Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Ego versus Id
The theories of Sigmund Freud were very popular when Overtones was first produced. Freud looked at the way various psychological forces shape a person. He eventually concluded there were three major parts that made up an individual’s psyche: the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego represents the part of the psyche that experiences the outer world through the senses. It is the ‘‘rational’’ part that primarily governs the actions of the person. The id is the part that contains the instincts for survival and the drive for pleasure. It is often considered the wild, primitive part. The superego is the part that contains the values and moral standards. Although Freud did not publish The Ego and the Id (the book which clearly identified these terms) until 1923, he had already extensively discussed the concept of conflicting societal and primitive forces upon the psyche, and these theories were well-known among educated circles in the United States. They influenced many playwrights of the period, who began using dream interpretations, hypnosis, and subconscious states as themes in their work. Overtones is considered the first example of physically dramatizing the conflict that takes place between the ego and the id. By using a dual-character format, Gerstenberg was able to personify the struggle taking place within each of the characters. At the opening of the play she clearly establishes for the audience that the characters of Harriet and Hetty are actually the same woman with Hetty’s opening line, ‘‘Harriet. Harriet, my other self. My trained self.’’ Gerstenberg goes on to reinforce this dual-character format by having Margaret and Maggie represent the ego versus id conflict of the other character in the play.

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Feminism
The theme of feminism is addressed in an inadvertent way in Overtones. While the two characters do not directly discuss the suppression of women or their lack of opportunity, these concepts are made apparent by viewing the situations in which they are trapped. Both Margaret and Harriet owe their discontent and sad situation to their total dependence on what their husbands can provide. They both have relied on their respective men to provide a wonderful life for them, and now, since their lives (and husbands) have not turned out as they had hoped, the two women are trapped. Neither woman has the resource to stand on her own or to improve her situation. Instead each sees only one possibility: link up with a better man who might provide a better life. Harriet wants John because Charles cannot give her adequate love. Margaret wants Harriet’s money and influence because John cannot adequately provide for her. The possibility of being proactive in improving their current relationship never occurs to either. This is, of course, in keeping with the times in which Overtones was written. During this period, women were expected to remain at home and to obey their husbands. Most women had little social power or influence within society. Like Harriet and Margaret, their choices were extremely limited.

Jealousy
The theme of jealousy is pervasive in Overtones. Each character wants what the other has and is willing to go to great lengths to get it. Because we can hear the characters’ inner thoughts through the dialogue of Maggie and Hetty, Gerstenberg can make the deep-seated jealousy very clear. At the end of the play when Hetty threatens, ‘‘I’m going to take him away from you,’’ and Maggie counters with, ‘‘I want your money—and your influence,’’ there is no question as to just how envious and desperate these two women are of each other. Margaret’s jealousy is even visually symbolized in her costume. As Gerstenberg states in the opening stage directions, ‘‘Harriet’s gown is a light, ‘jealous’ green.’’

Victorianism
Strictly speaking, the Victorian era corresponds to the reign of Queen Victoria of England from 1819 to 1901, and Victorianism is a term used to describe the social mores and customs that became prevalent during Victoria’s reign. Although her reign ended more than a decade before Overtones appeared, many of the trappings of Victorianism were still present in the United States at the time of Gerstenberg’s writing. The Victorian household was ruled by the husband. The husband was the ‘‘breadwinner,’’ and the wife was expected to stay home and raise the children. Instruction in proper behavior and in the manners of society was considered extremely important. People were expected to follow the rules of decorum at all times and any display of unbridled emotion was scorned. The custom of having afternoon tea became popular during the Victorian era. Victorianism is also sometimes associated with haughtiness and arrogance. Overtones exhibits a strong sense of Victorianism in the way Margaret and Harriet interact while at tea. Although their emotions are raging inside, they make sure to eat daintily and properly, and try desperately not to let their true emotions show.

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