Themes and Meanings

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

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.

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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.


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

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...

(The entire section contains 1341 words.)

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