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 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.
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...
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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 later insisted, Hellman did not intend that Mary should be interpreted as so completely evil as she appeared on stage.
Once accepting the premise that malevolence can exist in the guise of innocence, Hellman asks the more troubling question of whether a person duped by evil can or should be exonerated for hurtful acts springing from a failure to penetrate evil's mask. It is a moral dilemma, with no simple solution, and is also the basis of the play's tragic force.
Atonement and Forgiveness Because she is a moral woman, in the last part of The Children's Hour, after she has learned the truth, Mrs. Tilford seeks to atone for what she has done. She confesses that her role in the tragedy will trouble her all her remaining days, and she hopes to make matters right, but, when she finds out that Martha has committed suicide, she is crushed. She knows that full restitution is impossible.
In their final confrontation, Karen at first calls Mrs. Tilford ''old'' and ''callous,'' but finally holds out some hope that she will accept the matron's offer of help. She acknowledges that the woman has also been a victim of Mary's malice, harmed in an even more lasting way. Fully acknowledging her guilt, Mrs. Tilford promises Karen that she will see to it that Mary is never able to hurt another human being. That painful burden is part of her final penance, the crux of her ongoing atonement.
In contrast, Lily Mortar remains unrepentant for her failure to return from abroad to support Martha and Karen in their suit against Mrs. Tilford. Her self-vindicating vanity finally gives way to a tepid apology, but that only provokes Martha to confess that she has always hated Lily. There is no redemption for those who can not bear guilt, something that Lily Mortar is unable or refuses to do. Unlike Mrs. Tilford, she remains blind, unredeemed, and unforgiven.
Deception Mary Tilford is a treacherous liar whose tactics are effective with her grandmother because she feigns reluctance to divulge what she ''knows'' and thereby makes her account credible. Mrs. Tilford is convinced in part because she believes that Mary is an innocent in such matters as lesbianism. Like an elfin Iago (a slanderous character from Shakespeare's play Othello), Mary is pragmatic, compounding her lies with fabricated details until her deception takes root as truth in Mrs. Tilford's mind. One of Hellman's major themes is that there is often no defense against deceit and slander and that the damage deception can do may be tragically irreversible.
Friendship It is ironic that Martha and Karen are vulnerable to Mary's poison because they are very close friends. Together, they have fought hard to make a go of their school, and, with the support of Mrs. Tilford, they are on the brink of success when the venomous Mary destroys their dream.
The friendship of the two women, established when they were classmates in college, is very close, but it is clearly more self-defining for Martha than for Karen. Karen provides stability and verve for the more nervous and timid Martha, who seems to have more at stake in the friendship, even, perhaps, a suppressed sexual attraction. Martha finally admits to such guilty feelings just before taking her own life.
For Martha, Joe Cardin does pose the threat of some estrangement in her friendship with Karen. Despite the reassurances of both Joe and Karen, she obviously believes that their marriage will end (or at least greatly compromise) her close friendship with Karen. Her jealous fears prompt Mrs. Mortar to charge her with "unnatural" feelings, ultimately giving Mary a seed of truth from which to grow her evil plant.