Themes and Meanings
“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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,354 words.)