To begin, Kellers character is important to the theme because he represents the opposite of being responsible for his actions and being held accountable to society. Joe Keller seems like a simple kind of man. His greatest wishes are to obtain the American dream for his wife and to create a legacy to pass on to his son. However, he harbors a dark secret that explains how he achieved those dreams for his family- he knowingly shipped out faulty airplane parts during wartime.
Up until the time of the play, Keller did not believe he did a terrible thing by shipping those parts out. As he explains, when he came home from jail he was like an expert on the whole jail thing and, over time, the children got it confused and¦ [he] ended up a detective(29). Or, more clearly, he went from being the bad guy to being the good guy. In Kellers mind, he was the good guy because he saved his family from being poor and having their reputations in the gutter. He says to his wife, you wanted money, so I made money(76). To him, he simply did what he had to do to protect and take care of his family. At that point in his life he was not able to see the big picture of things; he was only able to see one little contour, just one small piece, of what makes up the universe.
Furthermore, it is evident that Kellers small piece of the universe, his family, is what is most important to him. Throughout the play he tells Chris that everything he has done with the business , including sending out cracked gear heads, was for Chris: it was a chance and I took it for you(70). Keller believed that he had to send out those parts so that he would still have a business to pass on to his son. Chris replies what is that, the world- the business?(70). He is asking his father if the whole world is the business. And the answer in Kellers mind is, as long as it takes care of his family, yes it is the world.
Slowly, though, Keller begins to see just what his actions have caused to happen to other people. Take, for example, when he speaks to Ann about her father, Steve. He finds out that Ann and George never visit Steve in jail and that they dont even write to him. Keller is unable to understand why the children would crucify their father and he pleads with Ann to not make a murderer out of him(32).
He realizes that Steves life was ruined and his relationships with his children, something that Keller gives very high value to, are ruined as well. It is also easy to believe that Keller doesnt want to see Steve crucified because if he is, that means that Keller should be too. And if Keller was punished for his actions, that means there is something bigger in the world than the relationship between father and son. The whole ordeal with Steve and Steves children gives Keller a clue that there may be bigger things in the world than familial relationships and also that there may be consequences to wrongful actions.
Finally, Chris and Larry (posthumously) work to enlighten Keller that theres a universe of people outside and that [hes] responsible to it(84). Chris character alone serves as a guidepost to this revelation. He is the epitome of the idea of responsibility and accountability to society because he is the person that reaches for something he wants but pulls back because other people will suffer(16). Chris takes other peoples feelings and well-being into account before he acts. He learned to be so self-less in the war, as he watched his men kill themselves for each other. He describes it as a kind of¦ responsibility.
Man for man(35-36). He learned that you cannot only look out for yourself in this world, but you have to help other people out as well. And Larry, whom Keller thought shared his ideas on the way the world was made (with a forty-foot front), had a good sense that people must consider the good of the many before they act for the few. It is his letter to Ann, in which he states he cant bear to live anymore(83) because of what his father did, that brings everything crashing down around Keller. In the same way Larrys memorial tree came crashing down and allowed more light to shine into the arbor, his letter shined light onto the true ways of the universe.
Everything that Keller stood for, everything he believed in was wrong. He finally realized that he did a terrible thing that killed not only strangers, but people who were fathers, brothers, and sons. In essence, he killed the thing he lives for; he killed family. This revelation drives home the idea that justice will inevitably be brought to the wrong-doers. Kellers karma comes back and makes him not only set everything right in the universe again but pay the ultimate price for his actions: death by his own hand. Chris, Ann, and Kate can now move forward, not bogged down by shame and guilt, and they can live.