went to him in time – another year there’d be nothing left but his smell.” His words relate back to Joe’s description of Steve in Act One as a “little man” who was frightened into shipping out faulty cylinder heads by the demands of army officers. George, now convinced of Steve’s innocence, uses “little” in the sense that he was victimized by Joe. In a wider sense, it could also relate to the vast capitalistic machine, which (the play suggests) cares nothing for human and moral values. In such a system, human beings are demeaned and made “little.”
When Kate rebukes George for not marrying Lydia and staying out of the war (“Stop being a philosopher, and look after yourself”), she is echoing the capitalistic values embodied by her husband, Joe. Joe, unlike Chris and George, is not a philosopher or thinker. He is uneducated and has always focused on making money, looking after himself and his immediate family.
George’s visit is marked by extreme swings of emotion and viewpoint, and is managed masterfully by the playwright. He begins by feeling angry with the Kellers, but is momentarily disarmed by Joe’s counterattack against Steve as a man who “never learned how to take the blame.” Following this, George is charmed by the Kellers’ warmth and agrees to eat dinner with them at the lake. There is a sudden reversal and climactic moment when Kate inadvertently reveals that Joe has never been sick in fifteen years. This exposes Joe’s claim that he was sick with influenza and could not go to work on the day of the cylinder heads incident as a lie.
Immediately after this, Frank enters and announces that November 25, the day Larry disappeared, was his favorable day and so he must be alive. In fact, adds Frank, it was “the kind of day he should’ve married on.” There are many possible interpretations of this news. On the most superficial level, it is obvious to everyone except the delusional Kate that Larry is dead, so Frank is wrong and deluded.
But there is a sense in which that day, and this day, could be seen as favorable. Larry, it later turns out, killed himself because he could not bear to live with the knowledge that his father Joe (as the papers reported at the time) was responsible for the death of many pilots. Larry chose honor over his own life and self-interest; he took the opposite route to Joe, who pursued self-interest at the expense of honor. And although November 25 should have given Larry the fulfillment of marriage, he has gained a different kind of fulfillment: the spiritual and moral one of taking a stand for what is right. What is more, the girl he was to marry, Ann, will now marry Larry’s brother Chris. Most important, now, in the same month as Larry’s favorable day, the truth about Joe’s crime, which Larry could not live with, will be confronted and brought to light.
Just as Kate unintentionally reveals the truth about Joe’s lie to George by saying that Joe has not been sick in fifteen years, she also confirms the truth about Joe’s guilt to a still-disbelieving Chris. She says, “Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me?” In this statement, she sums up why she has been deluding herself and trying to convince others that Larry is alive. She cannot bear the thought that he might be dead, because that would raise the possibility that he was killed by the faulty airplane parts that Joe shipped out to the army. In other words, the truth that Kate cannot face is that Joe is responsible for Larry’s death. The logic is as follows: if Chris marries Ann, who is Larry’s girl, then Larry must be dead, in which case Joe killed him.
Chris’s questioning of Joe convinces him that Joe is indeed responsible for the pilots’ deaths. Joe’s speech beginning, “You’re a boy …” is an emotional appeal on behalf of the values of capitalism and self-interest by which he lives. Joe also inadvertently condemns those values by emphasizing how they have consumed his life and moral code: “You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?” While Joe has sacrificed the lives of twenty-one airmen on the altar of capitalism, he has also sacrificed his own life and soul.