Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

Crimes of the Heart is about the little crimes people daily commit against each other, crimes of unkindness and insensitivity, forgetfulness and thoughtlessness, fibs and white lies. Although the only genuine crime of the play is Babe’s shooting of Zackery, everyone is guilty of both little everyday sins against others, and larger, more destructive crimes against themselves.

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Most obvious of the “criminals” is Chick, who has spent the last several years insulting her cousins with her putdowns, but the sisters are equally guilty. Babe is basically selfish, often thinking only of her own comfort even in the face of the family scandal that she has precipitated. She is concerned with her saxophone and picture album; because she does not want to think about what has happened, she initially refuses even to talk to the lawyer her family has hired for her. Although Meg also appears selfish, her real crime is thoughtlessness, as evidenced in her systematic foray through Lenny’s candy. Having promised to marry Doc, she had left him after his accident during the hurricane five years ago because “I thought I was choking.” The audience learns later that since their mother’s death Meg has been terrified of emotional attachments; nevertheless, her behavior underscores her inability to understand how other people might feel. Lenny’s jealousy of Meg surfaces frequently in her constant reiterations of the jingle bell story and in her readiness to condemn Meg’s treatment of Doc.

The absent Old Granddaddy is in some ways the guiltiest character in the play, because his “crimes” have precipitated the self-destructive sins of the MaGrath sisters. Overly ambitious for Babe and Meg, he has managed to force one into a loveless but socially desirable marriage and the other into lying about her career in order to win his approval. When Lenny defends the old man by saying that he only wanted the best for them, Meg counters with, “Well, I guess it was; but sometimes I wonder what we wanted.” Ironically, although Lenny is Old Grandaddy’s defender, it is she who has been the most damaged by his actions. Completely without ambition for his oldest granddaughter, he has convinced her that her “shrunken ovary” will prevent any man from loving her. Thus he gains a housekeeper and companion in his old age. Old Granddaddy is the indirect cause of their greatest crimes, those against themselves. Babe shoots her husband and attempts suicide; Meg isolates herself into a nervous breakdown; Lenny spurns the man she loves so that he will not have the opportunity to reject her for her inability to bear children. Each sister unconsciously attempts to doom herself to a solitary life.

The play is also concerned with portraying the impact of strong patriarchal forces on women’s lives. Clearly, Old Granddaddy is responsible in a large part for the women that the MaGrath sisters have grown up to be. Although he wants what is best for them, the definition of “best” is his own; neither Babe nor Meg nor Lenny is allowed any real choice—Babe must marry well, Meg must become a star, Lenny must take care of the old man.

Like all comedies, however, Crimes of the Heart has a happy finale, which offers real hope for the MaGraths. It ends in a celebration, not only of Lenny’s birthday but also of the new camaraderie the sisters have discovered among themselves. Furthermore, the three women have irrevocably removed themselves from Old Granddaddy’s influence: Babe by discarding a painful marriage, Meg by deciding to stop lying about her singing career, Lenny by calling Charlie. Physically, Old Granddaddy has been rendered ineffective—the stroke has seen to that. More important, Babe and Meg and Lenny have taken the first tentative steps toward deciding their futures for...

(The entire section contains 1846 words.)

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