Dr. Jim Bayliss
Jim is an old friend and neighbor of Joe Keller. A physician, he is nearly forty years old. He is described as having a “wry humor” tinged with sadness. It transpires that he always cherished a dream of doing medical research, but turned his back on it to make money in order to placate his wife, Sue.
After the revelation of Joe’s crime, Chris drives off in disgust, but Jim comforts Kate by telling her that he will compromise and return, as he himself compromised. He recounts how he once went to New Orleans to do medical research, and lived off bananas and milk, but his wife “came, and she cried.” He went back home with her and focused on making money for her and the family, as she wanted. But he paid a heavy price: “And now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s even hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be” (Act Three). Jim embodies the disappointment and cynicism, but also the pragmatic resignation, that result from turning one’s back on one’s ideals.
Sue is Dr. Jim Bayliss’ wife. A bitter, avaricious, and blunt-spoken woman, she was instrumental in persuading her husband not to pursue his dream of doing medical research and to make money to support her and their family instead. Her first act is to try to persuade her husband to visit a patient who is not sick and thereby charge him a fee.
Sue presents a cynical view of the events and characters of the play. She resents what she calls Chris’s “phony idealism,” which, she thinks, makes her husband want to give up everything in order to devote himself to research. She says about Joe that “Everybody knows Joe pulled a fast one to get out of jail.” This presents an alternative view of Joe’s crime to the one presented by Joe himself, which is that while everyone thought he was guilty when he first got out of prison, they have since accepted his innocence.
Bert is a young boy who lives near the Kellers and who likes to play “jail” in Joe’s yard. This is a symbolic reminder of the fact that Joe has falsely incriminated Steve Deever, who has spent years in jail as a result.
Ann Deever is the twenty-six-year-old daughter of Steve Deever, Joe Keller’s manager at the factory at the time the faulty cylinder heads were shipped out. She was engaged to marry Larry Keller when he died, but since then, has been courted by Larry’s brother Chris.
Ann is described as beautiful, good, and intelligent. She has in her possession a letter that Larry wrote to her before he committed suicide, in which he explains that he cannot live with the knowledge that his father was responsible for having caused so many men’s deaths. She has never revealed the contents of this letter, but brings it with her when she arrives at the Kellers’ home as she intends to show it to Chris before marrying him. Ann therefore knows that Larry is dead and knows that she is free to marry Chris. However, she is hesitant about revealing the truth about Larry to Kate, out of consideration for Kate’s feelings. Ann’s role in the play is that of a truth-teller.
Steve Deever was Joe Keller’s manager at the factory at the time the faulty cylinder heads were shipped out. He does not appear in the play, but nevertheless exercises a significant influence. He is still in prison as a result of being wrongly blamed by Joe Keller for shipping out the faulty parts and causing the death of twenty-one pilots. His daughter Ann and son George have cut off all contact with him in disapproval of his supposed crime. When the play opens, however, George has recently visited Steve in prison and has become convinced of his (true) version of events.
Chris is Joe and Kate Keller’s surviving son and Larry’s brother. Aged thirty-two, he is described as “A man capable of immense affection and loyalty” (stage direction, Act One). Chris has fallen in love with Larry’s former fiancée, Ann Deever, and has invited her to his family home in order to propose marriage to her. Unlike his mother Kate, Chris accepts that Larry is dead, so he feels comfortable with the idea of marrying his brother’s ex-girlfriend. Chris’s wish to marry Ann makes him determined to confront Kate with the truth about Larry.
Chris is a major truth-teller in the play, and is supported in this role by Ann. Several characters attest to Chris’s truthfulness. In Act Two, Ann says of him, “Whenever I need someone to tell me the truth I’ve always thought of Chris.” Jim says of Joe’s secret, in conversation with Kate: “Chris would never know how to live with a thing like that. It takes a certain talent … for lying. You have it, and I do. But not him” (Act Three).
Not everyone values Chris’s influence. Sue Bayliss 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.” Sue worries that Jim will decide to give up making money for his family and do research.
However, Chris’s relationship with the truth is not as clear as these characters think. When Chris is eventually confronted with the truth about Joe’s crime, he drives off in horror. But Jim is convinced that Chris will end up compromising his standards, as most people do (Act Three): “He’ll come back. We all come back …. These private little revolutions always die. The compromise is always made.” Jim implies that Chris will continue to take a salary from the family firm, albeit that the money is tainted with the blood of the dead airmen.
