Discuss the meaning of the title  Crimes of the Heart  by Beth Henley?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Three unhappy sisters have reunited because a series of predicaments have happened. Lenny, Meg, and Babe will have to stand united to survive the recent turn of events.  The MaGrath sisters are the heart of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Crimes of the Heart, often described as a black comedy [This is humor that makes light of an otherwise solemn subject matter]. The play is funny, yet touching.

The sisters lived with the grandfather until Meg left for California to try for a singing career.  Lenny stayed with Granddaddy. Lenny’s horse has just died. Now, Meg has come back home because Granddaddy is in the hospital and seriously ill. Meg has spent most of her time in California in a mental institution for nervous breakdowns. Babe married Zachary, a state senator.  Babe, the younger sister, shot her abusive husband and has been charged with attempted murder.

Each of the girls faces life with past baggage.  Their mother committed suicide by hanging herself and the family cat, so that she would not be alone when she died.  In addition, their father deserted them.  It is no wonder that the girls are a dysfunctional family.  Each sister has to face the residual effects of the “crimes of the heart” that she has committed:

  • Lenny broke up with her boyfriend with no explanation.  Actually, she was afraid to tell him that she is unable to have children.
  • Meg has failed in her musical career.  Often, mentally unstable, she is struggling about what to do with her life.  When she left to go to California, she left behind a young man that she loved.  Since she left, Doc has married has two children.
  • Babe has been unhappy in her marriage. She believes that her husband hates her. He is gone all of the time.  Willy Jay, a fifteen year old black boy, comes over to look at Babe’s dog.  They are attracted to each other and begin an affair. Zachary finds out and punches out Willy Jay.  In reaction, Babe grows angry, gets a gun, aims at his heart, and hits his stomach. After Babe is bailed out of jail, she returns to Granddaddy’s house to reunite with her sisters.

The sisters’ crimes or actions are based on love. They sincerely love each other and their respective men that they want in their lives [with the exception of Zachary and Babe].  Now, they have to figure out how to fix their individual situations.  More importantly, they have to help Babe stay out of jail.  Babe’s lawyer tells her that Zachary has pictures of her and Willy Jay together.  Zachary will use these to help convict her of trying to kill him.

Despite the seriousness of the sisters’ predicaments, the author infiltrates the situations with humorous dialogue and strange characters that keep the atmosphere light hearted.

Meg: But, Babe, we’ve just got to learn how to get through these real bad days here.  I mean, it’s getting to be a thing in our family.  Come, now. Look, we’ve got Lenny’s cake right here. I mean, don’t you wanna be around to give her cake, watch her blow out the candles?  

Lenny’s birthday party begins, and the sisters begin to deal with their complicated relationships, family expectations, and the looming death of their grandfather. Together, hopefully, the MaGrath sisters will heal their crimes of the heart.