P1 Roundtable AMS Q1 Outline

‘I never felt at home anywhere but here.’ (Act Two)
Comment on the significance of
the past in All My Sons.

Concern-trigger – ‘the past’ 

Prompt quotation:
George speaking to Mother in Act Two, apparently having caved into her ‘seduction’ via nostalgia

Possible concerns / ideas:

  1. The past: both Ann and George Deever long for the ‘innocence’ and ‘harmony’ of the past.
  2. The past: the stasis that engulfs the Keller household, symbolised by Larry’s ‘presence’
  3. Truth / denial: Mother’s belief that Larry is still alive is a point of tension between Chris’s desire to move on; the letter overturns Mother’s belief.
  4. Denial and guilt: Keller and Mother’s revision of the past* – the various narratives that indict Steve as guilty, Joe as innocent.
  5. Denial and guilt: George arrives at the Kellers to uncover the truth behind the past*, to prove that Joe is in fact guilty.*Note that these last two ideas are less relevant than the first three, given the prompt quotation.


  • The apple tree + Ann’s references to Larry’s room
  • The letter, and its revelation of the past.
  • Chris’s tone of frustration + railroad station metaphor (stasis)
  • George and Ann’s nostalgic tone + references to lack of change
  • Joe Keller’s various recounts (p32, 34, 70) that mark his own innocence
  • George as a symbol of ‘the past entering the present’ + his interrogatives / questions

The past infiltrates the present in the world of All My Sons, acting as a source of comfort and stability for the Kellers and both Ann and George Deever. In some ways, the past is reinvented to suit the needs of the present.

Yet, the interrogation of the past by George and later Chris in Act Two sets into motion the play’s tragic denouement. Upon learning the truth of Keller’s guilt and of Larry’s death in Act Three, the Keller family is undone.

P1 Roundtable AMS Q5 Outline

‘The play presents a world of divided loyalties.’ How far do you agree with this comment on All My Sons?

All My Sons is often criticised for presenting an ‘impatient’, didactic lesson on man’s responsibility towards his fellow men.
(Context) While the title evokes a simplistic sense of cohesion and community (for all men are ‘our sons’), the play itself unfolds to waves of contradiction and conflict. (Outline) Chris’s moral ambition does not endure, stirred by the promise of happiness with Ann and the guilt of protecting his father. His idealism sets him on a collision course against both his parents, particularly his father’s undulating family-first values. These loyalties and divisions ultimately send the Keller family hurtling towards tragedy, destabilising the idea that one can simply know that ‘there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it’. (Thesis) By presenting a world of divided loyalties, the play challenges its audience to look beyond devotion to any one ‘loyalty’. It urges us to find balance, however hard it may seem.

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We ascertain as early as Act One that Chris’s brand of ‘Man for man’ responsibility, entrenched in a world of divided loyalties, is far from absolute. (How) The conflicting nature of Chris’s priorities is conveyed through immediate contrasts in his tone and vocabulary. (How) An undercurrent of shame is evident when he associates his father’s money with ‘loot’, which he felt ‘ashamed’ to take and ‘wrong to be alive’. He speaks resoundingly of his comrades’ selflessness and exalts ‘the love a man can have for a man’. (How) Yet, he unflinchingly promises ‘to make a fortune for’ Ann, professing that ‘I want you now’ and ‘I’m going to…’. The audience is likely to spot the shift to these self-centred declarations starting with ‘I’, and begins to doubt his credibility. (Why) Evidently, Chris Keller is constructed as a man of internal contradictions and divisions. He is less a Christ figure than he is a hesitant hero — a reminder that no man can wholly live up to the noble sacrifices… of dead men.

