Study Guide

The Children's Hour

by Lillian Hellman

The Children's Hour Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Children’s Hour is a combative play that challenged the moral values of contemporary American society. Its story is about two women who run a private school for girls. When they are unjustly accused by a pupil of being lesbians, outraged community members withdraw their children, forcing the school to close. When one of the women realizes that she is sexually attracted to her colleague, she commits suicide.

Before Lillian Hellman wrote The Children’s Hour, several Broadway plays had addressed lesbianism; however, her own play struck harder at the pieties and conventions of contemporary life. It suggested that intolerance could result in witch-hunts ruining careers and lives. As much as its implied sexual content, the play’s implicit political content led to its censorship. In 1952, during the midst of McCarthyist attacks on leftists and communists, for example, Hellman’s leftist political beliefs made revival of The Children’s Hour again a cause célèbre. The Broadway production of the play was not censored; however, copies of the play were removed from overseas U.S. libraries, and Hellman was blacklisted in Hollywood.

Hellman adapted her play to the screen in 1936, changing its title to These Three and altering its plot, so that it involved a heterosexual love triangle instead of lesbianism. A more faithful adaptation was filmed in 1962, when censorship standards had been relaxed.

The Children's Hour Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s first successful drama, was an immediate sensation because it concerns lesbianism, a subject that the American theater had previously ignored. For Hellman, however, the intended focus was the maliciousness of society in its rush to judgment and its willingness to condemn and ostracize those who are wrongfully accused.

In the play, two young women friends, Martha Dobie and Karen Wright, run a New England girls’ school. Mary Tilford, a student, determines to avenge herself on the women for what she sees as unnecessary discipline. Mary leads her grandmother, the influential Mrs. Amelia Tilford, to believe that Martha and Karen have an “unnatural affection” for each other.

Parents believe the unproved accusations and pull their children out of school. In a confrontation scene with Mrs. Tilford, Martha attacks Mary’s credibility and maintains that Karen and she are innocent of the accusations. They are defended to no avail by Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin, who is Mrs. Tilford’s nephew. By act 3, the women have lost their court case against Mrs. Tilford and have no hope of reopening their school. Although Dr. Cardin offers escape by starting a new life in Europe, his doubts about the relationship between the two women surface, and he and Karen part. Martha, who has vehemently denied any reality to the lesbian accusations, finally admits to Karen that she has been in love with her...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

The Children's Hour Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the living room of the Wright-Dobie private girls’ school, seven girls aged twelve to fourteen conjugate Latin verbs and read aloud from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600). Fussily trying to teach the girls elocution, decorum, and sewing—all at once, to the girls’ amusement—is school cofounder Martha Dobie’s aging aunt, former actress Lily Mortar. Student Mary Tilford, tardy for the study session, explains that she was detained gathering April flowers for Lily. When grateful Lily sends “sweet” Mary for a vase for the flowers, Mary disdainfully sticks her tongue out at a classmate.

When twenty-eight-year-old Karen Wright enters, the girls’ tone changes from amused tolerance of Lily to respect for Karen. Karen is clearly in charge. She quietly shows her disapproval for Lily’s dramatics while demonstrating care for the girls, offering to repair Rosalie’s poor haircut and inquiring about a bracelet lost by another student, Helen. Mary, returning with the vase and flowers, squirms under Karen’s suspicion that Mary did not pick them but merely retrieved the bouquet from the garbage. Unhappy that Karen would destroy her excuse for missing the study session, Mary insists on her story. Karen, trying to break Mary’s habit of lying, imposes punishment by grounding her. Mary, furious, threatens to complain of maltreatment to her grandmother, Amelia Tilford, a major school supporter. Mary then fakes a faint to avoid being sent to her room. Karen calmly picks her up and carries her away.

Cofounder and friend Martha Dobie discusses school problems with Karen, including what to do about Mary’s bad influence on the other girls and how gently to rid themselves of Martha’s outdated Aunt Lily. Clearly, Martha is struggling with another problem—Karen’s impending marriage to school physician Joe Cardin. Karen tries to reassure her that they will be a threesome and that nothing will change at the school. When cheerful Joe arrives, he and Karen leave to examine Mary and her latest complaint.

In a heated argument, Martha persuades Aunt Lily to leave the school and return to Europe, the scene of Lily’s pleasant acting memories. Hurt because she feels unwanted, Lily accuses Martha of harboring a lesbian attachment to Karen that aims to exclude all others, including Joe. Suddenly, both women realize that they were overheard by Mary’s roommates, hiding outside the room. Indignant, Lily leaves.

Joe enters, assuring Martha that Mary’s health is fine. When Joe senses Martha’s uneasiness about his marrying Karen, he promises Martha that the three will remain...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)