Gender Conflict

Addressing the potential misogyny of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Goh Wee Kiat reflects on gender in the post-war period as it is presented in the play. While recognising the presence of conventional gender roles, this essay comes round to underscoring the growing power of women in Miller’s work.

In response to Arthur Miller’s first stage production of his play, After the Fall, in 1964, theatre reviewer Robert Brustein of American newspaper New Republic wrote, “a three and one half hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness … there is a misogynistic strain in the play which the author does not seem to recognize … He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip, an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs … a wretched piece of dramatic writing.” Academic Terry Otten appears to agree, writing that “for many feminists and other gender-based critics, Miller is guilty of creating sexist texts, which demean or reduce female characters” (11). He quotes After the Fall, where the main female character, Maggie, appears to be a caricature of Marilyn Monroe (whom Miller married and divorced within a period of 5 years). Otten further explained that Death of a Salesman also makes a mockery of women, especially when Happy tells Biff, “There’s not a good woman in a thousand” (103). It seems that Miller does indeed celebrate male chauvinist ideals while women become inferior, insecure and bumbling characters.

However, is Miller’s writing really misogynistic? Through a discussion of another play, Miller’s All My Sons, this essay is a treatise against the stereotypical viewpoint of Miller’s plays (that Miller celebrates the phallocentric worldview of patriarchy). In All My Sons, while Miller does portray women in a post-Second World War domestic role, functioning as nothing but mere accompaniment to their capable husbands or as eye-candy for men, he subverts this power structure as the play progresses. As the work develops, the play’s women make the major decisions that direct the course of the play while the men slowly evolve to become passive receivers of the consequences of these decisions.

Let us first address how All My Sons might portray the conventional view of women being subservient to men. Firstly, Miller appears to set the women up as caricatures of domestic bliss and eye-candy that men appreciate, foregrounding the misogynistic culture of post-Second World War America. To provide some context, during the Second World War, women played a very important role by filling up the jobs that men used to hold, as the latter were shipped off to war. However, once the men came back after the war and took back their previous jobs, the women were relegated to domestic and child-bearing roles. In fact, according to historian Elaine Tyler May, due to the Great Depression, the Second World War and a possible nuclear holocaust in the late 1940s and early 1950s, “Americans turned to the family as a bastion of safety in an insecure world” (9), and women were even forced by government policies to perform domestic roles and bolster the family structure. In the play, however, when Lydia is first introduced, she calls out “Frank, the toaster …” (10) and displays distress over how “the toaster is off again” (10). As the conversation continues, Frank expresses exasperation towards Lydia, exclaiming, “I don’t know why you can’t learn to turn on a simple thing like a toaster?” (10) The obsession with a toaster and her inability to use it sets Lydia up as a bumbling housewife who does not have adequate cranial capacity to perform basic household duties. At the same time, Lydia’s attempts to fill this domestic role can also be seen when she wonders aloud why Annie is “not even married” while Lydia has already “got three babies” (11), insinuating that Annie is not doing her part in the national duty of building up the family according to the culture of the times.

After the Second World War, men were also seeking women to marry, and women became objects of desire. When Annie is first introduced in the play, she is termed “the beautiful girl” and a “wonderful thing” (9). Jim went on further to comment how “[t]he block can use a pretty girl” especially since “in the neighbourhood there’s not a damned thing to look at” (9). Interestingly, when Jim is commenting about a lack of beautiful women to look at, a juxtaposition is set up between Sue, “rounding forty, and overweight” (9) and the presumably beautiful, petite Annie. Miller is very clear in constructing an ideal of female beauty in this period. Through these two moments in the play, we can see that the play communicates the misogyny of postwar America, where women were reduced to domestic roles and objects for the male gaze.

Secondly, women in All My Sons are portrayed as emotionally insecure, further accentuating their image of being unstable. This is juxtaposed to the men as being emotionally stable and sufficiently reliable in making decisions for the household. This is particularly so in the role of Kate, also known as Mother. After witnessing a series of events that starts from the breaking of the apple tree and Annie’s arrival, she comments, “No more roses. It’s so funny … everything decides to happen at the same time. This month is his birthday; his tree blows down, Annie comes” (19). The use of punctuation like full stops, ellipsis and commas, accompanied with the short phrases, results in a jarring, staccato rhythm to Kate’s speech patterns, showing how she is unable to form coherent sentences. There is also a self-reflexivity to her presumed madness, as can be seen when she retorts to her family members that “you can see I’m not completely out of my mind” (19). This is in contrast to Joe Keller’s concerned instructions, telling Kate to “Sit down, take it easy”, and Chris’ direct questions – “Can I get you an aspirin?” (19). This parallels the earlier example of Lydia’s bumbling behaviour, demonstrating how women are unreliable. Through the presentation of Kate’s personality in opposition to Chris and Joe’s speech patterns, we can observe how women in the play are shown to be emotionally unstable and not reliable at all.

