Watch on the Rhine

by Lillian Hellman

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Themes and Meanings

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Watch on the Rhine has as its central theme anti-Fascism, which was one of the fundamental issues of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Perhaps no group of Americans of the period was more concerned with European political and social events than were members of the artistic community. Lillian Hellman was among those who sought to use her art as a means to alter the attitudes of play-going Americans, many of whom were untouched by the war in Europe. Her purpose, as she described it in her autobiographical work, Pentimento (1973), was “to write a play about nice, liberal Americans whose lives would be shaken up by Europeans, by a world the new Fascists had won because the old values had long been dead.” In her play, the anti-Fascist refugee, Kurt Muller, kills the immoral European aristocrat, Teck de Brancovis, and in so doing helps to awaken the American conscience to the real and present danger of world tyranny.

Beneath the surface, a lesser theme of the play highlights Hellman’s concern with the inequalities of wealth and poverty. She further sees differences between the customs and values of Americans of money and privilege and those of Europeans—on the one hand, there are members of the aristocracy and, on the other, there are the educated Europeans, dedicated to the cause of freedom, regardless of the cost. Fanny Farrelly, whose position of wealth is secure, is surrounded by servants who are among her best friends. The French housekeeper and the black butler are accustomed to her style and are not daunted by her occasional attempted insults. There is humor in their exchanges, and an outsider might even envy their easy relationships. One is certain that the Romanian count, however, would not have been on such familiar terms with servants, had he been in a financial position which allowed him to maintain his own household. He, unlike Fanny, has no sense of humor. Life is a serious and treacherous business for him, because he has no means of his own and finds it expedient to live at the expense of others, using bribery or blackmail if necessary. By contrast, Kurt Muller and his family are poor but dedicated, and they exhibit among them the kind of love and warmth which does not exist between Teck and Marthe de Brancovis and which is not easily shown by Fanny for her family.


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One of the dominant themes in Watch on the Rhine is heroism exhibited in a dangerous situation. All of the characters in the play, except the villain Teck, display varying degrees of heroism as they face difficult decisions. The most clearly defined hero is Kurt, who has suffered bullet wounds and broken bones at the hands of the fascists, yet who refuses to give up the fight to overthrow them. When he realizes that he must go back to Germany to free his comrades, he is afraid he will be captured, tortured, and most likely killed, but his fears never deter his devotion to his cause or his decision to leave. Sara and the children also show their heroic nature when they must endure separation from the husband and father they dearly love, and give Kurt their unconditional support.

Fanny and David find themselves acting heroically at the end of the play, which surprises them a bit. After the initial shock at Kurt’s murder of Teck, they risk getting in trouble with the authorities, and possibly the fascists who are searching for Kurt, because they too have come to believe in Kurt’s cause. They agree to help cover his tracks and give...

(This entire section contains 624 words.)

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him money to free his comrades.

While not called on to act heroically, Marthe does display courage, especially given the fact, as she admits, that she has been ‘‘frightened’’ all of her life. She stands up to Teck, seemingly for the first time, demanding that he leave Kurt alone. Later in the play, she finds the courage to leave Teck, who has dominated her life since she was a teenager.

Duty and Responsibility
The courageous actions of several of the characters in the play stem from their devotion to duty and responsibility. Kurt feels that he has a duty to his countrymen, whom he has seen murdered by the Nazis, and to all who suffer under fascism. When Fanny implores him to let someone else take the dangerous responsibility of carrying on the fight, someone without a family, he tells her that anyone could find a reason not to commit oneself to the cause. He decided long ago that he could not ‘‘stay by now and watch’’ the fascists destroy others’ lives. Sara and the children are devoted to the cause and especially to supporting Kurt, even to the point where they participate in covering up Teck’s murder. David and Fanny display a sense of duty and responsibility to Sara and her family when they take them in, help Kurt escape, and determine that they will face the consequences of their actions.

The theme of ignorance takes the form of naïveté as Fanny gradually learns what it is like outside of her sheltered walls. After Fanny is shocked listening to the details of the hardships Sara and her family have endured, Joshua notes her naïveté when he tells her that she ‘‘has not seen much of the world.’’ She admits this fact when, by the end of the play she has learned of the harsh reality of the outside world and acknowledges to David, ‘‘we are shaken out of the magnolias, eh?’’

Fanny’s ignorance can be seen as a metaphor for the ignorance of most Americans in the late 1930s who did not want to get involved in what they considered to be a European conflict. Americans knew of the Nazi threat but could never imagine it would touch their lives in any way. Through Hellman’s creative crafting of the play’s themes, she warns that all people have the potential of being affected by the menace of fascism and that a continued avoidance of the facts could help enable those in power.