Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

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In Picnic, William Inge has chronicled the angst of those who cannot articulate their own desperation because it remains to them a nameless gnawing in the soul. Much has been made of the legacy of the Kansas small-town life that Inge knew intimately and its influence on his work. This legacy is portrayed in Picnic as a smallness of ambition and desire, a predicament that the landscape itself perhaps perpetuates with its brooding, thundering skies and stark plains. These physical surroundings become emblematic, especially of the abandoned or disadvantaged women that Inge captured so evocatively, and they—not Hal or Alan—are the real center of the play. While in some sense Hal is the fulcrum of the play’s thematic force, he is in the center only because Madge and Rosemary—and, in subtler ways, Mrs. Potts and Millie—inadvertently place him there by their own groping for identity and purpose.

For Madge, Hal is daring and adventure, in contrast with Alan’s predictable safety and structure; to succumb to Hal is to break out of the routine and escape the foreordained. In this preference she shares the same spirit her mother Flo had manifested earlier, and with probably the same eventual disappointment awaiting her. Madge is weary of being told that she is pretty, of being venerated for a physical appearance she had no choice in assuming. Alan’s infatuation with her beauty only reinforces her sense of longing for something or someone who will look past surface appearance and touch something unique within her. In Hal, she finds someone wild and unfettered; his overt masculinity and his animal-like appeal demand from her both pity and passion. What Alan cannot give her, she finds in—and returns to—Hal. Where Alan worships from afar, Hal indulges the flesh; he reigns as the epitome of manliness in a town beset by impotence and dry chastity.

Rosemary, ever the bridesmaid, finds in Hal a flickering reminder of her youth, a barren youth squandered in school teaching the children of others. When rebuffed by Hal, she inflicts on him the scorn she feels for herself and transfers her attention to the nice but ineffectual Howard. Her passion suffices for both, and after a night of promiscuity shocking for this small town, she bullies Howard into making her a “respectable” woman by marrying her. This theme of forced marriage is a familiar one to Inge’s protagonists, and here it serves to accentuate the emptiness and futility of finding romance and true love within such a stifling environment. Mrs. Potts, herself a witness to the boredom and sterility of her neighbors’ lives, openly endorses Madge’s flight with Hal. Only in Millie does Inge offer the possibility of breaking the chain of wasted or contrived lives exemplified by Flo and Alan Seymour. Millie, forlorn and insecure in her own femininity, vows never to marry; her vision is to move to New York to write books that will shock people out of their senses. The Midwest is thus seen as first nurturing and then binding those who are reared within its boundaries. To move eastward or westward, to move out of the midwestern “center,” is shown to be a man or woman’s only hope for individuality or the possibility of love.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

Beauty
Beauty is important to the play, as it is the initial quality by which both Madge and Hal are judged, the same quality that Millie and Rosemary desire. Madge is afraid that her beauty is all that she has, and her fear is affirmed by her mother, whose lectures on carpe diem, seizing the day, reinforce the idea that she will be worth nothing once her beauty has faded. That a rich man desires her—Alan states that he is so overwhelmed by her beauty that he can scarcely believe that she notices him—only serves to convince Madge that she has no other attributes or at least any that are equal to her looks. Hal's beauty has always offered him a means to survive. He has used his attractiveness to help him succeed with women, and it is their mutual good looks that first attract Madge and Hal to one another. In addition, Hal's appearance, along with his athletic prowess, has enabled people to overlook his social shortcomings. Millie is envious of her sister's beauty, but she also appears to realize that it is ultimately intellect, not superficial beauty, that will lead to success. Millie has set her sights on college and a career. For Rosemary, it is faded youth and beauty that are her greatest enemies. She is desperate to marry Howard before her last opportunity for marriage escapes.

Choices and Consequences
When Howard brings the bottle of whisky into the Owens' yard, he sets in motion a series of events that will change all the characters' lives. Rosemary's drinking loosens her inhibitions enough that when she is rejected by Hal, she responds with a vehement attack on his insecurities and his fears. Although Rosemary's sexual encounter with Howard occurs offstage, it is implied that the alcohol led to her willingness to have sex with him. Her insistence that Howard pay the consequence, marriage, is a product of a long-standing realization that he may be her last chance to marry. If she wants marriage, Rosemary has no choice but to convince Howard to marry her; she seizes on the opportunity to use their sexual encounter as leverage in coercing Howard into marriage.

The choice that Hal and Madge make to have sex will also have unanticipated consequences. Hal's friendship with Alan will be destroyed; Madge will choose to leave her home; and her mother's dreams of a better life (elevated status by marrying into Alan's wealthy family) will be lost.

Freedom
The train whistle in the background represents freedom to Madge—when she hears it, she yearns to be on that train, heading to a new, exciting future. The small town offers no new opportunities for her. Madge is the prettiest girl in town, but no one will give her the chance to be anything else. It is not clear if she can be more than a small-town beauty, but she wants to try. Hal, with his wanderings and exciting stories, represents freedom from such a repressive, small-town life. Although she is eighteen years old, Madge needs Hal to stimulate her escape into another world. If she does not take this step, Madge might end up like Mrs. Potts—tied to lost dreams and her elderly mother.

Love and Passion
When Madge and Hal first see one another, there is an instant attraction. This passion contrasts with Madge's relationship with Alan, which seems to consist of hesitant, passionless kisses. The quickly ignited fire between Madge and Hal leaves little doubt that their passion will be consummated. It is only when Hal is forced to leave, however, that Madge is able to admit that what she feels for him is love.

Loneliness
Loneliness is an important theme for several characters in Picnic. All of the women are lonely in one way or another. Mrs. Potts and Flo Owens are lonely and filled with regret at missed opportunities. Both are alone, but Mrs. Potts appears as an especially sad victim of her mother's interference. She is described as a sixty-year-old woman who was married only briefly before her mother had the marriage annulled. It's not clear what happened to Flo's husband, but her biggest concern is in protecting her daughters, for whom Flo has been both father and mother for ten years. Millie feels isolated by her lack of beauty and the image of an older sister, whose beauty she cannot match. However, Madge is isolated by the very beauty that too many people envy but are afraid to touch. And finally, Rosemary is lonely. Although she has friends with whom she can spend time, Rosemary is lonely for the companionship of marriage and love. Hal's arrival amidst this group of lonely women provides the center for the drama that occurs.

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