Dilemma: How to be a Good Person

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1929

The epilogue of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan apologizes for the lack of a true, closed ending to the play. In the last scene, Shen Teh’s dilemma of how to be a Good Person in a harsh world is left unanswered by the gods and Brecht. Instead, the audience is asked to think for themselves. Brecht writes ‘‘Indeed it is a curious way of coping: / To close the play, leaving the issue open. / Especially since we live by your enjoyment.’’ Thus everyone is supposed to propose their own interpretation to the problem.

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For the most part, critics believe the play supported the idea of goodness, while showing the difficulties in living such a life. Clive Barnes of The New York Times believed ‘‘The Good Woman of Setzuan is a parable about the impossibility of human purity. For its very existence, good has to coexist with evil, riches bring poverty and even to fly man has to cheat.’’ In the epilogue, Brecht seems to support such interpretations. He writes ‘‘There’s only one solution that we know: / That you should now consider as you god / What sort of measures you would recommend / to help good people to a happy end.’’

Yet there is not one instance of goodness rewarded in Good Person. Every time Shen Teh or several other characters try to do good, their actions come back to haunt them. They end up suffering somehow, whether it be economically, emotionally, or otherwise. Far from arguing that goodness has its merits, Brecht shows how much it negatively affects people’s lives. The reason goodness fails, however, is not because of goodness itself. It is because other people take advantage of the good. They are driven to it for reasons such as the capitalist economy reflecting Brecht’s Marxist bias). While the lines from the Epilogue quoted above show that Brecht supports the ideal of good people, the play shows the impossibility of being good in such a society.

In addition to Shen Teh, several minor characters struggle greatly after acts of kindness. Wang, the water seller, is not particularly honorable. He has a false bottom in his cup, meaning he cheats those to whom he sells his product. But Wang chooses to wait for the gods at the entrance to the city, hoping to talk to them. They enlist him to help them find lodging for the night, their way of trying to find one Good Person. Wang is repeatedly turned down, and he finally takes them to Shen Teh who takes them in. Yet Wang becomes confused and runs away after he believes he has failed the gods. His act of goodness leads to personal stress. Wang hides, fearing their wrath. Even after they reassure him, they come to him in his dreams for updates on Shen Teh. His one good deed leads to ever greater obligations.

Wang’s problems are minor when compared to the carpet dealer and his wife. In scene four, Shen Teh enters their carpet shop, which is near her shop, to buy a pretty shawl. She has just returned from an evening with Yang Sun and is very happy. The couple reminds her that she must pay her rent soon, but Shen Teh knows she is out of money. Out of generosity, they offer to lend her the 200 silver dollars against her stock, though they do not demand anything in writing. This act of goodness ends up hurting them deeply. Shen Teh promptly gives the loaned funds to Yang Sun so he can get his pilot’s job.

During the interlude between scenes five and six, Shen Teh reveals that the carpet dealer needs the loaned money back. He is ill over his act of goodness, and does not trust her cousin, Shui Ta. Shen Teh promises to give them the money back, but cannot retrieve it from Yang Sun. Though Shen Teh feels guilty about the situation, the carpet dealer and his wife are left none the richer because of their goodness. Eventually, they lose their store because the loan...

(The entire section contains 12023 words.)

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