Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Little Foxes is a three-act play with only ten characters, seven of whom are related by blood or marriage. Lillian Hellman made no secret of the fact that The Little Foxes was inspired by her mother’s family, the Marxes, who originally lived in Demopolis, Alabama. Regina Hubbard Giddens is said to resemble Lillian’s own grandmother, Sophie Marx Newhouse; Ben Hubbard, her uncle Jacob Marx, who was a successful banker in Demopolis and later in New York; and Birdie, Lillian’s gentle, unworldly mother, Julia Newhouse Hellman. In her memoir Pentimento (1973), Hellman writes that Alexandra is the girl she imagined herself to have been at her age.

The characters in The Little Foxes can be placed in two categories: those who have ruthlessly seized control over their community, for the purpose of self-aggrandizement; and those who, though governed by principle, are relatively powerless. The first group consists of Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo and the second of Horace, Birdie, the two black servants Addie and Cal, and the only good Hubbard, Alexandra. The action of the play involves not one but two conflicts. The four rapacious Hubbards, led by Regina and Ben, are all seeking in one way or another to neutralize those who oppose them; meanwhile, they are also involved in a struggle among themselves for power and for property.

The play is set in a small Southern town in 1900. As the curtain goes up, the Hubbards have gathered at the Giddens home to entertain William Marshall, a...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although critics have had difficulty classifying Lillian Hellman as a feminist, certainly women are important in her plays. Sometimes they are good; sometimes they are evil. Sometimes they prey on one another. In The Children’s Hour (1934), for example, a schoolgirl enlists the aid of selfish women in an effort to prove that two teachers are lesbian lovers. Sometimes women prey on men as with Carrie Berniers in Toys in the Attic (1960), who must dominate her brother if she cannot sleep with him. Sometimes they do evil deeds inadvertently, through ignorance or stupidity, as with the childish wife Lily Prine in the same play. Sometimes they are cast as victims, too weak to stand up for themselves against male aggressors, as with Birdie.

In Regina, however, Hellman created a woman as fascinating and as unscrupulous as the title characters in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890). It is interesting that although these female protagonists are evil, they also have many qualities that feminists admire, such as intelligence, independence, and strength of will. Regina has still another attribute: She is witty. Evidently there was much about Regina that Hellman herself liked. In interviews, she often expressed her bewilderment that audiences all but hissed when Regina came onstage; she expected them to be amused, if not with her treatment of Horace then certainly by her success in outwitting her scoundrelly brothers.

At any rate, there is something very modern in Hellman’s treatment of the relationship between the mother and daughter in The Little Foxes. When Alexandra stands up to her mother, Regina is delighted. It is immediately after their confrontation that Regina makes overtures of friendship toward her daughter, overtures that come too late. Perhaps in Alexandra she has caught a glimpse of what she once was—the young Regina Hubbard who, in the companion play Another Part of the Forest (1946), was robbed by her father of her dreams and of the man she truly loved.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Deep South

*Deep South. Southern-most of the southern states. The South itself is an offstage and onstage presence that is at the very heart of the play. From the earliest moments in the play the South is described almost as a character, with feminine and masculine traits. Regina Hubbard embodies the graces of womanhood in the Old South as she flirts with the northern industrialist William Marshall. Ben Hubbard epitomizes those who, at the turn of the twentieth century, despoiled the South for private gain. The defining characteristics of the South shift from the pre-Civil War agricultural aristocracy that had once ruled, to the new wealth of industry and commerce. The mores and ethos of southern men and women are described as though they characterize the South itself. The audience begins to feel the presence of the South in a tangible way: It is a character in transition. From the ashes of a sentimental past the South will be transformed by a new industrialism bringing northern-style prosperity while exploiting poor white southerners and unlanded black southerners. The Hubbards will, in the end, destroy their beloved South in their drive for power, influence, and status through wealth. They will import the cotton mill along with all the social and economic misery it will cause.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Industrialization of the New South
By the turn of the 20th century in the American South, the period and setting of...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The symbolism in this play about the greed and revenge that destroys the Hubbard family and everyone associated with...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1900s: During the industrialization of the New South, Southern labor laws and practices were more exploitative of workers than those...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Investigate the Northern interest in the industrialization of the New South. Is William Marshall a "carpetbagger" ? Explain your answer....

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Lillian Hellman adapted The Little Foxes into a screenplay in 1941 that starred Bette Davis as Regina and won critical acclaim for...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

In Another Part of the Forest, the "prequel" to The Little Foxes, Hellman jumps back 20 years to show the genesis of the family...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Further Reading
Adler, Jacob. Lillian Hellman, Steck-Vaughn, 1969. A biographic monograph that contains the first...

(The entire section is 372 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Estrin, Mark W., ed. Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. The excellent introduction to this volume presents an overview of Hellman’s career as a dramatist. Many of the essays, including an especially interesting study by Mary Lynn Broe, deal with The Little Foxes.

Falk, Doris V. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Introduction to Hellman’s overall literary career. Chapter on The Little Foxes reveals Hellman’s use of research material, creation of nine drafts, and inclusion of her own family background into several of the characters.


(The entire section is 406 words.)