The Plough and the Stars

by Sean O'Casey

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Describe the relationship between Bessie and Nora in "The Plough and the Stars".

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Bessie Burgess, who lives alone, is a neighbor of Nora and Jack Clitheroe, a married couple in a tenement building. Bessie Burgess is a loud, hard-drinking, down-to-earth woman who seems to be involved in all the tenement’s goings-on. Nora, who is pregnant as the play begins, sees in her marital status and choice of husband a way to achieve a higher class status. While Jack is involved in Irish nationalist activism, neither woman is politically active. Bessie sees nationalism mostly as a lost cause and cynically sees the chaos of the Easter uprising as an opportunity for looting. Nora, while she worries for her husband’s safety, seems incapable of appreciating his reasons for challenging the status quo.

Nora’s desired upward mobility earns her few friends, as she has yet not managed to move out of the tenement. Bessie mocks her for having a lock put on her door and accuses her of suspecting her neighbors as thieves. Likewise, another neighbor, Mrs. Gogan, criticizes Nora’s excessive expenditures on clothes. Nora remains emotionally attached to her neighborhood to some degree, as she is kind to young Mollser Gogan, who has tuberculosis.

When Jack is killed during the uprising, Nora’s situation changes drastically; not only does she become mentally and emotionally unstable, but her pregnancy ends in a stillbirth. The characterization shifts at this point, as Bessie’s inner resources are revealed; she is not the egotistical alcoholic she seems. It is Bessie who hosts the wake after Mollser dies. It is Bessie who helps Nora through the deaths of her family. In fact, it is Bessie’s efforts to keep Nora safe by pulling her away from the window that cause her own death from a stray bullet. While Nora lives and Bessie dies, O’Casey makes both female characters symbols of the sacrifices the Irish women of his time were forced to make.

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The relationship between Nora Clitheroe and Bessie Burgess in Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars is complicated. They are neighbors and clearly have known each other for a long period of time, but do not appear to be on close terms. The women are never depicted as true friends, in fact there is much friction early on in the play, however they have a deep and lasting impact on each others' lives. 

Nora desires to be seen as an upright woman with a proper, respectable family and Bessie is the opposite - a brash woman prone to drinking. Early in the play, Bessie drunkenly chastises Nora about how she treats her neighbors in her attempts to be "proper" and is sent away from the house by Nora's husband. Later in the story however, when Nora's husband dies and her child is stillborn leaving her nearly insane with grief, Bessie takes care of her despite the fact that it results in many sleepless nights for Bessie. The relationship is further complicated by the fact that Nora is ultimately responsible for Bessie's death, albeit unintentionally.

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