Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

Come Back, Little Sheba is centrally concerned with human loneliness and personal isolation. These themes are related to a concern with the loss of youth and attractiveness, an issue often in the forefront of Inge’s mind. It surfaces as a controlling device in some of his other plays, particularly Picnic (pr., pb. 1953).

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The dream sequences probably reveal more about the play’s underlying concerns than anything else in Come Back, Little Sheba, except perhaps for Doc’s fondling of Marie’s scarf. Lola has a recurrent dream about the loss of Sheba, representative of her lost youth and beauty. In the first dream, Lola takes Sheba downtown on a leash and is proud because everyone turns and looks admiringly at the dog.

In the last dream, Lola and Marie watch a javelin contest. Turk has explained to Lola earlier in the play that a javelin is a long lance that is held erect. He tells her how he lets it fly, and it goes through the air until it lands and pierces the earth, where it quivers. In her dream, Lola is transported to her high school, where she was a beauty queen. She and Marie are in the stadium watching the Olympics with thousands of other spectators. Lola’s father, in charge of the games, disqualifies Turk. Doc replaces Turk, takes his position, and throws the javelin so high that it never lands. Rain begins to fall, and Lola notices that Sheba is not with her. She searches the crowd for her, then sees that she lies dead in the field, her white (virginal) fur smeared with mud (loss of innocence), but no one stops to take care of the dead animal (parental and social rejection). After this dream and Doc’s return, Lola knows that Sheba is gone for good. Inge has Lola make a new beginning, yet he offers only a qualified kind of hope as a possible thematic resolution.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142

Addiction
At the time that Come Back, Little Sheba was first produced on Broadway, few people spoke openly about addiction. Alcohol abuse was, and remains, a common domestic problem, but families rarely spoke to outsiders about alcoholic family members. Membership in Alcoholics Anonymous was not a topic for the kind of casual conversation that Lola engages in with her milkman and postman.

Inge's play demonstrates how destructive alcohol can be. When Doc chases Lola with a hatchet in the second act, the audience is meant to feel horrified The entire seventeen minute sequence of Doc's alcoholic breakdown is disturbing to watch, and when he is taken away to the psychiatric hospital, it is Inge's intention that the viewer feel both relief and disgust. Yet he also sought to illustrate to his audience the circumstances that lead to such addictions. While clearly showing the destructiveness of dependency, Inge seeks to foster understanding for why depressed people turn to alcohol for solace or escape.

Change and Transformation
The lives that Doc and Lola planned more than twenty years earlier have not come to fruition. Lola longs for her past happiness, for the time when she was young and beautiful and Doc was jealous of the other young men who also courted her. She wants to capture again the happiness of their early courtship and marriage and the anticipation of a baby. Instead, Lola has become fat and sloppy. Her appearance is careless and their house messy and dirty, and the children she longed for did not come. The baby died when Doc and Lola were forced to go to a midwife to avoid gossip about her premarital pregnancy. As a result of complications from that experience, Lola was unable to conceive again.

Doc also longs for the past. Before he was forced to marry and support a pregnant Lola, he planned on attending medical school and a subsequent career in medicine. Instead, he became a chiropractor, and, to forget the past, he also began to drink. The dissonance between Doc and Lola's youthful dreams and their unfulfilled present is the central conflict of the play. Their transformation from nostalgic longing to final acceptance is the work's thematic resolution.

Limitations and Opportunities
Doc drinks because he is disappointed and disillusioned at the loss of opportunity in his life. As a young man, he wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. In place of his dream, however, he had to settle for less, becoming a chiropractor. The woman for whom he gave up his dream career has become fat and slovenly. Lola's hopes for a family and fulfilling marriage were dashed when their baby died at birth. Society prescribed that a woman's primary role was that of mother and wife. Unable to perform even this limited role, Lola sees no place for herself in postwar society She is subsequently more interested in the lives of others who have a better chance of fulfilling these expectations—such as Marie and Turk or Mane and Bruce—than she is of her own. The play's resolution, with Doc and Lola finally coming to terms with their lot in life, offers the hope that they may finally transcend the disappointments in their lives and, together, discover new opportunities.

Loneliness
Lola spends her days trying to fill the time. She is lethargic and disinterested m keeping her home clean. She wants to sleep away half the day and fill the rest with idle gossip or voyeuristic pursuits; her primary pleasure comes from vicariously enjoying Turk and Mane's romance and cornering strangers into mindless conversations. Lola's loneliness is also evident in her invitation to cook dinner for Bruce and Mane, whose company she needs to assuage the emptiness in her life.

Memory and Reminiscence
Much of Inge's drama is centered on the tune Lola and Doc spend dwelling on their past. Both remember the time when they were courting, when they were both happy and carefree Lola remembers her beauty and how the boys all swarmed around her. She remembers Doc's jealousy and how much he loved her. Doc remembers his plans to go to medical school and his dreams of a brilliant career in medicine, but his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous has taught him that such memories are best forgotten. He tells Lola that the past is behind them and recites the AA prayer. It is important to note that when Doc is out of control and in a drunken rage, it is Lola's reminder of her past beauty that calms him and ends the danger. Inge clearly shows the couples' nostalgia as a refuge from the regret of their present circumstances. Their memories are an oasis to which they can retreat when their real lives become too depressing. That they are able to dispense with their reliance on such memories—an addiction as real and dangerous as Doc's drinking—represents a major turning point in their lives.

Sexuality
Marie's sexuality is the catalyst for Doc's return to drinking after a year of sobriety. Such overt sexuality was a new subject for the theatre; nice girls from good families did not engage in premarital sex as Marie so openly does. Those who did were the shameful objects of quickie marriages or back room abortions. Lola's early sexuality is seen by Doc as a bellwether to their later unhappiness, their premarital sex led to an unplanned pregnancy, marriage, and, ultimately, the loss of their dreams. Doc thus views such behavior as wrong and dangerous. When he is drunk, Doc accuses Lola of sexual impropriety. And now Mane, who is engaged to the nice boy back home, is having sex with Turk, a boy she does not love and who she has no intention of marrying But Doc, who feels both sexual and paternal desires toward Mane, associates the young woman with the Virgin Mary. When he discovers that she is bedding a stereotypical jock whom she does not love, Doc's illusions are shattered, and he suffers a breakdown.

Sexuality in the 1950s was a taboo subject. There existed a great discrepancy between what was preached and what was practiced—as evidenced by Doc's participation in premarital sex and later condemnation of such behavior. Inge's use of sex in Come Back, Little Sheba is primarily as a tool to allow Doc to confront reality. His realization that a "virginal" woman such as Marie possesses carnal desire sends him into a tailspin, yet the realization also enables him to eventually deal with the mistakes of his past and face the consequences. For Lola, sex offers entertainment in the form of the lovemaking she witnesses between Mane and Turk. Doc's breakdown brings her to the realization that such behavior is unhealthy. She also understands that she must deal with reality and that sex must play a more personal role m her life.

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