Mother Courage and Her Children

by Bertolt Brecht

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Student Question

Discuss the maternity trope in Mother Courage and Her Children.

Quick answer:

Maternity is the dominant trope in Mother Courage and Her Children. The title character justifies all her actions based on her desire to care for and protect her children. However, she does not end her business dealings even after her actions lead to their deaths. Mother Courage and the concept of maternity represent all people, institutions, and nations that use love and security to rationalize unscrupulous practices, especially war.

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Mother Courage and Her Children presents a character who cares fiercely for her children and vows to do anything to nurture and protect them. Instead, her involvement in commercial dealings during wartime not only endangers those very children but contributes to their deaths. Mother Courage, the nickname of Anna Fierling, claims neutrality during the protracted war and endorses pragmatism over any political doctrine or nationalism but engages in profiteering that is enabled by the wartime demands.

The paradoxes of her position are shown when she discourages her sons from joining the army, not only because she opposes it but because she relies on their labor in her business. These contradictions are further revealed when she approaches her son Eilin’s ransom like any other deal.

Bertolt Brecht uses maternity as a pervasive trope. The specific associations of motherhood—and parenting more broadly—with unbounded love, nurturing, and protection are both asserted and questioned throughout the play. Mother Courage’s inability or refusal to acknowledge her own hypocrisy parallels the behavior of any person charged with the well-being of others who instead jeopardizes their safety. More broadly, Brecht applies his critique to institutions—such as religions and nations—that use love and security to justify and profit from hazardous, aggressive actions.

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