Crimes of the Heart

by Beth Henley

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Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series Crimes of the Heart Analysis

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Beth Henley does not easily disclose the meaning of her play’s title. Instead, she requires that the audience search for the meaning in the characters. A paradox exists between the play’s title, Crimes of the Heart, and its genre, comedy. The characters constant references to illness, insanity, and incompetence suggests that the crime might be found in some form of incompleteness. The restoration of the sisters’ relationships with one another and Babe’s understanding of her mother’s suicide (a key event for all three sisters) emphasize that the work is indeed comedic, not tragic.

The MaGrath sisters would not be considered normal by most people, yet their ability to work out their problems demonstrates that they might be better than normal. Although these women lead challenging lives, they maintain uncomplicated attitudes toward life. Babe’s crime does not seem to change her quality of innocence; she is still the flirtatious and pampered little sister. Meg discovers that even though she failed as a singer in California, she has learned to care about someone other than herself. When Lenny overcomes her fear of rejection because of a physical problem (a shrunken ovary), she glows with young love. The sisters learn these things because they have been brought together on a “real bad day,” as Babe says. Each sister faces a seemingly insurmountable defeat at the beginning of the play but wins her battle because she has two sisters to support her.

Perhaps the crime that Henley speaks of is committed not by one of the MaGrath sisters but by their cousin, whose constant emphasis on the family’s social standing surpasses her ability for, or interest in, compassion. Although accepted by society as the most normal member of the family, Chick shows an insensitivity to her cousins that provides a comical contrast to the condemnation society presents the sisters. The MaGrath sisters are all guilty of some crime, legal or emotional—Babe’s shooting, Meg’s leaving of Doc Porter in a hurricane to go to California, and Lenny’s rejection of men because of a physical abnormality. Their initial reaction is to blame everything on their mother’s suicide. When Babe determines the reason for the suicide, they find a moment of joyous laughter. Babe’s epiphany seems to encourage them to take responsibility for their own lives, which is most clearly seen in Lenny’s decision to find a beau.

Although the situations portrayed in the play seem a bit unusual, there is an enchanting quality of realism. When Meg returns from her evening with Doc Porter to find her two sisters laughing about their grandfather’s stroke, the listener/reader also smiles. The sisters know that their grandfather is very ill, yet their laughter seems quite natural. They are weary from a long day of legal battles, a snobby cousin, and a night at the hospital. Lenny and Babe’s hysterical fits of laughter are more believable than any amount of tears. Another example of the realism in the play is seen when Lenny argues with Meg for eating her birthday candy. Lenny is not upset by her partially eaten gift but by Meg’s insensitivity. Like many people, Lenny relieves her frustration by becoming angry about an insignificant event. This realism not only captures the audience’s attention but also creates a bond with the character —an essential link in order to understand the play.

The play encourages young adults to work through tough problems, even ones that seem insolvable. Codependency and divorce are personal experiences for many young adults, and the MaGrath sisters offer a glimmer of hope. The answer seems to be more than simple survival through the days when everything that can go wrong actually does. Henley might be offering an alternative to a crime of the heart: friendship. For the sisters, this friendship is a pleasant surprise. Both the audience and the characters know that the moment of happiness that the sisters share at the end of the play is fleeting. Nevertheless, the MaGrath sisters believe that they need these moments to live a life free of crime.

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature Crimes of the Heart Analysis