Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

You Can’t Take It with You is a situational farce that reflects its time. It presents a reaction to the struggles that filled the minds of Americans during the Great Depression. The title indicates one theme of the play: Accumulation of wealth is useless when it goes beyond immediate happiness. Whatever one accumulates cannot be taken beyond the grave. If gaining wealth (or achieving other success) is done for others, then it does not bring happiness. Rather, the good life consists in doing what one wants to do instead of what is considered normal or reasonable. After this premise is accepted, the actions become logical extensions of the characters.

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The skimpy plot revolves around the love relationship between Alice and Tony, but the household revolves around Grandpa. Grandpa is the center of the thematic development of acting to give oneself happiness. Grandpa and his followers seek personal fulfillment, even when their desires lead to activity that most consider meaningless. Grandpa himself collects snakes and attends commencement exercises. Thirty-five years before the time of the play, he had decided to leave his job on the spur of the moment. He rejects the joyless pursuit of money and power. Penny writes plays and attempts to sculpt Mr. De Pinna as a Greek discus thrower. Essie dances and makes candy; at least the candy making shows some profit. Ed prints things that sound good and plays the xylophone. Paul Sycamore makes fireworks and generally accepts anyone for what he or she is. Mr. De Pinna formerly delivered ice and now helps make fireworks, from which there is an occasional profit. Kolenkhov ostensibly visits to teach Essie ballet but really comes to get a good meal and sometimes to exercise his wrestling skills. By the end of the play, Mr. Kirby joins the free spirits for dinner. The film version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938, emphasizes the conversion of Mr. Kirby, by having him play a harmonica duet with Grandpa. Only Mrs. Kirby has not escaped the bonds of success.

The conventional love story centers on Alice and Tony, who accepts the eccentricities of her family. Some have found the love interest the only portion of the play that is dull and essentially humorless, while others, including Hollywood, have found it the part that ensures the play’s being a comedy. Tony, the son of a wealthy family, falls in love with his typist, the daughter of the Sycamore family of inspired bedlam. The only way that boy can keep girl in this play is for him to convince her that his father accepts the premises of her family. Since what Alice really wants is to marry Tony, the idea of the upcoming marriage fulfills Grandpa’s philosophy of acting to enjoy oneself. Tony and Alice are set for their version of the good life. The play becomes farce with some slight purpose, but its major meaning is sheer entertainment. With the multiple action taking place, the play presents laughs and escape throughout.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691

You Can't Take It with You contrasts the eccentric family of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof with the conservative Kirby family. Vanderhof's granddaughter Alice becomes engaged to her boss's son Tony Kirby. Although a dinner party meant to bring the two families together ends with an explosion and a night in jail, by the play's end both Tony and his father have come to appreciate Grandpa's carefree philosophy. All obstacles to the young couple's happiness are eliminated.

American Dream
The two families in You Can't Take It with You each represent different definitions (perceptions) of the American Dream. Mr. Kirby has attained financial success and a position of social and economic power. The play, however, asks its viewers to...

(The entire section contains 1195 words.)

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  • Summary
  • Act Summaries
  • Themes
  • Critical Essays
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
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