Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163

Truth
The question is raised what is truth1? The Actress asks, "Did you do it1?" A question to which Lizzie does not—or cannot—respond. Emma asks her regularly, a litany each day. "Did you—did you—did you1?" And Lizzie is again mute. Throughout the play there are more questions raised than answered. The audience would expect empirical evidence, and the play produces the Defense attorney who questions the suspect and her maid. But their authenticity, their authority are in question because the events are being recounted by Lizzie. By presenting the evidence of the case through the memory of the accused, there is no certainty that the events portrayed are real or are figments of Lizzie's imagination.

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Although it is based on an actual event, Pollock goes beyond the historical facts to delve into the mind and motivation of her central character. While the end results are the same—Borden and his wife are dead and Lizzie has been acquitted of the crime—Pollock raises questions as to the actual path taken to reach those results. She forces the audience to question their own assumptions and conclusions about the truth of things, about why things may have happened as they did.

Sacredness of Life
"Is all life precious'" Lizzie questions Dr. Patrick. She really isn't looking for an answer from him because she rejects immediately the affirmative response he offers. She cannot accept that the life of that "fat cow" (her stepmother) is precious, so she pursues the question further. She poses an ethical enigma to the Doctor If he could only save one of two people injured and dying from an accident, whom would he choose? Would it be the bad person or the one trying to be good?

Lizzie focuses her questioning in a way that leaves the Doctor uncomfortable. In the same way, the spectator may become uncomfortable because it is clear that Lizzie is rationalizing the murder of her parents to preserve a way of life for her and her sister. In Lizzie's mind murder becomes logical and acceptable. An analogy is made to puppies on the farm who must be done away with because they aren't quite right. This is presented to further rationalize Lizzie's assumption that bad elements must be removed so that regularity (in this case her personal freedom) can be maintained.

When Lizzie's pigeons are killed, it is clear something important in Lizzie has been violated. The birds' deaths are symbolic of the fate that awaits her and her sister if they allow Borden and his wife to go forward with their plans. She cannot stand by without any response. The puppy that is not quite right—who is a threat to normalcy—and is killed becomes the people who are obviously sick and must also be removed This allows the audience to understand Lizzie's way of thinking and, in some way, understand her motives for violence.

Women's Roles
Lizzie's father wants her to consider Johnny MacLeod as a husband MacLeod is a neighbor who is a widower with three young children and is looking for a wife. With his daughter already in her thirties, Borden is worried that Lizzie will never go out on her own. The only solution for her is to marry. It's only natural, he tells her.

Lizzie resists, saying she won't be around when MacLeod comes to call. “He’s looking for a housekeeper and it isn't going to be me," Lizzie says to her father. Her stepmother sees nothing wrong with such a domestic arrangement. That's essentially what happened with her. She came and married Lizzie's father, who had two young children, and cared for them. In exchange, she received a nice house to live in, food to eat, and companionship.

But this is not what Lizzie wants from life. She just can't fit into the mold society offers her She complains to her father, "You want me living life by the Farmer's Almanac; having everyone over for Christmas dinner; waiting up for my husband; and serving at socials." This is not a life with which Lizzie can ever become comfortable.

It's not her fault, Lizzie tells the Actress at another moment. Somehow she didn't get that magic formula that is stamped indelibly on the brain, the formula for being the socially-acceptable version of a woman. “Through some terrible oversight... I was born . defective."

Lizzie even begs her father to let her go to work with him and learn how to keep books. He refuses. That's not a woman's place, he tells her. She responds that he can't make her do anything she doesn't want to do. Her stepmother urges her as well to consider MacLeod, reminding her that her father is taking care of her. Lizzie volunteers to leave but, with no means to earn a living that isn't a possibility. Her stepmother tells her, "You know you got nothing but what he gives you. And that's a fact of life. You got to deal with the facts. I did "

All that Lizzie, can see is that she is entitled to a third of what her father has .She thinks this only fair. But she has no right. Her stepmother says that her father is going to live a long time and indicates she won't be included in the will. "Only a fool would leave money to you."

So even though Lizzie is proud and defiant, she is without any real power. She is not supposed to be out walking and talking with married men, as she does with Dr. Patrick. She is without any money other than what is doled out to her. She has no right other than the birthright of her body. She can marry and have children. This is not a choice Lizzie could ever accept.

While contemporary women have many choices in deciding their life course, this was not the case in the late 1800s. Women were second-class citizens expected to fulfill specific—limited—roles in society. While Lizzie is spoiled, she is also prepared to work to preserve her independence. She offers to work in her father's office but that option is denied to her. Presented with the choice of conforming to a way of life she abhors (an arranged marriage with MacLeod) or living as little more than a servant (to her stepmother and step-uncle), Lizzie decides to actively alter her and her sister's fate.

There are many examples of Lizzie's desire to act and live independently—to stretch beyond the boundaries of traditional women's roles— in the play. This is illustrated by her open relationship with the Actress, a relationship that appears to be homosexual in nature. Such activity was scandalous in the nineteenth century, respectable women were not supposed to be overtly sexual—especially not with each other. While this is strong evidence of Lizzie's quest for independence, Pollock's most powerful statement lies in the murder itself: Lizzie is willing to kill to earn her personal freedom

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Characters