Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The Ralstons are identified as descendants of middle-class English colonists who came to the colonies not for religious reasons but to gain financially in the New World. Their affluence enables them to impose a set of rigid codes on society. Akins satirizes their middle-class morality, but her deepest sarcasm is reserved for their callous indifference to the poor and less fortunate. For example, although Charlotte places Tina with her own childhood nurse, the other characters dismiss the black family as unworthy of caring for a white child.
In The Old Maid, Akins focuses more on social character than on ideas. She deftly establishes the stifling social orthodoxy of New York in the 1850’s but avoids overtly moralizing about the crushing conventionalism represented by the Ralstons. Instead, she focuses attention on the lifelong psychological duel between Delia and Charlotte over who is to be Tina’s mother. To Delia, the child Tina symbolizes a youthful, romantic love with Clem that she rejected in favor of social acceptance and affluence. Delia controls the play’s action, twice intervening decisively in Charlotte’s life. She prevents Charlotte from marrying into the Ralston family, and she adopts her illegitimate daughter to keep Charlotte from taking her away. In the character Delia, Akins creates a protagonist as fascinating as she is frightening.