Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 286

Saying that Children of a Lesser God is about the deaf is to miss the point. It is a play about communication of all kinds, not a sociological treatise. It is a drama about searching for identity, not a political tract advocating the rights of the deaf, though that element is there, and rightly so. Medoff makes it abundantly clear that Sarah is a person of acute intelligence, intelligence that the school wastes in consigning her to work as a cleaning woman. An intense individualist, she resists conforming to expectations others have of her; thus, she alienates her mother and ultimately disrupts her marriage to James.

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The title, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, suggests that people all try to make one another over according to their own perceptions of what people should be like. Thus, James tries to pressure Sarah to learn to lip-read and to speak; this is what he has done for his other students to enable them to adjust to the hearing world. Sarah, however, wants the hearing world and her husband to adjust to her and to accept her as she is. From her perspective, signing is the genuine language, and those who cannot use it are handicapped. Deafness intensifies the problem of communication between James and Sarah, but it does not create it; both of them, as they try to remake each other, find that there are no easy solutions. Their dilemma suggests that of any couple whose members come from different backgrounds—racial, ethnic, cultural, handicapped—and the problems they may have in adjusting and in being accepted by others. If Sarah and James are to be reunited, they must help each other and join through love, which makes no demands.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

Language and Meaning
Children of a Lesser God forces its audience to struggle with the problem of language, specifically resulting from the differences between spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL) and those who employ these languages. James becomes exhausted trying to act as bridge between the two. Mrs. Norman lost her daughter for eight years because of the misunderstandings and lack of communication between herself as a hearing person and her deaf daughter. Mr. Franklin is skilled at ASL but refuses to use it, especially in social situations. Orin and Lydia seem to abandon ASL for speech. Sarah refuses to speak and converses only in ASL. And Ms. Klein is confused when people seem less than enthusiastic about her having learned three signs.

English has its own grammatical structure, its own rules, its own way of putting thoughts into communication. ASL has a different grammatical structure, one that linguists say is more like Chinese than English. ASL follows a different set of rules, rules more often made by the speakers themselves than by teachers and writers. ASL uses the entire body to bring the thoughts of its user to the world at large.

Much of the conflict in this play comes from an unwillingness to accept the language system of "the other." James signs, but he is always trying to get Sarah to speak, to use his language. At the end of the play, he forces Sarah not to use her hands. Sarah then realizes that even though she loves James and he loves her, James at some level refuses to accept her as she is. "Am I what you want me to be?" Sarah speaks in her own barely intelligible voice. There is a hope for reconciliation at the conclusion of the play, but for the moment the chasm separating the spoken and the signed word is too wide to be bridged.

Search for Self
Sarah's mother demanded that her other daughter's boyfriends' friends act as companions to Sarah when the girls were younger. She enthusiastically recalls: "These boys really liked Sarah, treated her the same way they treated Ruth, with respect, and ... and if you didn't know there was a problem, you'd have thought she was perfectly normal." Mrs. Norman did not realize that none of these boys were interested in Sarah herself, but only in how she could meet their needs; their sole reason for going out with her was to engage in sexual intercourse, which she was willing to provide.

Sarah says that she has always been seen as less than valuable, that, because she cannot hear, she is somehow defective, "and that's bad." When everyone tries to speak for her at the hearing before the commission, Sarah realizes that the integrity of her own identity as a distinct, separate individual human being has been ignored. She expresses this when she says:"Unless you let me be an individual, an /, just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship." When Sarah leaves James, she does so with the knowledge that she can say that she hurts and "won't shrivel up and blow away." She will have to "go it alone.''

Manipulation and Control
James is a speech therapist. He works with Orin and Lydia to improve their speaking skills. (He even corrects Orin's pronunciation of "sushi" when Orin expresses his anger that he too has eaten "hearing food.") James's job becomes convincing Sarah to speak. But Sarah has an agenda of her own, and does not place any value on learning to speak in order to appear "normal."

Mrs. Norman would go to great lengths for Sarah to appear normal: demanding her other daughter's male friends become companions to Sarah, forcing Sarah to attend lip-reading and speech classes, even signing Ricky Nelson's name to a pinup photo she put in Sarah's room. James's mother used a religion "heretofore unknown to mankind" to control her son.

Ms. Klein, the lawyer, assumes that she will speak for the deaf at the commission hearing and has already drafted her remarks. Orin attempts to learn the tools of the hearing world so that he can "change this system that sticks us with teachers who pretend to help but really want to glorify themselves."

James pins Sarah's arms to her sides and demands that she speak. In the same manner that others might have used violence or sex to control a partner in a relationship, James makes language a weapon of control. Sarah rebels against this blatant attempt at control and leaves to "go it alone."

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