Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

The Good Woman of Setzuan raises the question of morality in Western culture by enacting a dilemma of goodness versus survival. The issues are encompassed in the play in two basic philosophies: The Chinese yin/yang and Marxist dialectical materialism. The highly contrasting behaviors of Shen Te and Shui Ta illustrate the Asian philosophy of the yin/yang that says two sides of nature—the passive woman and the active man—make up the whole. The constant opposition between Shen Te and Shui Ta and their desperate need for one another, as well as the economic questions that their disparate behaviors raise, point to the Marxist underpinnings of this play. Out of Shen Te’s need to survive despite her goodness and generosity comes the constructive manner in which Shui Ta uses the resources at Shen Te’s disposal to multiply the wealth and thus create more for distribution. On the other hand, Shui Ta’s tightfistedness and cruelty creates a need for more of the human warmth and aid that Shen Te brings to people in misery in the slums of Setzuan.

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Both the yin/yang and Marxist philosophies are poetically realized through water imagery and are dramatically stated in terms of the economic situation in Setzuan. The poverty and drought which serve as the backdrop for this play unite the two sets of ideas. The gods do not bring water to everyone; they only bring a small amount of money to Shen Te. They frequently appear to Wang, the water seller, in his night’s lodgings of a dry culvert. Wang dreams that the weight of the gods’ moral precepts will drown Shen Te. Her shop, which she considers a gift from the gods, is an economic lifeboat. However, it may sink, because too many drowning hands reach out for it. The name Shen Te, in Chinese, connotes gentle rain. The name Shui Ta suggests the rushing waters of a flood tide. The generous Shen Te rains her small gifts on those around her; Shui Ta, the unrelenting capitalist who washes away restraints in his rush to succeed in business, emphasizes the relationship between water and the economics of Setzuan, and between the yin/yang and the Marxist dialectic.

With the firm connection between water and economics poetically embedded in the text, Bertolt Brecht goes a step further for the philosophical education of his audience. Instead of creating a play steeped in Chinese tradition, he uses a fictive Chinese setting and Chinese names, exotic gods who become less so as the play progresses, and a sprinkling of tales to divorce the play from the everyday realities of his intended Western audiences. If the play had a less exotic setting, the audience could simply accept the problems and conditions as those of their society, too long ingrained to be solved, or even willed by God as the natural order of things. The critical distance that the Chinese setting provides is designed to let the audience recognize that human action is responsible for the conditions of poverty and can be marshalled to solve those problems.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950

Success and Failure
Shen Teh wants to succeed at being a good person. The gods give her 1000 silver dollars, and she buys a small tobacco shop with it. Shen Teh hopes to help others through the shop by spending profits on such things as food for the hungry. But most of the people whom she is trying to help take advantage of her generosity. They want food, money, shelter, and constant service. Many of them do not care that their demands are causing the business to fail; they are only concerned with their short-term gain. Shen Teh finds it difficult to succeed at being a good person under these frustrating conditions.

To ensure the success of her business and to secure some hope of being able to do good,...

(The entire section contains 1465 words.)

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