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

by Paul Zindel
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

The play’s intimate look into the lives of the Hunsdorfer family illustrates universal truths about the human struggle for acceptance and self-efficacy but reveals that each person adapts and responds differently to life’s harsh uncertainties. The play demonstrates that some people will thrive while others will barely survive under similar adverse conditions, much like the marigolds in the parallel world of science. For Tillie, science generates life and hope amid the despair of Beatrice’s self-imposed isolation.

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Neither Beatrice, with her cynical withdrawal, nor Tillie, with her naïve optimism, presents a healthy solution for dealing with an imperfect world, yet each represents an authentic, if somewhat extreme, coping mechanism. By choosing to see only the potential good in atomic science, for example, Tillie triumphs over her mother’s fear and pessimism but is blind to the dangers of radioactivity. Both Tillie and Beatrice have been mocked and treated as social outcasts, but Tillie, who does not value the opinions of outsiders, cannot be wounded by their disdain. Beatrice and Ruth, on the other hand, place inordinate importance on the opinions of others and thus feel compelled to compensate for this perceived loss of esteem, the result of social rejection, by inflicting cruelty upon Tillie and each other. Beatrice and Ruth allow the negativity of others to defeat them, and it is their attitudes that seal their fate.

The numerous reminders of decay that pervade the Hunsdorfer lives reinforce a related theme, the inevitability of death. Nanny’s absence of understanding and physical decline mirror the chaotic disarray and faded spirit of the house. Beatrice takes the life of the rabbit to destroy any hope that manages to survive in her daughters. At times of great stress, Ruth becomes paralyzed by seizures. Amid this erratic dysfunction, science, with its order and insight into the origins of the universe, becomes Tillie’s lifeline, connecting her to a larger world from which Beatrice, in fear and bitterness, hides. Only Tillie’s marigolds, and through them, Tillie herself, experience vitality and growth. Tillie alone has the courage and stamina to pursue her dreams, and this is the spark that empowers her. This optimism reinforces the central idea of the play, since Tillie’s positive outlook lifts her dreams beyond those of Beatrice, whose tea shop will never be achieved. Just as some marigolds, when exposed to the cobalt-60, yield spectacular double-blooms—symbolic of Tillie—others mutate into nonvital organisms, like the forever frustrated Beatrice and the shallow, unkind Ruth.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

Triumph in the Face of Adversity
The characters in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds all face adversity, but each reacts very differently. Beatrice has allowed the difficulties and bad luck she has encountered throughout life to defeat her. She attempts to better her life, but her bitterness presents a barrier. Beatrice is so caught up in the negative, unfair aspects of life that she is unable to see any goodness around her. Tillie, however, is able to prevail, even in the worst circumstances. She can find beauty in the smallest detail. No matter how many times she is chastised or disappointed, she gets back up and tries again. She is a survivor.

Beatrice and Ruth are very concerned with how they appear to others. Ruth is constantly worried about how she looks. She wears tight sweaters and refuses to go to school without first putting on makeup. Ruth wants to fit in and is very fickle in her relationship to Tillie. Most of the time she considers Tillie an embarrassment and doesn't want to be...

(The entire section contains 1197 words.)

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  • Summary
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  • Characters
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