Tobacco Road Themes
by Jack Kirkland

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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Tobacco Road is a play with a number of intertwining themes. The most significant one concerns a family’s relationship to the land. Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s novel makes it clear that there are basically two types of people in the characters’ world—those who stay on the land and those who leave it. Jeeter and Ada have stayed; almost all of their children have left.

Tied directly to this theme is the obsession with the soil and humankind’s struggle for the land. Jeeter talks incessantly about the smell of the earth, the joy of planting new crops, and the smoky scent when the broom sedge is burned off. He will do anything to save his land. In fact, the play closes on the powerful image of the defeated farmer sifting the soon-to-be-lost soil through his fingers.

Kirkland also stresses the basic animalism that drives people, particularly the desire for food and sex. Jeeter boasts of the many legitimate and illegitimate children he has sired. Lov lusts after his child-wife Pearl, Ellie May desires Lov, and Bessie wants to bed the adolescent Dude. Even the haggard Ada had a romantic fling with a passing stranger, a liaison which produced Pearl. People must also eat in order to survive. The Lesters are on the verge of starvation. Jeeter sold his twelve-year-old daughter Pearl to Lov for only seven dollars. He steals Lov’s sack of turnips in act 1 and food from a neighbor’s home in act 2. Jeeter exhibits no sorrow for Grandma Lester’s passing and only sees one less mouth to feed.

The need for love in this world becomes apparent. The characters in Tobacco Road show no affection for one another. The three marriages depicted are totally loveless and serve the selfish needs of only one spouse. Jeeter and Ada show no tenderness toward each other, Pearl is revulsed by Lov, and Bessie lusts after the ignorant Dude....

(The entire section is 492 words.)