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Mother Courage and Her Children (lit essay)

Posted on April 10, 2011 at 12:50 AM

The early decades of the twentieth century were marked by significant challenges to, and anxiety about, traditional definitions of gender, which were reflected in the literature and art of the time. This essay will discuss the treatment of gender in Mother Courage and Her Children (Brecht 1939). It will focus of the portrayal of femininity in the play; examining character development and attitudes towards gender within the setting of play and when it was composed.

Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years War in 17th century Europe. It follows a canteen woman named Mother Courage, who makes a living off trading with the soldiers from the war. Her three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese (whom she is very protective of), are killed one by one in her attempts to profit from the war (Mews). Each of her children is ascribed with some virtue – Eilif is brave; Kattrin is kind; and Swiss Cheese is honest. And the mother herself is given the title of “courage”. Unfortunately each of these virtues brings great tragedy on its bearer. Perhaps the play is arguing that in times of war and desperation, acts of morality are punished. Or perhaps these titles are meant to be subjective or even ironic. Eilif’s acts of bravery include the slaughtering of villagers; one side’s war hero might be another side’s war criminal. Likewise, Mother Courage herself, is at times quite ruthless and conniving, and could be seen as seeking fortune in the misery of others (Mews). Most of the characters in the play have no vested interest in the greater good. They are just trying to survive. And when a character makes some effort to protect others, like when Kattrin warns the townsfolk of an attack, they are punished for it.

Mother Courage is quite a tragic character. She loves her children, but thrusts them in harms way through her business ventures. She is a strong female character, in that she refuses to depend on men for survival (Horwich). She is intelligent and strong, but lacks the archetypal trait of maternity. Her daughter Kattrin, plays a kindler, gentler role; in stark contrast to her mother’s “coldhearted business sense” (Matik). Courage’s “war spoils consist of what she can scavenge”, while Kattrin’s are the children she can save (Matik). While Kattrin is mute for most of the play, she is able to save the children of Halle from imminent attack. Kattrin succeeded where her mother could not, in protecting her children. Brecht argued that “sometimes silence is the loudest force”, as evidenced by the Kattrin’s sacrifice at the climax of the play (Wright). Since death is a natural part of wartime, perhaps the Bretch is commenting on how it’s more important to die for something noble. Eilif is killed in retribution for murdering villagers, while Kattrin is killed for saving them. Kattrin’s sacrifice might also be an allegory for Christ’s own death on the cross, absorbing the sins of humanity. Centuries later, in bitter irony, humanity continues to commit acts of brutality and butchery against one another in his name (Catholics vs Protestants). Even though Mother Courage is given the name of mother, it is really Kattrin who espouses the virtues of this feminine role (Wright).

The other gender archetype the play depicts is of the female as an object of sexual desire. The character Yvette plays the part of camp prostitute, and represents “femininity and feminine eroticism” (Matik). She is also quite a tragic character, having been betrayed by her lover years earlier, she sells her body as a means of survival, and because prostitution is the “only way love remains available to her in wartime” (Matik). Like Mother Courage, she not dependant on men, but exploits their lust (as they exploit her) for financial gain. Yvette’s sexual promiscuity mirrors Kattrin’s own “awaking (and repressed) sexual desires” (Matik). The danger of being raped or forced into prostitution is a constant threat the war poses to Kattrin. She is therefore forced to “lay low” until peacetime, before she can consider marriage. Privately, however, Kattrin “plays the whore” when she tries on Yvette’s fetishistic red shoes, in a bid for sexual recognition. The disfigurement she receives during the war will “ultimately make her marriage impossible” (Matik), and so she focuses her affection on children. Kattrin, therefore represents the bridge between the two female archetypes in the play – maternal and erotic.

Categories: ESSAYS, Cinema

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