The Children's Hour Themes

Themes

Good and Evil
With the exception of Mrs. Tilford, it is a simple task to place the principal characters in The Children's Hour in the debit and credit columns of a moral balance sheet. The good, decent characters are Karen Wright, Martha Dobie, and Dr. Joe Cardin. The bad are Mary Tilford and Lily Mortar, who, though not in Mary's demonic league, is a vain and selfish parasite who cares only for her own welfare.

Mary is the more perplexing character because her viciousness seems to spring from some inner ugliness that can not be explained away by her class privilege or her grandmother's indulgence. As Karen remarks in the first act, she and Martha always talk of Mary as if the girl were an adult, as if she had never been blessed with childhood innocence. She is a pathological liar and manipulator, capable of any strategy that will satisfy her malicious desire to control everyone with whom she comes in contact. She cows the other girls through intimidation, inspiring neither love nor respect, and when her influence over her classmates is threatened by Martha and Karen, she sets out to destroy them without a hint of remorse. Her feelings seem limited to fear and anxiety, in evidence only when she is threatened with exposure. Measured against her, Lily Mortar seems more oblivious than wicked or cruel.

Mary is the font of evil in the play, but her grandmother, Mrs. Tilford, is the sociopathic child's unwitting conspirator. Although she pampers her grandchild, Mrs. Tilford is a kind and good woman, but she is also self-righteous and very stubborn. Once convinced that she has uncovered the disturbing truth about Karen and Martha, she closes her mind to the possibility that Mary might have invented her tale. Until the very last she is wholly unaware of the fact that she is the main piece in Mary's evil chess game, a well-meaning pawn in the disguise of an imperious queen.

Clearly, like her spiritual mentor, Henrik Ibsen, Hellman is as concerned with evil arising from good intentions as with evil unalloyed. Virtue adrift from truth can become the ally of such evil and be every bit as destructive, as Mary, Karen, and Joe Cardin discover. Against such a powerful combination, the victim has almost no defense.

Guilt and Innocence
Hellman thus poses at least two perplexing questions with respect to guilt and innocence, the key figures being Mary and Mrs. Tilford The girl convincingly demonstrates that the standard belief in childhood innocence should be held suspect, even if, as she...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)