As it turns out, Chris has been compromising for years. He reveals in Act Three that he suspected all along that Joe was guilty of the crime. But he adopted a “practical” attitude and did not confront Joe, even though he feels contempt for his own cowardice: “I spit on myself.” In contrast, Larry, whom Joe always assumed to be the practical son with the head for business, turns out to have been much more idealistic than Chris. When Larry found out about his father’s crime, he committed suicide as he was unable to live with the knowledge. Chris, on the other hand, was able to live with his suspicion about Joe’s crime, even if he later finds himself unable to turn a blind eye when Joe’s guilt is confirmed.
Joe Keller, the play’s protagonist, is the husband of Kate and the father of Larry and Chris. He is a prosperous businessman of nearly sixty years of age. He is described as having “the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him…. When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things” (stage direction, Act One).
Four years before the action of All My Sons begins, in the fall of 1943 during World War II, Joe committed the crime that drives the plot. He knowingly sent out faulty cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of twenty-one pilots, and blamed the incident on his deputy manager, Steve Deever. Steve was imprisoned, while Joe escaped censure by lying about his own part in the affair.
Joe excuses his crime to himself with the conviction that he did everything for his family, which is his primary concern in life. He has sacrificed everything, including his duty to society, in order to make money for his family. While he is good-natured, Joe lacks any breadth of depth of vision and sees little beyond his business and household. Joe’s fatal mistake is his failure to recognize that he has a larger duty beyond his immediate family to the family of humankind.
Joe is not a bad man: as he himself says, he is no better and no worse than many people. As such, he stands as an everyman figure with whom the audience can identify. A poorly educated man who succeeded because he had a talent for making money, Joe can also be viewed as an embodiment of the American Dream (the idea that in America, whatever your background in life, you can become wealthy and successful through hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit). In this respect, Joe’s story raises questions about the way that people might go about achieving that dream.
Kate Keller, called “Mother” in the play, is the wife of Joe Keller and the mother of Larry and Chris. She is described as being in her early fifties and as having “an overwhelming capacity for love.” Her life is dominated by her refusal to admit that her beloved Larry is dead. She knows the truth about the faulty cylinder heads incident, but supports Joe in his deception that he is innocent. Kate in turn is supported by Joe in her self-delusion that one day Larry will return. To admit that Larry is dead would be to open up the terrible possibility that he was killed by his father’s action in allowing the cracked cylinder heads to be shipped out. This is a possibility that Kate could not bear, and so she attempts to shut it out through her self-deception.
Kate’s grief over the loss of Larry is complicated by her knowledge of her husband’s guilt, which she conceals from the world. Through her pretence, she allows Joe to present himself as a respectable member of society, but this comes at a great cost to her emotional stability. She has nightmares about Larry and is nervous and suspicious of others. She thinks that Chris and Ann are morally wrong to plan marriage when she still thinks of Ann as Larry’s fiancée.
In the end, the burden of Joe’s secret becomes too much for Kate to bear. It is she who inadvertently reveals it to George; then Chris is the next to realize the truth. Once the secret is out, she becomes a kind of counselor or spiritual confessor to Joe, confronting him with reality and advising him, “You can’t bull yourself through this one, Joe, you better be smart now. This thing – this thing is not over yet…. You want to live? You better figure out your life.” Thus Kate, who for years has been the carrier of the lie, ends up a voice for truth.
Larry was Joe and Kate Keller’s son, and Chris Keller’s brother. He was the fiancé of Ann Deever. Larry has been dead for some years when the play opens and so does not appear as a character, but nevertheless exercises a powerful presence. He was a pilot in the armed forces in World War II and was declared missing in action. His mother Kate refuses to believe that he is dead and maintains the delusion that he will return home one day. According to Joe, Larry was the brother with a “head for business”, who therefore took after Joe. However, Joe’s idealism is seen in the fact that he could not bear to live after he found out about the crime committed by his father, and committed suicide.
While Larry was not directly killed by the faulty cylinder heads, his death was caused by his father’s moral crime. Symbolically, he can be seen as a sacrifice on the altar of the “American dream” embodied in his father’s financial success.
Frank is a well-meaning but opinionated neighbor of Joe Keller. A strong believer in astrology, he works out from Larry’s astrological chart that Larry could not have died on the day he disappeared because it was a favorable day for him. Frank therefore feeds Kate Keller’s delusion that Larry is alive.
Lydia is Frank Lubey’s cheerful wife, “a robust, laughing girl of twenty-seven” (stage direction, Act One).
Dr. Jim Bayliss