Guilt and Responsibility in Arthur Miller's Plays

Seminar Paper, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Joe, Kate, Chris, and Larry Keller in All My Sons

3. Proctor in The Crucible

4. Conclusion

1 Introduction:

The purpose of this term paper is to examine how the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays are confronted with guilt and responsibility and how they deal with it. Furthermore, I want to demonstrate how personal, individual guilt and responsibility not only become a matter for the individual but also have an important impact on the community and the society. According to Miller, there is a really strong mutual relationship between the individual and society. He states: “Society is inside man and man is inside society, the water is in the fish, the fish is in the water.”[1] Miller’s main protagonists always try to defend themselves against an accusation, to deny their responsibility and guilt, and to believe in their innocence. Bigsby mentions what all of the characters concerning innocence and guilt have in common: “… [They] spend much of their time rebutting charges whose justice they acknowledge even as they are rejected. They are people who try to escape the consequences of their actions, who try to declare their innocence even when that involves implying the guilt of others.”[2] This truly applies for the plays and characters I will observe in the following. I decided to focus on two plays published in the 1940s and 1950s: All My Sons (1947) and The Crucible (1953). Their main protagonists experience confrontation with themselves which finally leads to death. Most emphasis will be laid on All My Sons as there we have a number of characters dealing with guilt and responsibility, namely Chris, Larry, Kate, and Joe Keller. In addition, I will discuss the character of Proctor in The Crucible.

The dominant question in these characters becomes this one: “How can a human being work out the interconnections among the ever-widening circles of responsibility: self, family, society, the universe? According to Miller, “to violate the codes of any circle is to sin.”[3]

2. Joe, Kate, Chris, and Larry Keller in All My Sons

As a manufacturer of airplane parts Keller knowingly shipped cracked cylinder heads to the United States Army in World War II. As a consequence, twenty-one American pilots die when their planes crash in Australia. He justifies his action saying that he did it for the benefit of his prosperous business and the family. Nevertheless, his sons do not accept his unsocial responsibility: Larry kills himself, and Chris totally rejects him. He does not take responsibility for what he did until the end when Chris forces him to. However, as he cannot meet his son’s expectation of being a good father anymore he sees no other way out than killing himself.

Joe Keller grew up as an uneducated man who made it in a world of materialism and competitiveness. According to Keller’s imagination, his well-going business and providing his family with enough money are the most important things in life. Being a good father for Keller means to provide his sons with financial and material stability but most importantly “His desire to pass his business on to his sons is rooted in love. Keller’s regard for his sons is undeniable, and his belief in the sanctity of fatherhood is clear as he cries, ‘A father is a father’[4] and this cry affirms his belief that blood should always be put before outside concerns”.[5] Using this illusion of the sanctity of fatherhood allows Keller to do everything – morally right or wrong, social or unsocial – as long as it helps to fulfill his role of a good father. “This desire to bond with his son is, in a sense, what frees him from moral responsibility, and allows him to ship those faulty parts with a clear conscience.”[6] Keller creates for himself a morally right world of illusion where his family enjoys uppermost priority, and social rules, guilt, and social responsibility do not exist. Miller explained Joe Keller’s problem and trouble: “His cast of mind cannot admit that he, personally, has any viable connection with his world, his universe, or his society.”[7] According to Keller’s moral values, his actions are not criminal as he is doing it for the sake of the family. Consequently, he denies any responsibility and guilt and insists on his innocence. Centola confirms this by saying: “So long as he acts to preserve the welfare of his family, Keller believes that anything he does can be justified. He convinces himself that his sole responsibility in life is to be successful so that he can support his wife and children." For Keller, ‘Nothin is bigger’[8] than the family.”[9] The setting of the play described at the beginning of act one also emphasizes and explains this narrow-minded and restricted view: “The stage is hedged on right and left by tall, closely planted poplars which lend the yard a secluded atmosphere.”[10] To me Miller’s description of the backyard of the Keller home illustrates a metaphor for Keller’s mind and range of vision. The adjectives “hedged”, and “secluded” fit well and the poplars literally “cut off view”[11] In addition, although the neighbors know about Keller’s guilt they are still friends with him and seem to accept it. This makes things even worse because this way Keller’s illusion seems to be morally right and confirmed.

In contrast to Keller, Chris has a different view of the world due to his experiences during the war. Serving in the war completely changed him. He presents us his experiences and what he learned from the war: “They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other […] Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of – responsibility. Man for man.”[12] Seeing his comrades dying must have had a really strong impact on Chris’ emotional and moral world. He developed a sense of responsibility and social values which he wanted to transfer to the after-war-life. “Chris has brought out of the war an idealistic morality of brotherhood based on what he has seen of mutual self-sacrifice among the men whom he commanded.”[13] After he returned from the war he hoped things and people would have had changed like the war changed him. However, that was not the case. He set himself very high idealistic standards and moral principles by which to live and became a role model for the others. “Chris has been set up as a moral idealist by his friends and neighbors, which is a hard role to fulfill.”[14] He tries his best to meet his own expectations of acting morally right and taking social responsibility. As a consequence, he was confronted with a dilemma: “He feels torn between keeping his father happy by staying in the family business, and refusing to get caught up in the morally suspect world of commerce.”[15] In fact, neither of the solutions would make him happy. Chris hates his father’s business, the immoral world of commerce in total and is rather looking for a life of his own and love, which he finds in Ann. He was desperately longing for love when he returned from the war but the only persons who could give it to him were Ann and his mother Kate. In contrast, Keller was not sensitive enough to feel what his sons really needed. For him everything that mattered were money and material values instead of emotional or moral ones. “Keller tries to offer Chris the only stability he knows in the form of his business, but Chris is looking for a moral stability rather than this material one.”[16] However, Keller could not fulfill his role of a father towards his son according to Chris’ expectations. In addition, Chris also suffered psychologically from the war. He could not really enjoy the fact that he survived the war and all the material benefits the economic revival brought with it because he felt like he owed something to his comrades killed in the war.


[1] Christopher Bigsby, W.E. Modern American Drama, 1945 – 2000. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 79.

[2] Bigsby, 2000, 71.

[3] Donald Costello, “Arthur Miller’s Circles of Responsibility: A View from the Bridge and Beyond” in: Centola, Steven, R. / Cirulli, Michelle (ed.) The Critical Response to Arthur Miller. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 321f.

[4] Arthur Miller. All My Sons. Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays. Vol. 1. (New

York: Viking, 1957), 136.

[5] Susan Abbotson, C. W. Student Companion to Arthur Miller. (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000) 60.

[6] Abbotson, 2000, 60.

[7] Arthur Miller. Plays: One. Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, A Memory of Two Mondays, A View from the Bridge. (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1988), 19.

[8] Miller, 1957, 120.

[9] Steven Centola, “All My Sons” in: Centola, Steven, R. / Cirulli, Michelle (ed.) The Critical Response to Arthur Miller. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 405.

[10] Miller, 1988, 58.

[11] Miller, 1988, 58.

[12] Miller, 1988, 85.

[13] Arvin Wells. “The Living and The Dead in All My Sons” in: Martine, James J. (ed.) Critical Essays on Arthur Miller. (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979), 7.

[14] Abbotson, 2000, 61.

[15] Abbotson, 2000, 61.

[16] Abbotson, 2000, 63.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Guilt and Responsibility in Arthur Miller's Plays
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
20th Century American Drama: Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Guilt, Responsibility, Arthur, Miller, Plays, Century, American, Drama, Tennessee, Williams, Arthur, Miller
Quote paper
Andreas Keilbach (Author), 2007, Guilt and Responsibility in Arthur Miller's Plays, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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