Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055
Greed drives the Hubbards—Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo—to seek more and more wealth, beyond the very comfortable financial stability they have already secured from their dry-goods business. Each of them sacrifices integrity to achieve it. The allure of wealth is a primary force that offers something slightly different to each of them. The expected millions will catapult Regina beyond the domain of the small town in the deep south into the glittering international social life of Chicago and Paris, but she kills her husband to get there and thereby loses the love of her daughter; thus she will go to Chicago utterly alone. Ben lost his integrity long ago; as Regina reminds him, "You couldn't find twelve men in this state you haven't cheated and hate you for it." Ben treats negotiating with his siblings like a game of chess, where the pawns are the future mill workers whom he will play off against each other in order to keep the cotton mill wages low. His greed is an end in itself. Oscar lacks Ben's mastery and Regina's coolness under fire, and therefore exists on a lower level of the family hierarchy. He lets his son steal Horace's bonds, and then has no qualms about letting Leo take the full blame for the theft when Horace discovers them missing. Oscar enjoys his daily game hunt, blithely discarding his catch in spite of the fact that the poor black residents of the town need the meat. Furthermore, he refuses to allow them to hunt in the area. He kills for the sheer pleasure of killing, owns for the pleasure of denying ownership to others.
Hellman warns her audience that not only are the Hubbards destined to flourish, but that they are not alone. According to Ben: "There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren't Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day." Greed underlies the mentality of unscrupulous industrialists who infiltrated the New South and nourished a form of predatory capitalism that Hellman considered a threat to the American ethic.
Apathy and Passivity
Hellman's herself was an activist who constantly signed petitions and joined committees bent on political change. She deplored passivity in the face of malice and she has the erstwhile heroes of The Little Foxes express their disdain for it as well. Addie, who serves a moral compass in the midst of the evil machinations of the Hubbards, expresses more concern about the passivity that allows them to continue than about what they actually do, saying, "Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.... Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them do it." To Addie the Hubbards are like an impersonal and inevitable plague, a scourge on humanity, and whether one fights them or stands by in apathy, permitting them to feed off of others, is a test of character that most of the others in the play fail. Addie fails too, since, being black, she lacks the social status to fight them effectively. She nurtures Alexandra in the hope that the young girl will one day escape the Hubbard sphere of influence. Horace also hopes Alexandra will leave; he wants her to "learn to hate and fear" the Hubbards's mean-spirited avarice. Horace himself gets away for a few peaceful months at a hospital in Baltimore. He returns too weak, physically and emotionally, to fight the Hubbards, and the shock of hearing that his wife hates him and wishes him dead kills him. Thus Hellman demonstrates that apathy exacts a price— those who fail to strive against evil are devoured from inside. Horace's heart weakens, Birdie resorts to alcohol, and both of their lives are ruined by the Hubbards. Furthermore, their weakness perpetuates the evil they cannot stop. Hellman was surprised that audiences sympathized with Birdie's defeated, drunken passivity. She expected them to scorn her as much as she did: "Ijustmeanthertobe.. .alost drunk,'' Hellman said in a 1958 interview quoted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman.
If audiences find anything to admire in the detestable maneuverings of the Hubbards's rivalry over money and power, it is in the vengeance one evil character wreaks upon another. This play does not offer the grand satisfaction of a strong and good hero winning retribution for harm done in a dramatic moment of victory. Rather, it displays a series of tiny victorious moments wherein one villain wrests control away from the others, only to lose it again in the next scene In the climax of the action, Regina steps carefully around what she does not know for sure, hinting that she can put Ben, Oscar, and Leo into jail for stealing the bonds. That she puts her winning hand together while her husband dies upstairs proves her to be an evil villainess; but her cool command and deft strategizing make her a very smart villainess, one who commands a measure of respect. She also provides the vicarious pleasure of defeating scoundrels—her criminally scheming brothers. The heroic figures in the play are too weak to obtain recompense for their injuries and do little more than irritate the Hubbards—Horace dies almost unnoticed before he can have his showdown, Birdie no longer cares, Addie knows better than to step out of her subservient role, and Alexandra chooses to fight elsewhere. Thus the only pleasure of victory available is in the shifting of power amongst the evil characters as the losers seek revenge, prevail, and then are overturned. The viewer sympathizes with these repellent characters long enough to enjoy their moment of vengeance and their prowess in achieving it. One might wonder why Regina and her brothers have developed their contentious relationship in the first place. Hellman wrote another play to answer that question. Another Part of the Forest goes back twenty years to reveal a father who cheats and betrays his neighbors and humiliates his children. Ben blackmails his father for his estate, leaving Regina and Oscar at Ben's beck and call, thus beginning the Greek cycle of revenge that continues in The Little Foxes and would have evolved in a third play had Hellman completed the trilogy.