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(What) Chris thus embodies ‘a world of divided loyalties’, more so than Ann’s self-seeking cunning and Jim’s sense of compromised idealism. His re-entrance in Act Three discloses to the audience that he is guilty of protecting his own father from the arm of justice, his split loyalties to both family and a ‘universe of people outside’ becoming even more disquieting. (How) The repetition of ‘yellow’ in his lengthy confession reflects this sense of turmoil, as he grapples with his own cowardice and deceit by doing ‘nothing’ about his father (87). (How) The self-loathing continues as bestial imagery is used to compare Chris to ‘cats’, ‘dog’ and a ‘zoo’; Chris cannot bear being torn between family and the wider community, and for that reason he can only ‘spit on myself’ in disgust (87). (How) His series of rhetorical questions reiterate this division in loyalties. Asking if and why he would ‘put (his father) behind bars’, Chris appears to acknowledge that he ‘cannot take it out on him’. Before the crucial letter sequence, Chris remains a figure divided between his fractured principles and his wretched father:

CHRIS. What? Do I raise the dead when I put him behind bars? Then what I’ll do it for? […] But here? This is the land of the great big dogs, you don’t love a man here, you eat him. […] The world’s that way, how can I take it out on him? What sense does that make? This is a zoo, a zoo! (Act Three, 88)

The same bestial images and self-loathing can be read as further evidence of Chris’s responsibility to society, as he continues to lament the loss of ‘honor’ and ‘love’ in a forsaken ‘zoo’. (Why) Yet, the play suggests that these internal divisions have taken a toll on Chris: the stage directions describe him as spent and ‘exhausted’ (86). This portrayal of Chris as a victim here provides no answers to the moral quandary, but only serves to ask the audience further questions about their own loyalties.

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The Keller family becomes a microcosm of these ‘loyalties’ to society and family, as dramatised in the growing tensions between Chris and Joe. (How) The divisions in ideology is foregrounded by the clash of discourse. Chris employs an idealistic tongue of community and altruism, reiterating values of ‘responsibility’, living ‘for each other’ (38) and being ‘better’ than our baser instincts (91). On the other hand, Joe speaks about the primacy of family and how ‘Nothin’ is bigger!’ (83), emphasising the father’s duty to provide (77) and more tellingly, the filial loyalty of sons and daughters (32, 77). (What) Their staunch allegiance to their own beliefs prevents them from recognising — and appreciating — each other’s. (How) Miller’s stage directions towards the end of Act Two exemplify this antipathy: Chris is ‘deadly’ and ‘unyielding’ in his demands, whilst Keller is initially ‘insistent’, and later ’horrified at his overwhelming fury’ (76). (How) These tensions culminate in an incendiary physical confrontation at the end of Act Two. They circle each other on stage like predator and prey, ‘their movements now… those of subtle pursuit and escape’ (76). Chris explodes into violent rage both verbal and physical: he threatens to ‘tear the tongue out of your mouth’ and ‘pounds down upon his father’s shoulder’, shocking an already startled audience (78). (Why) The antagonism between father and son here embodies the damage done by their incompatible belief systems.

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(What) The woeful divisions within the Keller family are extended by the conflict between Chris and Kate, where the former’s idealistic aspirations collide with his mother’s pragmatic desire to preserve what is left of her family. (How) This fierce loyalty is self-evident from both her name (as the mother and ‘guardian’ of the house) and her introduction as ‘a woman of uncontrolled inspirations and an overwhelming capacity for love’ (18). (How) Yet, it is her appeal for Chris to ‘protect us’ at the start of Act Two that characterises her staunch commitment to ‘us’ over society-at-large (44). (How) Subsequently, Kate’s ‘uncontrolled’ dedication to the family is pit against Chris’s personal desires, with both employing a series of ferocious exclamations at the end of Act Two. Each refuses in absolute terms (‘now I say no!’, ‘You’ll never’, ‘I’ll never’) to give way to the other and makes their own demands (‘till I do it’, ‘You’ll never let him go!’). (Why) Mother’s attempts to force Chris away from Ann and back into her definition of ‘us’ (which includes Larry) prove futile, driving the family even further apart. The Kellers’ conflicting intentions ultimately sink them deep into the play’s tragic vision.

