What is the theme of The Pillowman?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main theme at the center of the dark, Anglo-Irish play The Pillowman is the effects of parental abuse.

As the topic that drives the plot forward, main character Katurian K. Katurian has to face the memories of his disturbed and abused childhood at the hands of his parents. The effect of such abuse resulted in his works as a story teller of macabre children's stories. As a result, he now faces the abusive interrogation from the police of a totalitarian establishment regarding the sudden macabre murders of children from the area.

Aside from Katurian, his brother Michal is also a victim of abuse by his and Katurian's parents. Likewise, he also undergoes investigation and also shows signs of psychological distress. What is shocking, however is that Michal is indeed guilty of the children's murders, leaving Katurian with no other choice but to kill his brother in what looks like a much more merciful way to die.

Faced with the possibility of having his body of work destroyed if he does not confess, Katurian takes the risk and blames himself for the murders. This leads to the second theme of the play, which is the defense and preservation of art even under the pressure of a suppressive system. Katurian prefers to basically get himself murdered rather than give up his stories. McDonagh places special emphasis on the importance of this theme, bringing with it equal significance to the overall atmosphere and style of the play.

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caileyjohanna eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As the other educators have stated, a major theme in The Pillowman is child abuse.

The play touches on how two brothers, Katurian and Michal, were abused in different ways and how they react to it in different ways.

Katurian uses the memories of abuse as motivation for his dark stories—you could say that he is able to create art out of the horrors of his childhood. His brother Michal is so disturbed from the effects of abuse that he ends up using Katurian's stories to commit murders.

One of the interesting aspects presented in the play is the story of the Pillowman himself, who kills children before they can live miserable lives and commit suicide as adults. At the end of the story, he kills his child-self as well.

This story encourages the reader to reflect on how differently we think about death of children compared to adults. The Pillowman explores the long-term effects of abuse and the cyclical nature of violence.

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Steph Müller eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The theme of this macabre drama is child abuse (specifically at the hands of parents) and the long-term consequences that it has.

We learn that the protagonist's brother, Michal, had been tortured for years by his parents. Michal, doubtless traumatized out of his mind by this, has actually been committing the crimes that our protagonist, Katurian, is being interrogated about. The police's suspicion of Katurian was based on the fact that as a writer, he penned stories that had remarkable similarities to the murders that had been committed.

This theme of a childhood filled with abuse has further ramifications when Katurian discovers that Michal is in fact the one responsible for the murders about which he is being questioned.

Katurian kills Michal, and is later executed for this crime. Both men thus end up dead as a result of the abuse suffered by Michal as a child.

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