Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

At the close of Top Girls one must ask, “Success at what price?” The women in the play have achieved their positions after making irreversible sacrifices. They have cut themselves off from normal relationships with men, women, and children. Knowingly, they have also made choices that require suppression of common human impulses: the desire for intimacy, a trust in family ties, and a concern for others. Moreover, many of them have denied themselves the chance to occupy their own gender: the opportunity to give succor to children, to form real adult friendships with other women, to take pride in presenting themselves as women.

Corrupting the “Top Girls” is their judgment that they must “pass as a man” to be successful. They believe that they must outplay men at their own game. Advancement depends on being more calloused, more manipulative, more dishonest than their male counterparts. Lady Nijo emulates the emperor by taking a lover of her own. Besting her competitor, Marlene outmaneuvers Howard Kidd for a promotion. As one of her colleagues puts it, “Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that.” Howard commits suicide in despair.

So antiheroic are Caryl Churchill’s characters that critics such as Walter Kerr have created a stir among feminists by asking why she is not more sympathetic to women. Such critics miss the point that these women are subject to the realities of the workplace as soon as they vie for position and affluence. Like any hard-bitten businessman, the career women may be destroyed by personal and economic betrayal. The real villain of the play is not the cold-blooded woman but the bourgeois feminist enterprise, which falsely accepts the notion of competition. These women mistakenly believe that the only viable standard for success is the bourgeois concept of glamour, which is linked to power and wealth. This is especially true of the women in the employment agency, who value shiny Porsches, weekends in luxurious surroundings, and the ability to make more money than they need. Pressured by economic concerns, they become vicious in the marketplace as they turn human beings into capitalist tools and objects for disposal when consumed. It is through economic rivalry that Churchill links her feminist and socialist concerns.

Tradition also conditions the lives of these women, who fly in the face of convention and pay for it. Represented here are women of all ages who break the traditional boundaries set for them. Unflinchingly, they take full responsibility for their decisions to do so. Yet the burden of time’s unwritten laws weighs on them. The most visible effects are the predictable reactions of the men around them, who are threatened by female aggression and innovation. Howard is more humiliated by the prospect of Marlene as his supervisor than he is by the loss of income. Ironically, his wife supports his conventional attitude: “What’s it going to do to him working for a woman? I think if it was a man he’d get over it as something normal.” Marlene fails to argue convincingly that she is not “one of these ballbreakers” but a fair-minded office manager who will treat Howard like any other employee. Marlene’s intentions are suspect, because there is little historical precedent for them and because she has learned not to allow sentiment to intrude on the marketplace.


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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

Choices and Consequences
Nearly every character in Top Girls has made or is in the process of making life-changing decisions with important consequences. The dinner party in act 1, scene 1 exemplifies this. Each of the historical figures has made a hard choice. For example, Pope Joan chose to live like a boy, and then a man, in public. When she became pregnant by her secret lover, the stoning death of her and her baby were consequences of her chosen life. Joyce chose to adopt Angie, which led to a certain life path. Joyce believes that she miscarried her own child because of the demands of raising Angie.

Marlene also made several hard choices. She became a career woman who spent some time working in the States. Marlene is estranged from her family, including her biological daughter, Angie, and does not seem to have many close friends, female or male. Her dinner party in celebration of her promotion consists of women who are dead or do not really exist, not with friends or family. She has no love relationship. Marlene is very much alone because of her life choices. While her daughter Angie has already made two life choices—dropping out of school at the age of sixteen with no qualifications, and running away to London to live with her aunt/mother—the consequences of these actions in her life are unclear.

Success and Failure
Success is an important part of Marlene's life in Top Girls, defining who she is and whose company she enjoys. The dinner party is meant to celebrate her promotion to managing director as well as the successes of her guests. Joan became the pope. Isabella traveled the world. Gret fought the devils in hell. Griselda survived her husband's extraordinary tests of loyalty. Marlene sees these women as successful, though they are not in her real, everyday life. Marlene's personal life is a failure because of her success in business. She has no real friends in the play, and she has not seen her sister or biological daughter in seven years. At the dinner party, she moans at one point, ‘‘Oh God, why are we all so miserable?''

Yet, Marlene believes that Joyce is mostly a failure because she did not grow beyond her neighborhood; instead, she got married and raised a child. Joyce cleans houses for a living, and she is not impressed by Marlene's life. Joyce does not really see her world in the same terms of success or failure. She does what is necessary to survive and to rear Angie. However, both sisters agree that Angie has no chance of being a success in life. Angie has no education, no ambition, and is regarded as dumb. The best she might do is menial work and marry. While this describes Joyce's life, both Joyce and Marlene perceive that Angie might not be able to take care of herself. This would be the ultimate failure in their eyes. They agree that one should support oneself.

Class Conflict
Marlene and Joyce's differing definitions of success stem in part from a class conflict. Marlene has moved beyond her working-class roots to a middle-class life by education and persistence. She holds a management position in a demanding field, an employment agency. She even lived and worked in the United States for several years. Marlene supports the political agenda of Great Britain's female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, even though she is perceived as anti-working class.

Joyce remains firmly working class, leading a life only slightly better than her parents. She works as a cleaning lady to support Angie. Unlike Joyce and Marlene's mother, who stayed with her alcoholic husband and had nothing, Joyce told her husband to leave when she could no longer take his controlling nature and numerous affairs. Joyce regards Thatcher as evil, comparing her to Adolf Hitler for her attitudes towards working-class people. Joyce believes that Marlene thinks she is too good for her. Marlene says she does not like working-class people, but she does not really include her sister as one of them. The pair never come to an understanding on class.

Sex Roles and Sexism
Throughout the text of Top Girls is an implicit discussion of what society expects women to be. Each of the guests at the dinner party defines womanhood in a particular era, either by what they are or by what they are not. Isabella, for example, could not live up to the standards of femininity defined by her sister, Hennie. Yet Isabella was a traveler who saw more of the world than most men. Marlene also breaks out of the traditional roles for women, by virtue of her career.

While Marlene has benefited economically from her career, her disregard for sex roles has its problems. She is not married, and it does not seem like she is in a long-term relationship. Joyce does not really like her. Mrs. Kidd, the wife of the man who was passed over for the promotion that Marlene got, begs her to not take it. Mrs. Kidd believes that the upset Howard should not have to work for a woman. Further, Mrs. Kidd hopes that Marlene will give up the promotion because Howard has to support his family. Mrs. Kidd calls Marlene "unnatural" for her uncompromising stand on the promotion and her attachment to her job. Marlene does not give in, but such sexism does not make her life and choices any easier.

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