Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

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Brighton Beach Memoirs is a play about a fourteen-year-old boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York, during an era of comparative innocence, in the years just prior to the American involvement in World War II. Eugene wants to be a writer—or a baseball player, if he can play for “the Yankees, or the Cubs, or the Red Sox, or maybe possibly the Tigers.”

Neil Simon captures not only an era of innocence but also an age of innocence, as a young boy grows into manhood. The audience shares in those private moments that men go through as they reach puberty and pass on into manhood. Nora represents the glory of Eugene’s newfound interests. She symbolizes every man’s first love. “If I had my choice between a tryout with the Yankees and actually seeing her bare breasts for two and a half seconds, I would have some serious thinking to do.”

During the first act the audience listens in as Stanley and Eugene talk about such things as girls and masturbation. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” Stanley assures his brother. “Everybody does it. Especially at our age.” Later, in act 2, Stanley gives Eugene a postcard of a nude woman. In his memoirs Eugene writes, “October the second, six twenty-five p.m. A momentous moment in the life of I, Eugene Morris Jerome. I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas . . . Puberty is over. Onward and upwards!” So ends the play.

In addition to the joy and wonder of passing through puberty, the play carries a more serious theme concerning the American family and what it takes to hold it together during periods of external and internal conflict. In the outside world there is near chaos, as nations move closer to the brink of a second world war.

Internally, the family is faced with the challenge of maintaining itself amid a series of financial crises and interpersonal struggles. As Eugene says in his memoirs:Pop must have been bleary-eyed because not only did he have to deal with Stanley’s principles, Nora’s career, the loss of his noisemaker business, how to get Aunt Blanche married off and Laurie’s fluttering heart, but at any minute there could be a knock on the door with thirty-seven relatives from Poland showing up looking for a place to live.

In all this confusion and uncertainty, Jack suffers a mild heart attack, a crisis that leaves Kate in control of the household. This play is also about the Jewish mother, a representation of an entire nation, who is the epitome of the suffering servant spoken of by the biblical prophet Isaiah.

Ultimately, this play is about people and what it means to love and care for others. Onstage, the characters reveal a family trying to exist and overcome everyday problems. What the audience learns is that each and every person is inextricably bound to the next. For life to mean anything, people must find their meaning in the way that they interact with others.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

Coming of Age
Eugene Jerome, the main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is nearly fifteen-years-old and in the grip of adolescence. He is both a child and an adult. Eugene feels that he is a slave to his mother because he has to go to the store for her several times a day. Yet he does not have to work to support his family, and he still attends school. Eugene still has choices to make in his life: He wants to be a baseball player or a writer. His family wants him to attend college. Eugene is noticing girls for the first time and constantly asks his older brother for information about the opposite sex. Stanley tells his brother about masturbation and buys him a postcard with a naked woman on it. Eugene lusts after his beautiful sixteen-year-old cousin Nora. Eugene's adolescent concerns sometimes seem petty when compared to the rest of the family's problems. But Eugene realizes this by the end of the play, and this realization marks the beginning of his maturity.

Family
Everyone in Brighton Beach Memoirs is related and the importance of family is emphasized throughout the text. After Blanche's husband Dave died six years ago, the Jeromes took her and her daughters in. Jack and Stanley work to support Blanche's family as well as their own. Blanche tries to contribute to the household by taking in sewing. At the end of the play, it is revealed that a number of Jack's relatives have escaped the invading German Nazis in Poland and are making their way to New York City. The family decides how to make room for the new arrivals.

Despite the cramped quarters and occasional lack of privacy, everyone takes care of everyone else in the Jerome/Morton family. Jack does not complain about having to work two jobs to support seven people. Stanley feels guilty about losing his paycheck in a poker game because he knows how much the family needs the money. Though Eugene sometimes resents his mother's constant nagging and his frequent trips to the grocery store, he does his part to keep things running smoothly. There are numerous arguments between family members, especially between Blanche and her daughter Nora as well as Blanche and Kate, but their familial bonds endure.

Duty and Responsibility
Most every member of the Jerome household accepts their duties and responsibilities in life. Jack Jerome works two jobs to support his family and suffers a heart attack in the process. He does everything he can to make sure the bills are paid and everyone has food and clothing. Stanley Jerome also works to support the family. His sense of duty goes beyond money, though. Stanley stands up to his boss when he thinks the man has wronged another employee over an accident. No one else stood up for the man, and Stanley's sense of responsibility for his fellow man nearly costs him his job.

Stanley is still young (eighteen), however, and still makes mistakes. He irresponsibly loses a whole week's pay in a poker game the same week his father is out of work because of his heart attack. Stanley decides to join the Army, ostensibly to make more money for the family and avoid their wrath over the lost wages. His sense of duty kicks in, however, and he realizes that his family needs him nearby.

The younger kids also feel a sense of duty and responsibility, though they sometimes manipulate it for their own benefit. When Nora is offered a chance to dance on Broadway, she tries to convince her mother to let her go by arguing that she will be able to support their family. Blanche wants Nora to finish high school instead and argues that this will be better for the girl in the long term. Nora resents the decision, but her desire to help out her family is sincere. Similarly, Eugene is often forced to run errands and perform household chores that he resents. But his sense of duty to his mother and his family forces him to set the table and go to the store, even if the request made of him seems stupid or unreasonable. This sense of duty and responsibility to each other keeps the family together.

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