However, is this necessarily true of All My Sons? The truth is, women in the play are attributed with a larger role than that which is seen in the first half of the play. In fact, women slowly gain ground as important movers and shakers of the play as  it progresses.

One can see this in the slow disintegration of traditional masculinity, which reflects the shifting worldviews of post-Second World War in America. This can be seen in Joe’s changing speech patterns and Chris’ shame in being part of the American economy, especially when they confess to their respective women. Before Chris finds out about his crime, Joe confidently brags to everybody how he worked his way from being “the beast; the guy who sold cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force; the guy who made twenty-one P-40’s crash in Australia” to having “one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again; bigger than ever” (30). This speech even wins the respect of Chris, who gives Joe the moniker of “Joe McGuts” (30). The grammatically proper sentences and the affirmative tone of this speech show Joe Keller’s confidence as a man of the household, and also as a businessman, all of which embody the self-made man of postwar America. However, when Chris finds out about Joe’s crime, Joe’s behavior becomes very unstable and insecure. In Act Three, he desperately asks Kate, “then what do I do? Tell me, talk to me, what do I do?” (76). The act of seeking advice from Kate is a turning point in Joe’s personality, given his position as a man who always found his own solutions to solve his problems. Chris, meanwhile, confesses to Annie how he had been severely affected by his experiences as a “command[er] of a company” (35) during the Second World War. He shares how seeing his men getting killed and everything “being destroyed” led to “one new thing”, a “kind of … responsibility” (35). He also mentions how he was “ashamed” (36) of being part of the rat race in America after the war. The hesitant ellipsis used when he mentioned about the responsibility and the shame he felt being part of the American economy after the war show how he is unable to participate in the economic exchange that exemplifies American masculinity. Joe’s failure to maintain his self-sufficiency after his crime is found out, and this, as well as Chris’ inability to participate in the larger American economy after the war, demonstrate the play’s portrayal of the disintegration of masculinity.

Furthermore, not only do women gain influence over the male characters through the making of major decisions for them, but in terms of the dramaturgy of the play, it is the female characters who dictate the major shifts of the play’s plot lines. An example of a woman who makes major decisions is Sue Bayliss. When confronting Ann about how “Chris makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be” (44), we can see how Sue is the influential person in the Bayliss family –she constantly talks Jim out of his idealism of going into “medical research” and advises him to stay as “a successful doctor”, because research only “pays twenty-five dollars a week” (44), and it does not earn enough for the family. Sue tops it off by saying that when she married Jim “[o]n [her] salary” (44), she had actually married down. In other words, it is Sue who chooses Jim, running contrary to a traditional notion of men choosing the women they marry. In addition to this suggestion of how women have the influence over men, two poignant moments of the play are dictated by the actions of the female characters. One is when Chris finds out about his father’s crime through Kate Keller. Desperate to prevent the marriage of Ann and Chris, she exclaims, “Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him” (68). This divulging of Joe’s secret leads Chris to change the relationship dynamics between father and son – where once Chris hero-worshipped Joe, he now interrogates his father with “deadly insistence” and “overwhelming fury” (69). Another instance is when Ann gives Larry’s suicide letter to Kate, alleging in accusatory fashion that the latter is the one “making [her] do this” (79). It is this letter that figuratively ‘kills’ Joe, as it eventually drives him to suicide. These two major shifts in the play are dictated by the decisions and actions of two women characters, Kate and Ann. From the above, we can see that the female characters not only have influence over the male characters, they also dictate how the larger play develops.

All in all, we can see that the claim of Miller being a misogynist and celebrating patriarchal phallocentrism is but a ruse to show the fallibility of post-war American masculinity and the oppression of women, particularly in All My Sons. By setting up male characters as strong and dependable only in the beginning of the play and slowly strengthening the female characters, Miller breaks down the stability of the male characters. Thus, we can see that Miller criticizes the patriarchy of post-war America and highlights the strength that women possess, comparing this to the men who are weak or obsessed with getting rich by any means possible.

Works Cited

Miller, A. (2009) All My Sons. England: Clays.

Otten, T. (2008) Linda Loman: ‘Attention must be paid’. In E. J. Sterling (ed.), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Dialogue). New York: Rodopi, 11-20.

Schwartz, S. (2005) The Moral of Arthur Miller: The real lessons of America’s most famous playwright. The Weekly Standard 10 (22). [Online]. Available from: http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/Articles/The%20Moral%20of%20Arthur%20Miller.htm

Tyler May, E. (2008) Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.


Goh Wee Kiat is a subject tutor of Literature in English at Tampines Junior College. He loves cycling, cute dogs and his books. Of all the books he consumes, he loves the sensuality of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the childlike atmosphere of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the lyricism of Christina Rosetti’s poems. He is an introspective person who likes to spend time reading books from ages past and musing about the wondrous things that God has done and will do in his life.

photocredit: vector.me

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