Crimes of the Heart

by Beth Henley

Start Free Trial

Masterpieces of Women's Literature Crimes of the Heart Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Beth Henley’s central theme in Crimes of the Heart is betrayal, particularly that of a fierce and rigid, life-denying patriarchy associated with the South. The three sisters around whom the play revolves have been abandoned by their father, an act which subsequently leads to their mother’s suicide. This concern with the father’s betrayal suggests the larger issue of how the South historically has victimized all but white, Anglo-Saxon males of “sound” mind and social connections.

Henley creates a female-centered drama with a community largely defined by women. The play is confined to one indoor set—the kitchen, traditionally the heart of the home and the province of women, where men are conventionally seen and treated as interlopers and intruders upon female space. Doc Porter, Meg’s old boyfriend, and Barnette Lloyd, Babe’s young lawyer, are the only male characters seen on stage, though the looming presences of the sisters’ father and grandfather and of Babe’s husband, Zackery Botrelle, are felt throughout the play. Unlike these patriarchal figures, Porter and Lloyd are not part of the good-old-boy culture; they too are outsiders. They are nurturers, supporting women rather than abusing them.

The central relationships in the play are those shared by the sisters, but each of them must come to terms with self vis-à-vis a male. The playwright is realistic; she does not imagine a world exclusive of men. Instead, she presents a world where the old dies into the new, where not only Meg but also Babe and Lenny must find potential for a positive male-female relationship based on compatibility, equality, and warmth. Before finding this possible kinship, however, each sister must grapple with her own demons.

Henley draws on stereotypic images of women, especially those associated with the South, in order to undercut and reshape them. Babe recalls the dominant ladylike image engendered by the Southern belle myth of the virginal white goddess. Henley describes Babe as having “an angelic face and fierce volatile eyes.” The ambivalence in Henley’s description implies the ambivalence in the ladylike myth. Babe MaGrath, like Scarlett O’Hara, is anything but a submissive, asexual, porcelain doll. She is a survivor. She violates the patriarchal code in two very distinct ways: She has an affair with an African American boy, and she shoots her well-established husband. Both acts of passion—one for intimacy and the other for freedom—are her ways of beginning to understand who she is apart from an effacing and abusive patriarchy.

In her treatment of Lenny, the playwright draws on the image of the sexually repressed “spinster,” traditionally a negative model in Southern literature. She tends to her grandfather, wearing her dead grandmother’s gloves and hat and sleeping in the kitchen to be closer to him. Lenny discovers her own identity, however, as she asserts herself against Chick and calls her former boyfriend.

Meg is the traditional bad girl who refuses to abide by a sexual double standard. She is also the most blatantly self-destructive of the sisters: She smokes too much, drinks too much, and constantly flirts with danger. Their father’s desertion and their mother’s suicide are the catalysts for Meg’s attempt to anesthetize herself against feeling and suffering by staring at pictures of grotesquely diseased people. Henley suggests that Meg’s collapse in California results from her denial of emotion. When she breaks down, she tries to cram all of her valuables into the March of Dimes collection box.

The title Crimes of the Heart invites several interpretations. There are definite crimes according to the law, such as Zackery’s abuse of Babe and Babe’s shooting of Zackery. Yet the majority of crimes suggested by the...

(This entire section contains 868 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

title are those of passion committed against the self and against others. Misplaced anger, fear, jealousy, and revenge are the key passions, all of which are a response to the father’s initial betrayal and desertion.

Central to the sisters’ crimes of the heart are the repression and displacement of emotion, as they frequently mistake heartache for hunger pains. They consume food to deaden the feeling of abandonment and isolation, behavior that their grandfather encourages. Because the sisters are accustomed to masking their pain with food, they have difficulty identifying what they truly feel. After Babe shoots Zackery, she makes a big pitcher of fresh lemonade with excessive amounts of sugar and does the same thing after telling Meg about the shooting. Meg constantly eats, ransacking Lenny’s candy for nuts. When Lenny gets upset, it is evident that she really is upset about Meg’s leaving their card game, hence deserting Babe and Lenny to be with Doc Porter.

The play can be read as a celebration of familial bonding and the past, but it is a past which is revised and reconstructed. The final scene with the sisters celebrating Lenny’s birthday together clearly contrasts with the opening scene, where Lenny tries to celebrate alone. The movement from isolation to connectedness, from Lenny’s mock celebration to the sisters’ real celebration, indicates that the emergent MaGraths do not betray one another. This is a new community based on consideration and support, though such nurturance may be temporary.


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


Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)