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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

The characters of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg display various ways, all of them unsatisfactory, of coping with a difficult—even hopeless—situation. The three new characters in the second act, for example, have simply not given much thought to Bri and Sheila’s difficulties. Freddie has facile suggestions that...

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The characters of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg display various ways, all of them unsatisfactory, of coping with a difficult—even hopeless—situation. The three new characters in the second act, for example, have simply not given much thought to Bri and Sheila’s difficulties. Freddie has facile suggestions that might improve the household a bit but would not touch the central problem. Pam would simply eliminate the central problem, but in such an absolutely heartless way that even she knows that she cannot say it aloud except to the audience in an aside. And Grace has virtually no mind at all, although in her unthinking way she seems to go along with Sheila’s hope.

Sheila is the great practitioner of hope, and, especially in the first act, Nichols presents her sympathetically—as if he himself shares and advocates her hope. She is kind to all living things: her plants and pets, her friends, various charitable causes (such as unwed mothers), her husband (although she is less attentive than she should be to him), and, above all, her unfortunate daughter Joe. Nichols suggests, however, that there may be something a little unhealthy about Sheila’s kindness; she seems almost to prefer that the objects of her kindness have a pathetic and maimed quality so that she can feel sorry for them and take care of them more.

Bri is Sheila’s foil, especially with regard to this hope. He goes along with Sheila’s folly, as he perceives it, but it has been several years since he has been able to even partially share it. He does not hate Joe, but he regards her as a hopeless case. Much of the dialogue in the first act, even though it is mostly comic in tone and seems at first to exist only for purposes of exposition, reveals not only the existence of this profound difference in attitude but also the fact that both Bri and Sheila are aware of it, and each knows that the other knows.

So far, Sheila has dominated the family, but the fragility of Bri’s complaisance with her notions becomes evident in the second act. All it takes is three unwanted guests, all making irritating suggestions, all of them in fact saying “put her away,” and Bri rebels against Sheila’s way of doing things. His rebellion occurs in two stages: In the first, and more bizarre, stage he attempts to kill Joe, and in the second stage he tolerates the existence of Joe but simply walks out on the whole situation.

In depicting Bri’s walking away and Sheila’s clinging to an ever more tenuous thread of hope, Nichols offers two possible ways of coping with Joe. It is clear that he does not regard either as offering much promise of happiness. Bri, for example, is leaving his employment as well as his home, and what will become of him is totally unclear; he seems to be leaving one set of problems for another. By the end of the play, however, Nichols has made it clear that Sheila, although loving and lovable, is also wrong; in order to make life tolerable, she is withdrawing more and more into a world of hallucination.

Nichols gives a number of hints that Joe might be taken allegorically. She might, for example, be England (Freddie speaks of “the whole country giggling its way to disaster”), Christianity (there are numerous allusions to Christmas, and in act 2 an offstage children’s chorus is heard singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” after which Bri and Sheila sing “Away in a Manger”), or the academic world (Bri is hopelessly cynical about his and Freddie’s education and about his own teaching). Nichols offers two responses to these institutions: Either stay with them and keep hoping, or get out while you still can. The bias of the play as a whole, especially in its denouement, is probably toward getting out.

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