Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372

Mother Courage and Her Children is one of the most famous antiwar dramas in all literature. In 1941, when the play was first performed, Europe was in the midst of World War II. Instead of commenting directly on this war—which, he might have argued, was too overwhelmingly immediate for audiences to judge objectively—Bertolt Brecht chose to set the play during a distant historical period. The Thirty Years’ War, notable for its length (1618-1648), savagery, and moral pointlessness, began as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but whatever sincere religious aims may have been present at the outset were lost by the time the French (a Catholic nation) entered the fray on the side of the Protestants to further their territorial ambitions. To illustrate the savagery of this pointless war, Brecht informs the audience in the introduction to scene 9 that by that point in the war (1634), Germany had lost half of its population.

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That war is likely to grind up all who enter it is foreshadowed in the first scene, when Mother Courage argues with the sergeant who is trying to recruit Eilif. There, Mother Courage, who claims to have “second sight,” not only predicts that the sergeant will soon be a corpse but also foresees the death of her three children. Yet if Mother Courage is indeed able to see the doom-filled future, one might well ask, why on earth would she insist on forever trailing along in the army’s wake? In that answer lies the second important theme of the play, inextricable from the first: the interrelationship between war and capitalism.

Brecht was both a pacifist and a communist. War was utterly pointless, he thought, on any grounds except one of profit, and profit is a heinous motive for butchering thousands (or millions) of people. Mother Courage says that she got her name from driving her wagon through a cannon barrage to save fifty loaves of bread. Her indomitable perseverance over the course of the play would surely strike the audience as heroic and admirable if it were not for the fact that she is always driven by avarice. For this desire she eventually loses everything that she cherishes except that which she appears to value most: her wagon.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

War and Peace
Mother Courage and Her Children takes place during the Thirty Years’ War, a religious war (Catholic versus Protestant) which ravaged Europe in the seventeenth century (1618-48). Every event, attitude, and emotion felt in this play is affected by the circumstances of war. Mother Courage’s livelihood is based on a canteen wagon through which she sells food and various goods to soldiers. She and her children pull the wagon, following the Swedish regiments to wherever the war takes them.

Each of Mother Courage’s children suffer the consequences of war and are eventually destroyed by it. Eilif is recruited when soldiers are needed for the Swedish Protestant army. He becomes a brutal soldier, losing his humanity, his sense of right and wrong, and, ultimately his life. Swiss Cheese joins the same army as a paymaster for a Protestant regiment—he takes the clerical position so that he will not have to fight in the war. Still, his position leads to his death. Kattrin loses her life when she tries to warn a town of a surprise attack by Catholics.

Other characters’ lives are also affected profoundly by war. Yvette became a camp follower when her soldier boyfriend abandoned her. She started following regiments looking for him and eventually became a prostitute to support herself. Numerous common folk are depicted throughout the play, many of whom see their homes and land destroyed by the fighting.

Despite the loss of her children to the war, Mother Courage does quite well financially. Though business does go bad several times—notably during a short peace—Mother Courage survives every calamity that befalls her. Eilif is not so lucky. He attacks peasants and steals cattle during wartime and is considered a hero. He does the same thing during the short peace—though he does not know there is a truce—and is arrested. By the end of the play, Mother Courage has to pull the canteen wagon by herself, but her business drive motivates her to persevere. She has to survive. Through his protagonist’s actions, Brecht shows war as a never-ending commercial opportunity, but he also highlights its affects on the common man and woman. He shows peace being less prosperous, a state in which fi- nances are less assured.

Choices and Consequences: Commerce versus Family
Though Mother Courage runs her canteen to support herself and her children, she often makes choices that put her commerce before her family. Each of her children are adversely affected while she is brokering business deals: Eilif is recruited by the Swedish army officer while Mother Courage tries to sell a belt buckle; Swiss Cheese is executed by the Catholics while she haggles over the price of his ransom; Kattrin dies while Mother Courage is in town buying goods.

Mother Courage also makes choices in support of her children, however, especially Kattrin. The Cook likes Mother Courage and travels with the canteen briefly; he asks her to run an inn with him. Mother Courage eagerly accepts, telling Kattrin that she will finally fulfill the many promises she has made to her mute daughter. Yet when she learns that Kattrin is unwelcome at the inn, Mother Courage refuses to go and abandons the Cook by the side of the road. Ultimately, Mother Courage is capable of doing right by her children but not at the expense of her business.

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