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(What) Only in the face of catastrophe do these divided loyalties come to a standstill. (How) In the play’s final scene, Mother repeatedly begs for Chris to relent (‘Didn’t you hear? It’s over!’, ‘What more can we be!’) and forgive Joe for his moral blindness (91). This instead incites Chris’s most fervent call to be ‘better’ and to be ‘responsible’ to a whole ‘universe of people’ (91). The deadlock here, like that between Chris and Keller, leads the audience towards a similar mix of apprehension and distress. (How) A reprieve from these unbearable tensions is earned, ironically, only when ‘a shot is heard in the housea tragic coda to the conflict between familial devotion and social responsibility. As a grieving mother comforts her grieving son in her ‘arms’, with tears welling but not streaming (‘almost crying’, ‘she begins sobbing’), their loyalties are momentarily put aside. (Why) In silence (‘Shhh…’), divisions fade to differences and the only loyalty left is that of family. Finally, we see mother and son stand together.

Bearing the weight of a father’s death and a family in mourning, the audience leaves the theatre with a heavy heart. ‘Loyalties’ have destroyed not just an individual, but also the relationships between mother and father, mother and son, father and son. The conflation of both loyalties to the play’s message — every man should be seen as All Our Sons — is compelling. However, it is a convenient truism; it is not easy to see loyalty to the family and society as one and the same. Like Kate and Joe, we ask ourselves if we can be better, and try in our own way to be a ‘Jesus in this world’ (89). Like Chris in the final scene, we wonder if our family should be our immediate priority instead… or if we will always remain divided.

Denial in All My Sons

Warning: don’t mistake the timing of this post as a sign of what’s to come for the Mid Year Exam. You’ve already been tested on denial for CA2 anyway. I’m posting this because I have some time on my hands (at last!) to address a few outstanding issues my students have raised.  However, these points should clarify your grasp of the concern… and may prove useful in minor ways for the task right in front of you. 🙂


The paradox of denial, explained

  • The lecture on denial (the combined work of Ms. Nadia in 2013, Ms. Teo in 2014 and Ms. Aster this year) proposed that the play presents a paradox of denial where the process of denial leads to the ‘impulse of truth’, which in turn leads to ‘catastrophic repercussions’.
  • The notion of a ‘paradox’ is first an argument on dramatic structure– the play starts on multiple modes on denial, and inexorably moves to the full revelation of the truth.

    In Act One, the audience witnesses Mother deny Larry’s death, force this version of reality onto Chris, Keller and Ann and lastly deny that there’s any sort of ‘jail’ (i.e. Keller’s crime). Keller enacts his own mode of denial, retelling the day he was exonerated (32) and the day the defective cylinder heads were shipped out (34). Equally guilty, Chris partakes in the illusion of righteous ‘Joe McGuts’, even if he does express shame (‘blood’, ‘loot’) and ‘uneasiness’ (41) later in Act One. We’ll look at Ann’s denial in the next section.

    The “truth” first emerges via George’s phone call, which surfaces Mother and Keller’s tensions / anxieties. Sue appears in Act Two to disassemble Mother and Keller’s ‘holy’ image, effectively informing Ann and the audience about the various ‘truths’: Joe is guilty and should have been in jail, while Chris’s idealism is a lie. The actual arrival of George on p55 provides us an alternative account of Steve Deever’s involvement, which similarly nullifies Keller’s recount in Act One.

    In the light of truth, the Kellers make attempts to “re-pave” the illusion. Chris makes a feeble attempt at refuting George’s reasoning. Mother rakes up the past in hope of subduing George’s prosecution. To achieve the same objective, Keller resorts to old stories and accusastions on Steve.

    Ironically, both Keller and Mother are the ones who “let slip” the truth. Chris‘s interrogation reveals more, which is then followed quickly by Jim‘s own admission of “knowing”, the confirmation of Larry’s death (through the letter) and Chris reading the letter’s contents. The truth of Larry’s disappearance – he kills himself because of what his father did – is too much to bear for Keller.
  • The lecture, and several of your essays, also sought a more thematic response to the ‘progression’ of truth in the play. When it comes to writing a thesis on any play, you want to consider what the ending “says” about denial.
    – The lecture ended on the idea that denial is a form of self-destruction.
    – Many essays emphasised the necessity of denial for: (i) coping psychologically / emotionally with post-war circumstances and / or; (ii) self-preservation.
    – A few read the play as foregrounding the inevitability of truth emerging (i.e. you can’t hide from the truth!) and thus warning against burying oneself in the past and particularly against the denial of wrongdoing.


