Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

“This place stinks,” says Jo to Geof in act 2. “That river, it’s the colour of lead. Look at the washing, it’s dirty, and look at those filthy children.” Such imagery not only sets the mood, but also keeps the audience aware of the squalor surrounding the flat. The play protests against poverty, poor housing and minimal schooling opportunities. Jo feels let down, for example, by having to attend too many different schools because her mother is always on the move. The play also illustrates the gap between the magic of people’s dreams and the grim reality of their daily lives. Beneath the sharp give-and-take of the comic repartee is a wistful yearning for the possibility of more honest relationships between people, for more affection in a world where most things, including love, are (as in Helen’s world) for sale.

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At a more personal—and more powerful—level the play is a study of a girl on the threshold of adulthood, wanting to be grown up, yet dreading the responsibilities of maturity (including motherhood). In her quest for a warm relationship she comes upon three types of love: sexual and romantic love with The Boy, brotherly and sisterly love with Geof, and the maternal love which she longs for but never gets from her mother, and which she finds difficult to summon up for the child within her.

Jo has few illusions about The Boy. She understands him in terms of her own fantasy world, endowing him with a mystical nature and a romantic name, “Prince Ossini,” that typify a young girl’s novelettish notion of romance. In the final scene, when she is forced to shed many of her dreams, she refers to him quite casually as “Jimmie.”

Both the men in her life are outsiders—The Boy, because he is black, and Geof, because he is a homosexual (although this is implicit rather than explicit). The “taste of honey” which she experiences in her brief happiness with Geof can be understood to represent the short period of freedom between school and marriage that is typical for a working-class woman.

Jo is startlingly—and comically—honest about herself and her times. She calls Geof “an Edwardian,” but claims herself to be a “contemporary.” “I really am, aren’t I?” she says, “I really do live at the same time as myself.” Jo, The Boy and Geof are expressions of the “contemporary” mood of the late 1950’s for freedom and toleration, heralding the permissiveness to come in the 1960’s. Peter and Helen, with their coarse attitudes toward homosexuality and ethnic variation, embody the prejudice and materialism against which the younger generation was beginning to protest.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906

Alienation and Loneliness
Jo has essentially been abandoned by her mother. This has been a life-long pattern, but it becomes overwhelming when Helen moves her daughter to a new flat just before Christmas and then leaves almost immediately with her boyfriend. Jo’s loneliness directly leads to her pregnancy. When her mother, Helen, leaves with Peter, Jo dissolves into tears. The young black man, who professes to love her, appears, and Jo invites him to stay with her for the Christmas holidays. In the previous scene, Jo is resistant to any intimacy with this young man, who is leaving for a six-month tour at sea with the navy. But when he appears later at her flat, Jo is so overwhelmed with loneliness that she throws away her future plans for work, right along with her inhibitions.

Duty and Responsibility
Helen has a duty to care for her daughter, but she assumes no responsibility for her actions nor does she assume the mother’s role. Helen is ready to run off with a man, quite literally, at a moment’s notice. She never considers what will happen to her child. And it becomes clear as the play progresses that this has been a frequent occurrence in Jo’s life. Helen has never considered her daughter’s feelings or assumed any responsibility for her care. Jo is expected to care for herself, and apparently she has done so for some time before the play opens. Helen thinks so little of her child that she never even tells the men with whom she is involved that she has a daughter. This means that Jo has no model for motherhood on which to base her own behavior. This is an issue of the last act when Jo struggles with her impending motherhood and her ambivalence over having a child of her own. There is ample evidence that, with her child, Jo will repeat the cycle of neglect that Helen started.

Friendship
Geof proves his worth as a friend through the efforts he makes to care for Jo. As her only friend, he moves in when she most needs help. Because she does not want anyone to see her, Jo cannot work, and thus, she has no funds with which to pay for rent and food. Geof needs a place to stay, having been evicted because he is homosexual, and Jo offers him her living room couch as a bed. Geof becomes Jo’s only friend. He pays the rent and buys and prepares the food. His friendship extends to an attempted reunion between Jo and her mother—though Geof fails to realize the extent of Helen’s selfishness. He is the only person who unconditionally loves Jo. Geof offers her loyal, generous friendship, something she has never known and is not quite sure how to accept.

Mother and Daughter Relationship
A central theme in this play is the nature of mother/daughter love. In the case of Helen and Jo, there seems to be no real parent/child relationship in the traditional sense. Helen does not act like a mother, nurturing and caring for her child. Jo does not act like a child, respecting and obeying her parent. In fact, Jo does not address Helen as ‘‘mother,’’ preferring to call her by her given name. Jo addresses her mother as ‘‘Helen’’ as a form of disrespect.

For her part, Helen has often hid the fact that she even has has a daughter, perhaps in the hopes of creating an illusion of youth for herself. Jo is abandoned by her mother whenever a better opportunity— usually a man with money—comes along. It is clear from her behavior that Jo desperately needs a mother. In the terms of a nurturing parent, Geof is the closest thing Jo has.

Pride
Jo has so much pride that she will not leave her flat once her pregnancy becomes evident. She certainly must be aware that she is the object of neighborhood gossip, but Jo refuses to face or acknowledge this negative attention. Staying a prisoner in her flat means that she cannot work, and so, she has no way to earn money and support herself. Pride is also an element of Helen’s character: she is willing to push her illegitimate grandchild in a pram down neighborhood streets but when she discovers that the child is black, has too much pride to be seen with this particular child. Jo’s pregnancy by a black man is not really a racial issue, rather it is a class issue. Jo and Helen may be poor, working class people, but Helen considers the black father to be from a class below their working class status. As such, Helen rejects Jo’s unborn child, even offering to drown it or give it away, rather than be seen with it. Helen’s misplaced pride permitted her to remain in a relationship with a man who mocked, humiliated, and eventually threw her out of his home, but this same pride causes her to reject her own grandchild, who is not deemed suitable.

The kind of pride exhibited in A Taste of Honey is not the positive kind that enables a character to rise above adversity. Rather, the misplaced dignity that Jo and Helen exhibit serves to chain them to their cycle of misery. They are too blinded by their skewed standards to break free of the confines of their existence.

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