Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

Marriage The central theme of this play is marriage. Each of the six scenes takes place in the bedroom of Agnes and Michael, a married couple, during key moments of crisis and reconciliation in their marriage. The first scene takes place on their wedding night. The second scene takes place...

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Marriage
The central theme of this play is marriage. Each of the six scenes takes place in the bedroom of Agnes and Michael, a married couple, during key moments of crisis and reconciliation in their marriage. The first scene takes place on their wedding night. The second scene takes place just as she is experiencing labor pains before the birth of their first child. In the following scene, seven years later, he reveals that he has been having an affair. In the next scene, they argue over how to raise their children, he favoring the daughter, and she favoring the son. In the following scene, they have just returned from their daughter's wedding. Agnes informs Michael that she no longer loves him and is leaving him, but they soon reconcile. In the final scene, they are moving out of their house to a smaller space in an apartment building. The play thus charts the patterns of conflict and resolution over thirty-five years of a marriage. This large-scale overview presents the marriage as rocky but ultimately stabilized by the strong basis of mutual love between husband and wife. In the end, Agnes concludes that they have been "happy'' together, and that ‘‘marriage is a good thing.’’

Gender Roles
In portraying the marital relationship between Agnes and Michael, de Hartog explores issues of conflict over traditional gender roles within the family. On their wedding night, Michael, as a man, is eager to consummate their marriage, while Agnes, as an innocent and naive young woman, is extremely anxious and nervous about getting into bed with him. She complains that she wants to go home and hints that he has gotten her drunk to more easily undress her. Soon enough, however, she overcomes her initial fears and becomes comfortable getting into bed with him.

During the scene in which Agnes is about to give birth to their first child, Michael complains that she has neglected him while she has been preparing for the coming child. As a man, he feels jealous of the expected child, whom he fears will supplant him in his wife's affections. When she attempts to tease him, calling him a "baby," he bursts out, ‘‘That's right! Humiliate me! Lose no opportunity of reminding me that I'm the male animal that's done its duty and now can be dismissed! ... A drone, that's what I am! The one thing lacking is that you should devour me. The bees. . ..’’ Michael then admits that he fears losing her to the baby and even wishes that he himself were "lying in the cradle,'' receiving her attentions. He fears ‘‘that cuckoo’’—meaning the child—is going to push him ‘‘out of the nest.’’ He complains that, since she became pregnant, he has become, ‘‘miserable, deserted, alone,’’ and that ‘‘You do nothing else all day but fuss over that child.’’ He goes on to assert that he feels, as a man, usurped by the coming child. He tells her, "I retired into the background as becomes a man who recognizes that he is one too many.’’ However, she reassures him that she could not have done it without the support of a loving husband, telling him, "You helped me more than all model husbands put together.’’

During a scene that takes place seventeen years later, Agnes expresses her sense of discontent and oppression in the role of wife and mother. She tells Michael, ‘‘I can't . . . die behind the stove, like a domestic animal.’’ She goes on to compare the restrictions placed on women to the freedoms allowed men, telling Michael, ‘‘You are a man. You'll be able to do what you like until you are seventy.’’ Agnes then expresses her rage and frustration with the restrictions placed upon her in her role as wife and mother:

I want to live, can't you understand that? My life long I have been a mother; my life long I've had to be at somebody's beck and call; I've never been able to be really myself, completely, wholeheartedly. No, never! From the very first day you have handcuffed me and gagged me and shut me in the dark. When I was still a child who didn't even know what it meant to be a woman, you turned me into a mother.

Through such outbursts as this, de Hartog represents marriage as a series of struggles between man and woman, a push and pull of love and conflict, often based on differences in the emotional needs, as well as the societal expectations, of men and women in their traditional marital roles.

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