What does Ann really know?

  • Most students are confused by the convenient ‘twist’ in Act Three, where the truth in Larry’s letter-cum-suicide note hurls the Kellers to catastrophe. We can easily agree on the simple notion that Ann knew that Larry was dead before arriving at the Kellers’.
    – In the play’s three-act structure, this late development explains why Ann rebuffs Kate’s repeated appeals to “believe” with her (29).
    – The insipid but dramatically crucial romance, with Chris and Ann exchanging letters (36), takes place with Ann’s knowledge. While Ann never shares the letter with Chris, Chris deduces on his own that Larry is unlikely to appear after three years.
  • The letter however does not confirm Joe Keller’s culpability. It merely confirms Larry’s death, and his disappointment in his father. It is not a case of Joe is guilty, therefore Steve is not. That’s not how the courts work, people!
    – Remember that both Steve and Joe were brought to trial. We can reasonably guess that Larry’s letter was written on hearing news of the trial. It would not be plausible for Larry to have committed the same drastic action if he knew that his father was acquitted, exonerated, free (yes, Larry may be a fictional character, but still, the audience must buy into his actions).
    – In that light, Ann does not have reason to suspect Joe Keller. That’s why she listens to Keller with intent (as opposed to George’s wounded rage) and continues to “crucify” her father (35).  Recalling Act Two, George tells Ann that “we did a terrible thing” to blame their father without giving him a fair chance.
    – So… is Ann in denial or is she not, you ask? Is she innocent or is she guilty? We can argue that Ann seems willing to suppress the possibility that Keller is guilty, alongside… or in place of Steve. (again, in contrast to George). She even affirms the “money” Chris has, and that Keller “should be paid for” his wartime efforts (38). To serve her own interests (i.e. marry Chris, live happily ever after), Ann perhaps denies the possibility that her future father-in-law might be guilty. This is not denial in its truest sense, or at least not on the level of Chris, Keller and Mother.
    – If Ann does “deny” anything, it is in the benevolent form of witholding the truth from Mother. She already has the letter after all; if we were to believe the character, she is well aware of the “hurt” the letter would cause (86) and only produces it “if there was no other way to settle Larry in (Kate’s) mind”.


What does Mother know?

  • It’s time to clear the persistent cloud of “God does not let a son be killed by his father”… or at least try to. As with the Ann example, let’s start on what we can all agree on: Kate Keller is introduced to the audience as a delusional Mother who still believes that her son Larry is still alive after disappearing for three years off the coast of China. She reads the falling of the tree symbolically (in her favour), partakes in Frank’s fascination with horoscopes and keeps the memory of her son “alive” in the house by shining his shoes, et al. She ignores Chris’s pleas and the facts that he drags along.
  • The Mother-Keller sequences in Act One however do show a more conscious dimension to her denial. The use of “above all” in “You above all have to believe” sets up a reason for Joe Keller to believe the lie. She feigns headaches and returns to the house for tea. She knows that the tree, in Joe and Chris’s mind, serves as a memorial, maintaining that they should “never have planted that tree”.  In the eyes of a more observant audience, Kate knows.
  • She does also intentionally covers Joe’s crime, going into a “furious” fit over “that jail business”. She reminds Ann that her father is guilty (31) while appearing forgiving (33).
  • We can probably also agree that Kate is strangely “right” about the act of filicide -father killing son. The letter, filtered to the audience through Chris in Act Three., discloses that Joe’s crime (indirectly) drives Larry to commit suicide.
  • What we all (truly, me too) are confused by is the reasons for Mother would believe that. Why does she see causality between the unfortunate but explainable twenty-one deaths and Larry’s mysterious (at that point) disappearance? It is established in the play that Larry “never flew a P-40” (75).
    – By linking rant on “God” and how “certain things can never be” in Act One to that at the end of Act Two, we can take the convenient option and dismiss Mother as simply… crazy. Prescient as she may be, her logic is fallible.
    – That is unless she senses the lengths to which Larry would go. Logically speaking, it should hardly come as a surprise that the two Keller brothers share similar values from the war. This however is pure speculation on my part, evidence being closer to zero.
    – On the level of dramatic structure, we can confidently interpret why Mother would say this to Chris at that point in the play — to prevent the conflict from spiralling deeper (“Then let your father go”).

