Inherit the Wind | Study Guide

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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Inherit the Wind | Themes


Importance of the Individual

One of the key conflicts in Inherit the Wind is that of the individual against society. In this case the individual is Bertram Cates (as well as his lawyer, Henry Drummond), and society is represented in microcosm by the town of Hillsboro. Through this conflict, Lawrence and Lee illustrate a key theme: the critical importance of the individual in shattering the complacent conformity of the masses. Cates's story shows that one person can have an impact on the larger community he or she is a part of, changing its attitudes and even the laws and mores by which it polices itself.

In Inherit the Wind, Cates and Drummond stand up to two powerful groups of people. The first are the provincial-minded citizens of Hillsboro who resist any type of progressive thinking, attack those who try to introduce new ideas, and show a deep mistrust of anyone who is not like them. The second group is the fundamentalist religious faction who believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God and condemn as heresy any ideas that contradict that belief. By teaching evolution in his classroom, Bertram Cates offends both factions. He is introducing a scientific theory that is utterly foreign and unwelcome in his community. By doing so he is also perceived as undercutting the religious beliefs of the Reverend Brown and his congregation. Through the agile arguments of Henry Drummond, though, the two men are able to slowly begin changing the dangerously entrenched attitudes of the town. Their victory paves the way for other progressive thinkers in towns and villages throughout the country.

Destructive Power of Pride

Through the character of Matthew Harrison Brady, Lawrence and Lee provide a tragic portrait of a man destroyed by excessive pride. Brady, who ran for the presidency three times and was once a folk hero in the nation's heartland, spent much of his adult life worshipped by a large and enthusiastic segment of the country's population. But as the years passed, Brady found his popularity slipping away. The ideals he championed had become less relevant, and his failure to win the presidency made him an afterthought in the public consciousness. For a man whose sense of self-worth depended on the adulation of others and the number of times his name appeared in the newspapers, the loss of his celebrity status was intolerable.

By coming to Hillsboro to argue a case that he knows will be in the national spotlight, Brady hopes to regain his place in the public eye. The small, provincial town is just the kind of place where remnants of his fan base still reside. These people are still impressed by overblown and somewhat empty rhetoric, are easily star-struck, and respond enthusiastically to anyone who parrots their beliefs. Consciously or unconsciously, Brady assumes a case tried in Hillsboro will be an easy win for him, catapulting him back into the spotlight.

For a time, his assumptions seem correct. Brady is treated like the hero he perceives himself to be. His every word holds the same power as the Reverend Brown's gospel. But this very adulation proves to be his undoing. As the town's loyalty begins slipping away due to the brilliance of Drummond's defense, Brady begins panicking. Even laughter at one of Drummond's jokes upsets him because, as the stage directions say, Brady believes the trial of Bertram Cates is "his show." So desperate is he to spend every moment he can in the limelight that he allows Drummond to put him on the stand, even though Brady had already manipulated the judge and the legal system enough to win the case. But winning is not enough for him. He must vanquish the opposition and regain any respect he may have lost during the trial.

His pride proves to be his undoing. Taking the stand with an attitude that is described as smug, confident, and assured, Brady soon proves no match for Drummond, who twists his words and makes him look like a pompous fool. Worse, his failure proves to be a source of amusement to the people he thought adored him. By the end of Drummond's examination, the spectators are ignoring Brady, and they do the worst thing he can conceive of: they laugh at him, all but destroying him with their derision. But Brady still has some hope that the jury's verdict will vindicate him. When the guilty verdict is met with as many boos as cheers, however, and the judge's sentence makes a mockery of it, the situation makes a mockery of Brady as well. He is left flailing in front of a dead microphone, speaking to a coldly indifferent crowd. His pride has been his undoing, and it literally kills him.

Right to Think

Early in Drummond's presentations to the jury, he makes it clear that he is arguing for more than Cates's freedom. He is arguing for an individual's right to think. By prohibiting the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as an option to more traditional beliefs about the creation of the world, the town of Hillsboro (and the state in which the antievolution law was passed) is in effect saying that no new ideas will be tolerated, and that questioning the status quo is unacceptable. Drummond challenges these attitudes, trying to open the eyes of the townspeople to the dangers of putting limits on education and making scientific inquiry a crime. To Drummond, an idea is "a greater monument than a cathedral." By censoring new or unpopular concepts, lawmakers are putting limits on knowledge and bringing progress to a standstill.

Drummond, though, has no intention of letting that happen. As he tells Cates in the play, he is not in this battle for the money. His goal, as he fiercely announces to Brady at one point, is to "stop ... bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States!" As a lawyer, he can achieve this by preventing "the clock-stoppers from dumping a load of medieval nonsense," such as the law Cates is accused of breaking, into the US Constitution.

Drummond, though, is not making his case only for people who think the way he does, or who may be perceived as "correct" in their beliefs. He also makes a strong case for an individual's right to be wrong. That point is made, surprisingly, when he defends Brady at the end of the play. He tells Hornbeck that the reporter has no more right to spit on Brady's beliefs than he would have to spit on Drummond's. This expression of tolerance makes his mission that much more admirable. He is not just defending the rights of progressive thinkers. He is championing the right of all people to have ideas, even though they may conflict with each other, and stressing the importance of respecting ideas that may differ from one's own. Without this attitude, anyone's beliefs become just as dogmatic and inflexible as the ones Drummond is opposing in Hillsboro.

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