The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

by Paul Zindel
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The Theme of the Triumph of the Human Spirit

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1649

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds presents the themes of alienation and man's inhumanity to man played out in the microcosm of the family. Life has not been kind to Beatrice Hunsdorfer, and she takes her frustration and hatred of the world out on those around her. Beatrice has been deeply hurt and has developed an instinct to lash out at others before they get the chance to do the same to her. She lives by the rule, Do unto others before they do unto you. She is particularly abusive to her daughters. Throughout the course of the play she calls them names, makes fun of them, and does whatever she can to thwart their dreams and desires. Beatrice constantly reminds her daughters that they are nothing more than a burden to her: "Marry the wrong man and before you know it he's got you tied down with two stones around your neck for the rest of your life.’’ She shows little warmth or affection and uses her children as scapegoats for her anger at the world.

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Yet, even though the play presents the bleak situation created by Beatrice's frustration and despair, it also offers a glimmer of hope in the character of Tillie who, despite her mother's cruelty, refuses to be defeated. Tillie embodies the spirit of the survivor. Tillie is an outcast at school. She is awkward and is considered strange and unattractive by her classmates. Yet Tillie is able to appreciate what life has to offer because she has discovered something more important than external appearances, something more lasting. She has discovered that she is important. This knowledge gives her an inner strength. As Beverly A. Haley and Kenneth L. Donelson note in their essay "Pigs and Hamburger, Cadavers and Gamma Rays," "Tillie emerges a potential winner, for her thirst for knowledge and her scientific experiment with the marigolds have given her confidence in her own self-worth.'' In the play, Zindel gives the message that if one can hold on to one's faith and can see past the immediate ugliness to the beautiful potential in the world, there is the possibility not only to survive but also to triumph. Tillie's realization that all things are interconnected inspires her."Most important, I suppose, my experiment has made me feel important—every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun—from places beyond our dreams.’’ She knows that there is life beyond her mother's household and that there is a huge world out there filled with possibilities. Tillie remains true to herself and her vision and is thus able to succeed. There is a sense that her victory at the science fair is just the first in a string of great accomplishments.

Zindel has captured an important theme of the play in its title. Although Clive Barnes of the New York Times once called the title "one of the most discouraging titles yet devised by man,’’ it is nonetheless appropriate. This phrase provides a clue as to what the play is about. The title of the play refers to not only the science project Tillie is working on, but also the larger theme of the influence human beings can have on one another and the different ways people can react under the same circumstances. Beatrice's tirades and her constant negative pronouncements about the world are the ‘‘gamma rays’’ which bombard Tillie and Ruth. Throughout the play, Beatrice sends out almost nothing but negative energy, and it works to slowly damage many of those around her. But not everyone in the environment succumbs. Although Beatrice treats both her daughters with cruelty and abuse, their reactions are quite different. Tillie remains quietly true to her own vision and thus counteracts some of Beatrice's damaging effects. Ruth, on the other hand, tries desperately to fight back, but with little...

(The entire section contains 8406 words.)

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Critical Overview