Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

Talley’s Folly is a play about the primacy of human relationships and a celebration of romantic love. As Matt says at the opening, “This is a waltz, remember, one-two-three, one-two-three.” The audience is cast as willing participants, even advocates, in Matt’s ninety-seven-minute wooing of Sally Talley. When the two embrace at the end of the play, the audience realizes that, despite the fragile nature of communication, two people can find a way to form a lasting bond. One key to their union can be found in Sally’s family past. Her grandfather built the Victorian boathouse, the “folly” of the play’s title. The folly makes no money and does nothing to enhance the status of the Talley family, but the spirit of creativity and spontaneity celebrated by her grandfather’s folly casts its spell over the characters (and the audience as well) and sets the stage for Matt’s and Sally’s love.

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The play also incorporates themes about the triumph of individualism over the narrow codes of Old World cultures, and the coming to terms with the end of an era. Matt’s immigrant experience has been decidedly atypical. He experienced at firsthand the deadly consequences of European nationalism before World War I. His family’s death at the hands of the French and the Germans, who later were enemies in World War I, reflects the insanity of a world in which all nations share complicity for destroying innocent lives. But the brutal reality of his past has not destroyed Matt’s spirit. He is a survivor. He is an expert in the affairs of money, he has a playful spirit and loves the inventiveness and spontaneity of language (he loves to mimic Humphrey Bogart), and he is interested in the American landscape.

Sally is much more bound to her culture and to her place than the uprooted Matt has been. Her life had been predicated on serving the goals of the conservative, southern aristocratic culture until her illness took away her usefulness to her family. Matt’s love for her affords her an escape from the oppressive judgment of her family and the limited parameters of her life in a traditional male-dominated society.

It is fitting that Sally and Matt come together on July 4, Independence Day. Here are two unlikely patriots. Matt is a pacifist; Sally was fired from teaching Sunday school and believes in unions (not a popular idea in their company town). In other words, both are free thinkers, individuals, and have strong values about honesty, hard work, and the rights of other individuals. Wilson implies that both characters represent American values that should be celebrated on Independence Day.

The couple’s interaction occurs at a turning point for American culture. 1944 represents the end of an era (the New Deal and World War II) when Americans were accustomed to shortages, dislocation, and lowered expectations. The future holds economic expansion, adjustment to new values, changes in family relationships, new attitudes in the work place. Matt and Sally will participate in many of these changes, and they will have an opportunity to nurture their own relationship free of the constraints and limitations of the old order.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144

Prejudice and Tolerance
One of the hurdles Sally and Matt have to overcome if they are to be a couple is the intolerance of those around them. Sally, although she is white, Methodist, wealthy, and reasonably attractive, does not fit in with her family or community because she does not embrace the capitalism that has secured her family’s fortune. She has been fired as a Sunday school teacher for encouraging her students to think positively about labor unions. Perhaps most scandalous to her family, Sally is still unmarried at thirty-one, and...

(The entire section contains 1675 words.)

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  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
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