Lillian Hellman

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What is your comment on the title of Lillian Hellman's play The Autumn Garden?

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Hellman creates a play that is bleak but not without hope.

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Lillian Hellman is an author known for creating simple but profound titles for her work (such as The Children's Hour, Little Foxes, or Toys in the Attic). These titles suggest imagery that is associated with children, and the themes present in these works sometimes suggest that children can be cruel, duplicitous, and dispassionate. The titles also seem fairly innocuous and lighthearted, despite that the stories portray action that is fairly dark and serious. This creates a somewhat antagonistic and contradictory tone.

With The Autumn Garden, Hellman crafts a simple title that is laden with meaning, as well as subtle contradictions. The play is set in September, which is really late summer, not exactly autumn: this is an important distinction, since the many changes in the landscape one normally associates with autumn have not yet occurred. This suggests a time of anticipation, of suspension.

The play portrays characters who reach middle age and find it to be a time of fear, doubt, and disillusionment. The image of a garden in autumn invokes a place of growth that is about to go dormant. In using nature imagery for the title, Hellman creates a metaphor for the human condition. In the autumn garden, there may be harvest (rewards, abundance, sustenance) but there will also soon be death.

However, the autumn garden is also beautiful, with foliage turning color and some crops ripening to fullness. Autumn is also a time that requires preparation and planning for the future. Some crops are planted in autumn (like garlic and onions, or winter cover crops), and compost or other material are added. Hellman suggests that even with the characters being fairly disillusioned with their lives in their "autumn years," there may be future growth in store, and they'd do well to prepare for it. In the halcyon days of late summer, the cold, dreary days of November are far off yet.

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The Autumn Garden is an incredibly appropriate title of this play by Lillian Hellman. Why? Because it is a play primarily about the disillusionment that comes with middle age (especially that experienced during the mid 1900s).

The season of Autumn is significant in the title because it is the season that best represents middle age. It is the time of year when the crops are harvested and then become past their prime. The trees begin the journey to dormancy, the fruits begin to rot, and the annuals all begin to die. This is a perfect description of the characters in this play. The word “garden” is used in the title because the play is not merely about one character. Instead, it is about a whole group of characters who are reaching that time in their lives. All of the events in the play happen during the course of a week where the middle-aged characters become more and more despairing both with each other and with their own lives.

In conclusion, a reader should also note that the title The Autumn Garden can also nicely refer to the atmosphere of wealth that pervades the play. Wealth certainly doesn’t protect a person from growing older. Even though Autumn can be seen as a season of beauty (and wealth can be seen as a state of happiness), the truth is that all life gradually approaches death.

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