Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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.

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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 indictment, manifests itself in Mrs. Mortar. Her careless remarks about Martha’s unnatural feelings for Karen, shouted in anger when her niece asks her to leave the school and instrumental in causing Mary’s accusations, reveal Mrs. Mortar’s lack of concern with anyone but herself. Her failure to return to defend the young women who have supported her further emphasizes her moral callousness.

Although the three agents of good—Karen, Martha, and Joe—try to combat the evil that threatens to destroy the world they have struggled to create, their efforts seem ineffectual throughout the play, even though the young people are finally vindicated. The three of them struggle to confront first Mrs. Tilford and then Mary. Unable to penetrate the grandmother’s self-assurance, they almost puncture her granddaughter’s, who must escalate her lies and resort to blackmailing the frightened Rosalie.

Having failed in the personal realm, they try the public, but once again fail when Mrs. Mortar refuses to testify in court. Then the ladies’ clubs in town hold meetings and distribute circulars about the young women, demolishing their credibility.

Self-doubts finally begin to surface, Joe questioning Karen’s innocence and then Martha admitting her guilty feelings for Karen. The lie has reached the limit of its destructiveness; the power of the so-called good to damage the innocent has blossomed. Only at this point can the forces of good emerge, in the form of Karen Wright, personifying the mercy of Portia, whose lines, read by an uncomprehending child, open The Children’s Hour: “ ‘It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. . . .”’ These lines underscore the rarity of Karen’s mercy toward Mrs. Tilford.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042

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...

(The entire section contains 1552 words.)

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