Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

As Lillian Hellman has remarked, The Children’s Hour concerns good and evil. Although lesbianism is the most sensational issue in the play, Hellman explores evil in the form of the effects of lying and the damage which so-called good people can cause. Two types of characters people the play: the actively evil, against whom Hellman raises the audience’s indignation, and the ineffectual good, for whom the playwright clearly shows sympathy.

After her unsuccessful attempt to convince Mrs. Tilford of the untruth of Mary’s accusations, Karen muses, “The wicked very young, and the wicked very old.” Mary’s evil, the most obvious in the play, takes the form of unreasoning malice against those who mean her no harm. She delights especially in lying as proof of her superior intellect. Her unmotivated actions cause even her doting grandmother to admit finally that she must be watched carefully.

Mrs. Tilford’s evil takes an entirely different form: self-righteousness. By assuming that Mary’s story is correct and by refusing to listen to the protestations of Karen, Martha, and Joe, Mrs. Tilford displays both arrogance and stubbornness. Although she finally relents when convincing evidence surfaces and immediately takes responsibility for the consequences of her actions, she has caused irrevocable damage by abusing her social and financial power.

The wickedness of the middle-aged woman, which Karen fails to include in her...

(The entire section is 510 words.)


(Drama for Students)

Good and Evil
With the exception of Mrs. Tilford, it is a simple task to place the principal characters in The Children's Hour in the debit and credit columns of a moral balance sheet. The good, decent characters are Karen Wright, Martha Dobie, and Dr. Joe Cardin. The bad are Mary Tilford and Lily Mortar, who, though not in Mary's demonic league, is a vain and selfish parasite who cares only for her own welfare.

Mary is the more perplexing character because her viciousness seems to spring from some inner ugliness that can not be explained away by her class privilege or her grandmother's indulgence. As Karen remarks in the first act, she and Martha always talk of Mary as if the girl were an adult, as if she had never been blessed with childhood innocence. She is a pathological liar and manipulator, capable of any strategy that will satisfy her malicious desire to control everyone with whom she comes in contact. She cows the other girls through intimidation, inspiring neither love nor respect, and when her influence over her classmates is threatened by Martha and Karen, she sets out to destroy them without a hint of remorse. Her feelings seem limited to fear and anxiety, in evidence only when she is threatened with exposure. Measured against her, Lily Mortar seems more oblivious than wicked or cruel.

Mary is the font of evil in the play, but her grandmother, Mrs. Tilford, is the sociopathic child's unwitting conspirator. Although she pampers her grandchild, Mrs. Tilford is a kind and good woman, but she is also self-righteous and very stubborn. Once convinced that she has uncovered the disturbing truth about Karen and Martha, she closes her mind to the possibility that Mary might have invented her tale. Until the very last she is wholly unaware of the fact that she is the main piece in Mary's evil chess game, a well-meaning pawn in the disguise of an imperious queen.

Clearly, like her spiritual mentor, Henrik Ibsen, Hellman is as concerned with evil arising from good intentions as with evil unalloyed. Virtue adrift from truth can become the ally of such evil and be every bit as destructive, as Mary, Karen, and Joe Cardin discover. Against such a powerful combination, the victim has almost no defense.

Guilt and Innocence
Hellman thus poses at least two perplexing questions with respect to guilt and innocence, the key figures being Mary and Mrs. Tilford The girl convincingly demonstrates that the standard belief in childhood innocence should be held suspect, even if, as she...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)