All My Sons: Act 3
It is night. Kate sits outside in the garden, thinking. Jim appears. Kate says that she cannot sleep, and is waiting for Chris. Jim reflects on money: “Money. Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything.” Kate tells Jim that Chris had an argument with Joe, then got in the car and drove away. Ann has shut herself in her room.
Jim reveals that he has always known Joe’s secret. Kate thinks that deep down, Chris also knew. Jim disagrees, saying that while he himself and Kate have “a certain talent … for lying,” Chris does not. Jim reassures her that Chris, like everyone else in the world, will learn to compromise and will return to the family.
Joe emerges from the house in his dressing-gown. Jim goes off to look for Chris. Kate tells Joe that he can no longer fool anyone about his guilt: “You better figure out your life.” She advises Joe to confess everything to Chris and be willing to go to prison to pay for his crime. Then, Chris might forgive him. Joe denies that he has done anything wrong, as he was only trying to make money for his family. Kate says that is no excuse, as to Chris, there is something bigger than the family. She means the family of man, all humankind. Kate wonders if they have ever really known Chris. Joe says that Larry would not have acted like this, as he understood business and the way the world worked. Joe tells Kate that she and Chris are “all I ever lived for.”
Ann comes out of the house and tells Joe and Kate that she does not intend to do anything with her new knowledge that Joe is the guilty party. However, she points out that Kate made Chris feel guilty for wanting to marry Ann, and this has “crippled” Chris emotionally in front of her. Ann wants Kate to tell Chris that she knows that Larry is dead: “I want you to set him free.” Then Ann and Chris will leave town together. Kate refuses, saying that Ann will leave alone because even Chris knows that Larry is alive. Ann replies that she knows that Larry is dead. She asks Joe to go into the house, which he does. Ann pulls a letter from her pocket. It is from Larry, and reveals that he died not because his engine failed him, but because he committed suicide after learning about Joe’s crime. Kate reads it and lets out a terrible groan as she realizes the truth.
Chris arrives, exhausted. He tells his parents that he is going away and will get a job in Cleveland. He tells Ann that he has long suspected that his father is guilty but did nothing about it. He condemns himself as a coward. He says if he were “human,” he would jail Joe, “But I’m like everybody else now. I’m practical now.” He adds, “I spit on myself.” Chris says he will go now, and forbids Ann to come with him. Ann protests that she will not ask Chris to inform on Joe to the authorities, but Chris says, “In your heart you always will.” Chris says there is no point in putting Joe behind bars, as nothing can bring the dead men back to life, and Joe was only acting by “the principle; the only one we live by”: “This is the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him!” Chris is referring to capitalism.
Ann demands that Kate tell Chris that she knows Larry is dead, but Kate will not. Joe enters and tells Chris to burn the family money if he thinks it is dirty. Chris says that Joe must work out what he must do. With growing desperation, Joe says he has not done anything worse than everyone else who profited out of the war, and so he does not belong in jail. Chris agrees that Joe is no worse than other men, but he had thought he was better, because he is his father.
Ann thrusts Larry’s letter into Chris’s hands and says Larry wrote it to her on the day he died. Kate tries to push Joe into the street, as she does not want him to hear it. Chris reads out the letter. Larry writes that he has learnt from newspapers that Joe and Steve have been convicted of being responsible for the deaths of the airmen. Larry cannot bear to live any more. He cannot understand how his father could have done it: “Every day three or four men never came back and he sits back there doing business.” He is going on a mission in a few minutes and says he will probably be reported missing. He asks Ann not to wait for him.
Joe tells Chris to get the car while he puts on his jacket, ready to go to the police and confess. Kate tries to stop him, on the grounds that Larry was Joe’s son too, and Larry would not want this. But Joe realizes that to Larry, “they [the dead airmen] were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.” Chris confirms that he is taking Joe to the police. Chris says it is not enough to be sorry. Instead, Joe and Kate must be “better” people: “There’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that you threw away your son because that’s why he died.”
A shot is heard in the house. Chris rushes into the house and Ann runs to fetch Jim. Chris comes out crying, having seen that Joe has shot himself, and tells Kate that he did not mean this to happen. Kate embraces him and tells him not to take it on himself: he must “Forget” and “Live.” The curtain falls as Kate begins to weep.
Analysis of Act Three
Jim, who has compromised on his own ideals to make money for his family, says of Chris, who has driven off in disgust after finding out about Joe’s crime: “He’ll come back … These private little revolutions always die. The compromise is always made.” This may be seen as cynical or realistic, depending on one’s viewpoint. Jim continues: “Frank is right – every man does have a star. The star of one’s honesty. And you spend your life groping for it, but once it’s out it never lights again. I don’t think he went very far. He probably just wanted to be alone to watch his star go out.” Chris has been taking a salary for years from the family business, in spite of his realization that the money is tainted with the blood of twenty-one dead airmen, and if Jim is right, he will go on taking one.
Kate knows that Joe’s excuse that he committed the crime for the sake of making money for his family will not impress Chris, as is seen in the following exchange:
Kate: There’s something bigger than the family to him.
Joe: Nothin’ is bigger!
Kate: There is to him.
The two sets of values that are opposed in the play, self-interest versus social responsibility, have collided in the characters of Chris and Joe. Joe felt he had no option but to continue production at his factory rather than risk being shut down: he was thinking of his own interest, which centers on his own immediate family. Chris, on the other hand, wants to do what is right for humanity in general. His vision is wider than Joe’s.
There is irony in Joe’s comparison of Chris with Larry. Joe implies that Larry was the one with the business head and would not have condemned his action regarding the faulty parts, whereas Chris is hopelessly idealistic. But it later transpires that Larry killed himself because he could not live with the knowledge of what his father had done. It also transpires that Chris suspected his father’s guilt all along, but did not confront him. Thus Larry turns out to be the more idealistic son, and Chris the more pragmatic son who compromises his ideals.
Joe’s suicide is a necessary atonement for Larry’s suicide, which Joe’s actions caused, as well as for the deaths of all the other airmen, which resulted from his crime. It has taken the revelation that Joe is responsible for the death of his own son, Larry, to make him realize that he has a wider responsibility beyond the confines of his immediate family. The twenty-one airmen, along with all young men in the world, are all his sons.
Joe’s death does not, however, restore a sense of rightness to the world at the end of the play. The curtain falls on Chris, tortured by guilt as he apologizes to his mother for Joe’s death. The shadow of this event is likely to haunt the marriage between Chris and Ann, if it takes place. Joe’s death can be seen as a tragedy on the personal level, but also as the final sacrifice on the altar of capitalism and the American Dream.