JC2 All My Sons CA2 and Extra Material

Supplementary reading:

  • On Denial – a few suggested methods and some brainstorming on what to include / how to organise your essay.
  • On Family – some consideration of Keller’s pride in his role as father-provider and Chris as a good son

The task:

  • Download 2015 JC2 CA2 Questions if you don’t have your All My Sons package with you
  • Define your scope: in this task, you simply cannot answer all of the guiding questions and will have to be selective. Construct your thesis first: what is the purpose of the text or the passage? Only then you can plan the relevant topic sentences and paragraphs.
  • Note that you can refer to the scanned 2014 H1 essays but they are to be in no way replicated. I expect much, much higher levels of analysis, a more well-thought response / argument and clearer organisation.


  • 2T02 – Fri 13 Mar (Please start early; don’t use the Carnival as an excuse)
  • 2T03 – Mon 16 Mar
  • 2T32/34 – Fri 13 Mar


  • If you are submitting via email, please remember to include your name and class at the top-left hand corner of your essay. It is frustrating to have to add your name.
  • Please also remember to title your file 2Txx_Name.docx or 2Txx_Name.pdf. This makes life a lot easier. I know you are doing Lit_P1_CA2.docx, but so are my other 52 JC2 students 😛

All My Sons Screening #2

Couldn’t join us today? Eager to watch the full-length play? Why do we enjoy using rhetorical questions? Can we just give you the information already?

  • Date: Wednesday, 11 Feb 2015
  • Time:
    (Act 1) 5:00pm – 5:50pm
    (Acts 2-3) 6:00pm – 7:30pm
  • Venue: LT6
  • Attire: Half-u or PE attire is fine. We highly highly recommend a jacket.
  • Latecomers are welcome. Brief commentary by Mr. Lim in Act One, before he disappears for JC1 Parents Information Evening.

All My Sons: A Reading Guide


I would recommend reading the ‘Context‘ section before you start reading the play. The ‘Concerns’ sections as well as the excellent, excellent Methuen edition notes will make much more sense after a first reading.

Do also refer to ‘Dramatic Structure’ as you read the play, to keep track of scene changes and characters.


Reading and annotating

As you read the play, pay extra attention to the following sequences. Be sure to highlight / annotate the stage directions, the signs of conflict / tension — including pauses, threats, demands, accusations, violence and sadness. We will definitely be revisiting these scenes again and again, whether in our introductory tutorials or in tutorial presentations or in your CAs and exams… I’d suggest highlighting and annotating your photocopied version, just in case.

Key conversations / conflicts

  • Chris-Keller (p13-17)
  • Mother-Keller (p23-24)
  • Mother-Keller (p42-43)
  • Chris-George (p58-60)
  • Mother-Chris-Keller (p75-78)
  • The ending (p88-91)

Key ‘speeches’ and monologues

  • Mother’s dream (p20-21)
  • Keller’s recounts of the day of his exoneration (p31-32) and the day at the factory (p34)
  • Chris on responsibility and shame (p38)
  • Chris’s confession (p87)
  • Chris reading Larry’s letter (p90)




Both the 1948 film and the ‘free’ versions on YouTube are quite horrible. We will be watching, in lectures and tutorials, the 2010 production by Howard Davies, available on Digital Theatre. I can’t ‘share’ it with you because it’s locked with DRM; you can rent or purchase the video, or just come for the screening in school. 🙂 Details, soon! I’m looking at Weeks 4 and 6 (for the benefit of the OGLs).