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....

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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.

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.

Themes

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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 evaluate whether Americans should aspire to be like Mr. Kirby. His achievement is contrasted with Grandpa Vanderhof's version of the American Dream, earning just enough money so that one can survive and do exactly what one wishes. Mr. Kirby may initially think Grandpa's ideas are "un-American," but the Vanderhof's infectious happiness and love for one another encourages the audience to revise their definition of the American Dream to include attainment of both material success and personal fulfillment.

Success and Failure
Throughout the play, the Vanderhof-Sycamore way of life calls into question conventional definitions of success and failure. Although Essie and Penny might be called "failures" because they lack talent in dancing and painting/playwriting respectively, the play depicts them as successful because each clearly finds joy in what she does. Tony Kirby initially thinks that in order to be "successful," he must forget about the dreams he had in college and accept his position as a Vice President at Kirby & Co. But his contact with Alice's family convinces him that it is a mistake to give up one's dreams, as his father did when he was a young man. In the world of the play, failure to follow one's dreams and desires is the only genuine failure. The audience is encouraged to re-define "success" in terms of happiness rather than in terms of just money and status.

Individualism
The positive portrayal of eccentric and singular behavior in You Can't Take It with You also reflects the American belief in individualism. Many works in American literature celebrate individuals who rebel against the restraining conventions of society at large. All the Vanderhof-Sycamores could be classified as "rugged individualists" who follow the dictates of their own hearts and disregard those in the majority who disapprove.

Difference
The Vanderhof-Sycamores not only stand apart as "different" from the conventional world around them, but they also are willing to accept others who are different. Their openness is reflected—through humorous exaggeration—in the way that they allow anyone to move into their house or sit down at their dinner table. And although the play's ethnic characters are depicted in a stereotypical manner which might offend late-twentieth-century sensibilities, the acceptance of African-American and Russian characters as part of the family was seen as quite liberal and open to the value systems of most 1930s audiences. The play's happy ending also reveals that differences may only be superficial, since Mr. Kirby, who once had dreams of being a trapeze-artist, may be more like Grandpa than anyone suspected.

Culture Clash
Much of the humor in You Can't Take It with You derives from the clash between the lifestyles of the two families. The Kirbys might be seen to reflect mainstream upper-middle-class American culture, while the Vanderhof-Sycamores resist the conventions of that same culture, making up their own rules. While themes of culture clash can often be used to show how divergent groups can come to understand each other, this is a secondary concern in Kaufman and Hart's play. The primary purpose of introducing a straight-laced family such as the Kirbys into the wacky world of the Vanderhof-Sycamores is to watch the sparks fly. The first act clearly establishes the goofy nature of the family and raises audience expectation as interaction with citizens of the "real world" approaches. Laughs are generated from both the eccentric behavior of Grandpa Vanderhof and his family and the shocked reactions the Kirbys have to this oddball group.

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