Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

Inherit the Wind examines stubborn adherence to a set of antiquated but long-held and cherished notions that have, in the course of time, been scientifically disproved. The townsfolk represent what real-life Baltimore reporter H. L. Mencken, of whom Hornbeck is reminiscent, aptly described as the “boobocracy”: Such people are in the majority so, in Hillsboro at least, they rule. Ultimately this majority also wins at the local level. The play concludes before an appeal to the Supreme Court is launched, and the audience is left with the impression that perhaps such an appeal will not be filed. Bertram Cates and his fiancé leave town once the trial is over, perhaps never to return and fight the conviction.

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Henry Drummond is less impressed by faith than he is by Truth, with a capital T. He thinks that God, if indeed there is one, has given humans the ability to think, question, analyze, and reason. Religion, as manifested and practiced in Hillsboro, has little to do with a quest for Truth. The townspeople are sheeplike: They accept and venerate the status quo. Not only do they not think deeply but also they do all in their power to thwart those who do. The perfect example of this thwarting is the court’s refusal to permit the testimony of the expert scientific witnesses whom the defense has brought in to attest to the standing of Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theories among scientists. This decision reflects the tenor of the town. The attitude of most of the people in Hillsboro is “Do not rock the boat.”

The conflict in this play is not merely between Bertram Cates and the town in which he teaches. It is rather the conflict between ignorance and knowledge, between blind adherence to outmoded beliefs and the rationality that would explore the validity of such beliefs, changing them if change seems appropriate. Henry Drummond demonstrates that there is no means of defending a wholly literal interpretation of the Bible. His rational approach, however, falls on deaf ears. The emotionalism and supercharged rhetoric of Matthew Brady reinforce the untenable ideas of the townspeople, including members of the jury, who deliver a guilty verdict.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

Individual vs. Machine
Jerome Lawrence said in an interview with Nina Couch that "almost if not all of our plays share the theme of the dignity of every individual mind." The machine in this case is a combination of government and traditional thought, which are allied in Inherit the Wind to serve as adversaries against the right to think freely and exchange—or teach—those thoughts. In the exchange with Brady on the witness stand, Drummond asks the witness if he believes a sponge thinks and if a man has the same privileges that a sponge does. When Brady responds in the affirmative, Drummond raises his voice for the first time and roars that his client "wishes to be accorded the same privileges as a sponge. He wishes to think." Drummond explores this idea further when he offers the supposition that "an un-Brady thought might still be holy." Drummond further illustrates his belief in the dignity of the individual mind after Brady's death when he asserts to Hornbeck that Brady had just as much right to his strict religious views as that the reporter does to his liberal ideals.

God and Religion
The idea of separation of church and state is as old as the American Republic itself, and it continues to be a source of controversy to this day. The central question of the play asks if the government, as represented by the city of Hillsboro and the laws of the state of Tennessee, should make decisions regarding what people can believe. Should one particular way of looking at the world be preferred over another? The question about the authority of the Bible also raises concerns: which translation or edition should be adopted as the "official" version of events? Drummond comments that the Bible is a good book—but not the only resource with which to view the world. God and religion are not the antagonists in Inherit the Wind, however, but merely provide the raw materials that people like Brady and Reverend Brown will use to combat Bert's teaching of evolution. Like many lessons in blind faith, the play illustrates how unyielding devotion to a set of beliefs can lead a person to refute even the most obvious of truths. The play's optimism lies with Rachel and Bert, who, it is suggested, will find a balance between religion and science in their life together.

Custom and Tradition
In 1925, the world was changing. Radio was beginning to replace the newspaper as a source of information. This, along with the widespread implementation of the telephone, provided a means for quickly relaying facts from one point to another. Technologies such as these brought new thought processes to once-isolated rural towns, new ways of seeing and interpreting the world. There were enormous social changes taking place as well. Women had recently earned the right to vote, and many blacks were planting the seeds that would flower into the civil rights movement of the 1960s. To many people accustomed to a set way of life, these new developments presented a threat. One approach to dealing with this rapid change was to ignore it and retreat into their old, comfortable ways. When new modes of thinking threatened to change these traditions, people became uncomfortable, rejecting the "new" simply because it was not familiar. Not only did Bert's teaching of evolution represent a new way of thinking, to many it attacked the most sacred of all traditions, religion and thus their very way of life. Whereas many of the townfolk are fearful of this change, people like Brady and the Reverend resent it because it threatens their prosperity and power—the more people blindly believe, the easier they are to manipulate. Drummond's comment that maybe Brady had moved away by standing still illustrates how the prosecutor has profited from encouraging a stagnation of thought.

Appearances and Reality
When Drummond tells the story of Golden Dancer, he outlines the characteristics of appearances and reality. A toy-store rocking horse, Golden Dancer's bright red mane, blue eyes, and golden color with purple spots dazzled the young Drummond. His parents worked extra and surprised him with the horse as a birthday present, and, when the excited boy jumped on the horse to ride, it broke in two. There was no substance to the object of Drummond's desire, only "spit and sealing wax." Drummond wants Cates, and by extension the audience of the play, to look closely at the arguments of people like Brady and Reverend Brown. They may have no more substance than Golden Dancer.

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