Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
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Josephine (Jo), who is about sixteen, in high school but preparing to drop out. She is attractive but without the instinctive sexuality of her mother, with whom she lives in squalor in the tenement slums of Manchester, England. The illegitimate daughter of (according to her mother) a retarded man, Jo is self-contained and more mature than her years, with an acerbic wit that more than matches her mother’s hardness, and with some signs of artistic talent. Unable to concentrate on her possibilities because of the transient nature of her upbringing, she tries to avoid succumbing to her mother’s lifestyle. She seeks affection in a brief affair with a black sailor, who leaves her pregnant. Fearing that her own father’s idiocy will be passed on to the child, she lives through her pregnancy dreading motherhood, cared for only by a homosexual friend.
Helen, Josephine’s mother, in her mid-to late thirties but looking younger. She is a “semi-whore”; she enters into relationships with the shared understanding that her needs and wants will be met. She is harsh, independent, and bruised by life’s experiences but capable of sustaining herself; she is also a constant and serious drinker. She lives off a series of male friends, moving from place to place to flee more complex relationships, dragging Jo with her from slum to slum. Her motherly instincts are confined to unemotional retreats from real contact, coupled with loud, sarcastic, scourging reprimands laced with indifference and self-indulgence, only occasionally alleviated by real but inarticulate concern. In her mind, there are no moral reservations about her way of life; it is a matter of survival. At her first opportunity, she marries a fairly affluent car salesman, leaving her daughter behind to fend for herself, as she has had to do. Only after he throws her out does she return to help her daughter give birth.
Peter Smith, a successful car salesman, a heavy drinker who is younger than Helen, his lover. When he makes his offer of marriage to her, it is with the understanding that she will desert her daughter, a source of shame to him. He is flippant and disdainful when drunk, wearing a patch over one eye; he becomes vicious and dangerous when approaching sobriety, a state that he never reaches. In his hatred for Jo, which stems partly from repressed sexual attraction to her and partly from jealousy of the mother-daughter bond, he twice forces Helen to choose him over her daughter.
The Boy, “a colored naval rating,” Jo’s boyfriend, who calls himself “the lascivious Moor.” He is young, handsome, romantic, and caring. He has a poetic nature and an unrealistic impression of their chances. On leave at Christmas, he courts Jo by carrying her books from school, offering her a Woolworth engagement ring, kissing her hand, quoting Shakespeare, and reciting nursery rhymes. He gives her the attention her mother never did. He dances with her, sings to her, and leaves her pregnant after the Christmas fair.
Geoffrey Ingram, a young, effeminate boy whom Jo, several months pregnant, picks up and brings home, calling him “a big sister.” He is sensitive and loving without making any sexual demands. He is organized and a calming influence on Jo. He moves in and stays with her for the final months of her pregnancy, cooking, cleaning, and preparing to assist in the delivery itself. His attachment to Jo leads him to propose marriage. He leaves reluctantly when Helen returns for the actual birth, not because he is offended by her insults but because Jo, repeating the patterns of her mother, insulates herself against all men and lets him go.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642
The Boy is a black sailor who appears briefly, professing love for Jo. He asks her to marry him and gives her a ring. They spend a week together during Christmas, but then he leaves for a six month tour at sea. The Boy never reappears in Jo’s life and does not know that she is carrying his child.
Helen is described as a semi-whore who drinks too much. As the play opens, she has a cold and has moved herself and daughter into a chilly, squalid flat. Helen is young, barely forty. She has been married and divorced, but her daughter, Jo, is the result of a brief affair with another man. Helen has been involved with many men, and she has not been any kind of real mother to Jo, who appears to desperately need maternal guidance. Helen thinks first and foremost of her own pleasure. She chooses to marry Peter, perhaps because she loves him, but also because he has money to keep her. When Peter finally throws Helen out for a younger woman, she goes back to Jo, suddenly remembering that Jo is her daughter. Jo accuses Helen of never really being a mother to her. And, indeed, it appears that Helen is incapable of thinking of anything except her own needs.
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Geof is a homosexual art student and friend of Jo’s. His landlady has thrown him out on the street, and he begins to care for Jo, sleeping on her couch. Geof genuinely loves Jo. He is perhaps the only person who completely loves and cares for her. Geof tolerates Jo’s emotional outbursts and even tries to reunite her with her mother, but he discovers that Helen is too self-centered to ever love anyone but herself. Geof also offers Jo financial support, paying the rent, buying food, and performing domestic tasks like cleaning and cooking. Although Helen turns up repeatedly, whenever she happens to remember that she has a daughter or needs a place to go, it is Geof who is the steadying influence in Jo’s life.
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Jo is Helen’s daughter. She never knew her real father, but she does know that Helen’s husband divorced her after she became pregnant with another man’s child. Jo has many questions about her real father, but she is upset to learn that he was probably mentally deficient, an ‘‘idiot,’’ according to Helen. Jo is in love with a young black sailor. He arrives to comfort her after Helen leaves to marry Peter. The two spend a few brief days together, and after he has left for a six month tour at sea, Jo discovers that she is pregnant.
Jo has never experienced the love of a mother. She has been repeatedly abandoned by Helen, who did not want a child and has never assumed any responsibility or care for Jo. Jo is not at all sure that she wants the child she is expecting, nor is she sure what she will do with it when it appears. However, by the end of the play, it appears that Jo has rejected her mother’s life for the stability that her friendship with Geof offers.
Peter is about ten years younger than Helen. He fancies himself quite a lady’s man, carrying photos of many old girlfriends in his wallet. He drinks too much, as does Helen. Peter is as self-centered as Helen, first begging her to marry him and then chasing other women. Peter is cruel and rude, caring little for anyone’s feeling. He treats Jo, the daughter of the woman he professes to love, as a troublesome irritation to be gotten rid of. When Peter throws Helen out, it comes as no surprise to anyone involved.