The Subject Was Roses

by Frank D. Gilroy

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

The plot of The Subject Was Roses takes on different meanings depending on which character appears as the major focus. This deliberate ambiguity emerges as a central theme of the play, as the three balanced characters intertwine their conflicting concerns. Each character sees himself or herself as the main character in his or her own story, and the different perceptions that result lead to their failures to understand one another and to their estrangement.

For Timmy, the central concern is coming of age. He had been protected, even spoiled, as an only child; at eighteen, he had left home to go to war. While he had, by his own admission, no significant adventures in the army, his experience away from home made it impossible for him to reenter his parents’ life and meet their expectations. Timmy’s play is, like Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound (pr. 1986) and Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (pr. 1964), about the struggle for independence from his parents.

For Nettie, the central focus is loss: loss of her son and loss of her hopes for regaining John’s affection. All had seemed possible. Timmy had come home, and the roses had briefly rekindled her romantic feelings; then both were gone again, along with her expectations for a good life, the life she imagines had existed in her father’s house.

For John, the play is a story of frustration. His first frustration had occurred long ago: The stock market crash and his failure to go to South America kept him from making a fortune. Now his marriage is clearly failing, and he has no prospects for a better future. He is at once jealous of his son for his experiences and prospects and frustrated that Timmy is not going to be the person he had hoped.

With each of the three characters caught in a different view of reality, the family falls apart. Each blames the other two for all the family’s problems, much as the characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956) blame one another. Some learning occurs, as Timmy speaks of his love and John lets Timmy leave home. It is only the audience, however, that can view the three different realities of the three characters, recognize the hopelessness of their estrangement, and pity and forgive all three.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

Family Triangle Over the years, the emotional life of the Cleary family has formed itself into a triangle that functions only to frustrate and disappoint all three members. Love is thwarted or destroyed; good intentions go haywire. The underlying pattern that has created this is the fact that Nettie and Timmy have in the past sided with each other against John. Since love has not been freely exchanged between husband and wife, Nettie has transferred her love into an excessive attachment to her son. She confesses to Timmy late in the play that she was disappointed with John from the beginning; he was never going to make a good family man, although she did not know this when she married him. Left without a channel for her love to flow through, she poured it into their son. John contributed to the triangle by alienating his own son through his frequent absences and his propensity to quarrel with Nettie.

The family triangle is made apparent from the argument that Nettie and John have in the opening scene. It comes out that the previous evening, Nettie was overly concerned when Timmy was sick after drinking too much at the homecoming party, and she held his head. John comments icily,...

(This entire section contains 682 words.)

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‘‘No one held his head in the army.’’ As John observes, Nettie is jealous because at the party, father and son spent most of the time drinking and paid no attention to her or anyone else. John is resentful of Nettie’s jealousy and sarcastically remarks that she and Timmy will have a ‘‘charming little breakfast . . . together,’’ since he is going out. This shows that he knows very well that Timmy and Nettie form what he calls (according to Timmy later) ‘‘the alliance.’’ A few moments later, after Nettie requests money for new curtains for Timmy’s room because Timmy will want to bring friends home, John refers to the alliance as ‘‘the old squeeze play.’’

This has been the pattern that has operated throughout Timmy’s boyhood. But Timmy’s long absence and new maturity mean that he is no longer content to be under the thumb of his mother, always overindulged and he seems to be willing to develop a better relationship with his father. But Nettie is unwilling to let go. She cannot allow Timmy to grow up and be independent because that would be a threat to her happiness. It would leave her with no one to love and thrust her back into dependence on an unsatisfactory, claustrophobic marriage. The fact that the old pattern is no longer holding is shown in the first scene of the play when there is a dispute over whether Timmy will go with his father to the ball game or visit his disabled cousin, Willis, as Nettie desires. Nettie is used to having control over what Timmy does, and she does not like the fact that father and son are willing to spend time together that excludes her. But his mother’s refusal to acknowledge Timmy’s independence succeeds only in provoking Timmy and making the situation worse.

Timmy, who is good-natured and loves both his parents, does not know how to react to the tense situation. The strife between his parents has always upset him, although neither parent appears to realize this. Timmy is the only character in the play who grows. This can be seen in act 2, scene 1, in the dispute over going to mass. Nettie sides with Timmy and John says, ‘‘Now there’s a familiar alliance.’’ After John storms out in anger, Timmy shows an understanding of what his father means, and he tells Nettie that they must stop ganging up on John. Timmy is beginning to see the pattern that has dominated their lives, and he is trying to do something about it. For a while, he blames his mother instead of his father, but then he realizes that no one is really to blame. By the end of the play, he also realizes that the only positive step he can take to ease the situation is to leave home.