Themes

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Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Everyone Has Both Vices and Virtues

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Mrs. Hesione Hushabye tells Ellie Dunn:

People don't have their virtues and vices in sets; they have them anyhow: all mixed.

In other words, everyone is equally composed of both good and bad qualities. This claim certainly bears out within the text itself. Boss Mangan does seem to genuinely care for Ellie Dunn, but he also intentionally ruined her father and stole his business. Mrs. Hushabye wants to try to protect Ellie from marrying a man she does not love, but she also doesn't seem to be particularly faithful to her own husband. Hector Hushabye was in love his wife and was faithful to her for some time, but then he fell into the practice of misleading various women (of which Ellie was one) and eventually falls in love with his wife's sister, Lady Utterword.

Using Deception to Fulfill Desires

Throughout the play, each character is revealed to be somehow dissembling. The persona of "Marcus Darnley," a foundling placed in a wooden chest with a bunch of money, turns out to be an alias of Hector, Hesione's husband. Ellie, who appears to be quite innocent and even naive at first, is later proven to be adeptly strategic and manipulative; she even marries Captain Shotover in secret during the play. Hesione's lustrous black hair is actually a wig. Boss Mangan, whose actions seem to indicate that he is kind and generous, is actually an amoral opportunist. Furthermore, it comes to light that, despite his reputation as a wealthy businessman, Mangan is not at all rich.

The "Business of Marriage" and the Concept of Class

Ellie astutely observes that "a woman's business is marriage." She claims that a woman in her situation, with a poor father and no prospects, can only be wise by marrying someone who can improve her life. She says that she does not want to worry about her gloves for the rest of her life. This assertion can be seen to indicate that she does not want a life in which she must struggle in order to keep up the basic necessities of life.

However, gloves can also be seen to represent the genteel conventions of upper-class life; gloves, at the turn of the twentieth century, were used by women mostly as a status symbol and to indicate an adherence to upper class convention. Thus, while Ellie is stating that she has no choice but to marry for money, she also implicitly implies that she must marry for money because the kind of lifestyle that she desires—one in which she can live in grace and elegance—is one that requires a great deal of money.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

Heartbreak House is the world of cultivated England before World War I. Its inhabitants are intelligent and cultivated, but they prefer selfish and hedonistic pleasures to the responsibilities of government. In his preface to Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw notes that the only alternative to Heartbreak House is Horseback Hall, represented in the play by Ariadne and Randall. Ariadne is concerned with prestige and propriety; Randall is incapable even of governing himself. It is because Heartbreak House refuses its responsibilities and Horseback Hall is incapable of anything more than mindless bureaucracy that the world is made safe for such unabashedly selfish industrial leaders as Mangan, whom Shaw modeled on grocery-czar Hudson Kearley, Lord Devonport, who briefly and unsuccessfully held a government post during the war.

Shotover, alone among the characters in the play, knows that Heartbreak House is a microcosm of England and that it is a ship headed toward the rocks. Shotover is old, but he is not in his dotage, although he tries to blind himself to the events he cannot control. At eighty-eight, he is an exhausted prophet-seer, representing the long Old Testament tradition that came down through Thomas Carlyle and Henrik Ibsen to Shaw himself. This tradition is without influence in the twentieth century; Shotover remains on the bridge, but he cannot steer. England needs him but does not want to hear what he has to say.

Where, then, is there hope for this world? It cannot rest in the common people, represented in the play by Guinness and the burglar. Guinness is called “nurse” because she nurses the childishness of the governing classes; the burglar is a working-class imitation of Mangan, living by exploiting the irresponsibility of those classes who will neither change the excessively severe criminal law nor enforce it. Guinness and the burglar have both been corrupted by capitalism. Mazinni Dunn, on the other hand, has been co-opted by it and is the ineffective heir of a dead nineteenth century tradition of romantic revolutionism.

Despairing at the carnage of World War I (Shaw began writing the play in 1916, completing it in 1917), the playwright places the one fragile hope of a sane future in Ellie Dunn. She alone grows during the course of the play; she begins as a gentle girl, becomes a cynical woman, and then transcends cynicism to accept Shotover’s creed of struggle and blessedness rather than happiness. When, at the play’s end, she welcomes the bombs, she is affirming that creed, with its acceptance of life and risk, rather than giving way to nihilistic despair. In placing the burden of the future on Ellie’s shoulders, Shaw is affirming a theme that also appears in his other plays of this period: that change, when it comes, will happen through the power of women. Saint Joan is a similar force in the play named for her (pr. 1923), as are Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman (pr. 1903) and Lilith and the Barnabas serving woman in Back to Methuselah (pb. 1921).

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