Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

As one of Jean Anouilh’s “black plays,” Restless Heart pessimistically presents several of his key themes: the struggle to preserve a sense of personal purity in a degrading world, the rejection of material happiness, the conflict between idealism and compromise, the influence of one’s past and family background, the complexity of parent-child relationships, and the unbridgeable gap between the rich and the poor. Thérèse’s search for happiness through love is problematic, because the ideal can never be realized, and finally she refuses to compromise. To accept the happiness offered by Florent, she would have to deny her past and see the world through the eyes of the rich. When she attempts to do so, she speaks of taming the black horse within; the result is the almost trancelike state she enters while her wedding gown is being fitted. She dreams not of the kindness of Florent but of a hard and cruel redeemer who would have had similar experiences and thus be able to understand her completely. She yearns to find “a white clearing at the farthest end of despair where one is almost happy.”

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These themes are dramatized onstage through the conflicts generated by three types of characters: what Anouilh terms the mediocre race, the compromisers, and the heroes. In Restless Heart, Monsieur Tarde typifies the mediocre race. Reduced by his hard life to a caricature of a parent, he is pathologically obsessed with money, viewing everything around him, including his daughter, in terms of the cost. He is both comic and cruel, humorous and heartless. His orchestra players are like so many chorus voices, living reminders of the ever-present mediocre reality from which the heroes are trying to break free.

The compromisers are clear-sighted and sensitive enough to understand both the sordid conditions of the poor and the mediocre and the plight of the heroes. Hartmann is a compromiser; he might have been a hero, but he likes the soft life that Florent offers. So he is the philosopher-friend, who maintains an ironic attitude about his own choices in life; some critics suggest that he is the voice of Anouilh.

For Anouilh, only the poor can produce heroes, who seek answers to metaphysical questions concerning the nature of happiness and who rebel against the society around them. Thérèse, in spite of the downward pull of her environment, has preserved deep inside a pure, clear spirit that remains untarnished. However, she can never succeed in her quest for happiness, for a soul mate. When she leaves the warmth and protection of Florent’s home, she must fend for herself in a world that is cold and hostile.

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