Lillian Hellman found the title of The Little Foxes in a biblical passage from the Song of Solomon: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” The metaphor is appropriate not only for this play but also for the South as it was in 1900, just thirty-five years after the end of a devastating war which had cost it so many men and left its economy in a shambles. Many once-prosperous Southerners found themselves, like Birdie, so anxious to recapture their lost happiness that they were willing to believe almost anything and anyone. Whether it was an offer of marriage or an offer of Northern capital, any promise of help was likely to be accepted by people who in many cases were almost destitute. The “tender grapes” thus represent the new growth of a society which is struggling to become productive once again. The “little foxes” are the Hubbards, who are willing to destroy anything and anyone, including the society itself, in order to make a profit. It is ironic that just when a society is most vulnerable, predators have their greatest opportunities.
There are social, as well as economic, dimensions to the play. For example, traditionally Southern landowners considered merchants such as the Hubbards to be considerably below them in the social hierarchy. Therefore, there is more to Oscar’s mistreatment of Birdie than the fact that by nature he is a bully and by nature she is gentle. Whenever Oscar diminishes her, he is trying to prove to himself that he is now better than the people who had looked down on him. What he does not see is that no matter how brutal he is to Birdie, he can never bring her down to his level. The critics who see in Birdie simply a silly woman or a remnant of an evil society misread the play. Whatever she has lost, Birdie still has her manners (which, unlike those of the Hubbards, are ingrained), her cultural accomplishments (which so impress Marshall, the Northern capitalist), and her moral standards (which have brought her to see so much evil in her own son that she warns Alexandra not to marry him).
It has been pointed out that Horace Giddens is a late convert to the cause of social justice. After having worked for the Hubbards for years, now that he is dying, he has resolved to do no more wrong. Even though Horace is hardly of heroic stature, he does foresee the economic and social harm that industrialism will do to the South. Not only will the poor whites and the former slaves be paid almost nothing, but, as Horace points out, men such as the Hubbards will encourage the two groups to hate each other in order to prevent them from combining to demand a living wage. To reach their own materialistic goals, they will foment hatreds that will persist for generations.
While Hellman was always sensitive to social and economic issues, the primary theme in all of her plays is the eternal struggle between good and evil. It often seems that good does not have much of a chance since, in addition to obviously evil characters such as the Hubbards, Hellman typically includes in her works people who permit evil to triumph by being passive or indifferent. In The Little Foxes, the good but weak characters are Birdie, who has been very nearly defeated; Horace, who was once passive but now is weak because of his health; and Cal and Addie, who as blacks do not dare defy the establishment. Only Alexandra may be considered strong enough to fight against the despoilers, and indeed she says that she is leaving in order to do just that. Perhaps one day she will make a difference; however, the fact that she has to leave her little town in order to fight for good suggests that she has already accepted defeat on her own home ground. If that is Hellman’s meaning, then the future looks dark indeed.