What is an analysis of Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley?
The three acts of the play mirror three distinct historical and political time periods as experienced by the Kahn family, who act as a microcosm of the world around them. The Jewish family’s conflicts and character arcs mirror those of their society. For example, act 1 captures the hope and idealism of a pre-World War II world in which the common man and woman are emboldened to oppose fascism, an authoritarian system of government. The Kahn’s staunch commitment to socialism, led by the matriarch Sarah, is shared by their insular Jewish community in New York City’s East End neighborhood. The people are secure in the righteousness of their cause and idealistic enough to believe they have a chance to succeed.
Act 2 parallels the violence and horrors of World War II, in which millions of Jewish people are exterminated by Hitler’s fascist regime. A sense of hopelessness and disillusionment begins to congeal among the socialist movement, reflected in how the Kahn family itself begins to disintegrate. Sarah remains fiercely committed to the cause of communism as her husband and children begin to lose their idealism and sense of purpose. She demands, in response to their growing apathy, “If the electrician who comes to mend my fuse blows it instead, so I should stop having electricity? I should cut off my light? Socialism is my light, can you understand that?” Working on behalf of a losing effort and with little hope of making a real change in the world, the family begins to fracture just as the world is fracturing from the fighting of World War II. Daughter Ada wishes to flee the city for a quiet life in the country, and son Ronnie admits, “I’ve lost my faith and I’ve lost my ambition… I don’t see things in black and white any more. My life now—a lot of little bubbles going pop.” Sarah replies, “Ronnie, if you don’t care, you’ll die.”
Act 3 serves to illustrate the futility of the socialist movement by juxtaposing its decline with the political uprising in Hungary. The uprising is easily extinguished by the Soviets, who massacre the thousands of Hungarians fighting for political change. The ease with which the authoritarian government of the Soviets crushes the uprising symbolizes the complete breakdown and splintering of the Kahn family. The children are now grown and totally disillusioned and disengaged from the socialist idealism that their mother desperately clings to. Mr. Kahn’s physical condition has deteriorated to the point of helplessness; he is now weak of body just as his wife believed he was always weak of spirit. The play, however, ends on a note of optimism and inspiration when Mrs. Kahn delivers a passionate speech about struggling for what one believes in despite the odds or the outcome. In this way, the play seems to support the idea that the struggle and the spirit of a person—or of a political cause—has intrinsic value.
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