Mother Courage and Her Children | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage and Her Children | Plot Summary

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Summary

Scene 1

When the play opens, Anna Fierling, who earned the verbally ironic nickname "Mother Courage" after driving her canteen cart through a battlefield to sell still-edible moldy bread, follows the Finnish regiment, singing a song to tout her wares. Her three children, Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and the mute Kattrin, accompany her.

As a cynical army recruiter and sergeant discuss young men's lack of morality and sense of duty, Mother Courage and her children approach, pulling the wagon. Desperate to fill his quota, the recruiter tries to convince her son Eilif to join the army, much to his mother's frustration. Although she threatens him, the unrelenting recruiter invites Eilif for a drink while Mother Courage and the sergeant haggle over the price of a belt buckle. Kattrin, who cannot speak, tries to warn her mother what the recruiter is doing, but by the time Mother Courage notices the danger, Eilif is gone.

Scene 2

A couple of years later during the Thirty Years' War Mother Courage, haggling over the price of a capon (castrated rooster) with the general's cook, sees Eilif again. Praised by the general for heroism, in actuality Eilif viciously slaughtered peasants and stole their livestock. His actions ensured the survival of his regiment. During this visit Mother Courage befriends the regiment's chaplain. She expresses her anger to the cook that young men wouldn't need attributes like bravery, courage, and loyalty if the men in charge would keep the young out of danger. Mother Courage later slaps Eilif hard across the face for not surrendering to the peasants when they had him surrounded.

Scene 3

Three years later Yvette, a prostitute, and Mother Courage discuss the war. Mother Courage, bargaining to resell ammunition back to the military, looks forward to prolonged fighting as a source of income. In a song about her past, Yvette warns Kattrin about men and then sulks off, leaving her hat and red high-heeled boots, to which Kattrin is attracted.

Swiss Cheese, too, has joined the Finnish regiment as paymaster. When Catholic forces take over, Swiss Cheese—honest but not clever—decides he must risk everything to return the money to his general, but the invading army arrests him. Believing Swiss Cheese has hidden the cash box, Mother Courage concocts a plan with Yvette to sell her cart to the wealthy colonel with whom Yvette is romantically involved. Mother Courage will then use the profits to buy Swiss Cheese's safety. Then she'll retrieve the cash box and use its contents to buy back her cart. Yvette rushes to the soldiers holding Swiss Cheese. She returns with the news they will accept the offer, but Swiss Cheese threw the cash box into the river rather than hide it. With the cash box gone, Mother Courage tries to haggle the price down, but the soldiers refuse to bargain and then shoot Swiss Cheese. She denies knowing her son when the soldiers bring her his dead body.

As the Catholic forces emerge victorious, the chaplain changes his clothing to pass as a Catholic priest and sings about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Scene 4

Shortly after Swiss Cheese's death, Mother Courage is about to make a complaint about her cart being vandalized. When an angry soldier arrives to make a complaint against the captain who stole the soldier's reward money for performing an act of bravery, an older soldier warns him not to complain. Mother Courage questions why anyone would want to be a hero if no reward awaits him and then warns the young soldier his anger isn't worth the punishment he might receive for complaining. When he leaves, she realizes the same about herself and withdraws her complaint.

Scene 5

Two years later in Leipzig, Germany, Mother Courage and Kattrin serve drinks to two soldiers who grumble about missing their opportunity to loot the town after the day's victory. The chaplain rushes in with the news injured people are still lying in the yard, and he needs linen to dress their wounds. Mother Courage refuses to provide bandage material, claiming she must look out for herself. Although Kattrin pleads with her to help, Mother Courage will not be swayed. Kattrin rushes out to save an injured baby. Eventually the chaplain pushes Mother Courage aside and from her cart steals four shirts, which he rips into bandages.

Scene 6

A year later Mother Courage and the chaplain are discussing wartime heroism as she takes stock of her supplies. The chaplain asserts the war will continue as long as men are willing to risk their lives to become heroes. Mother Courage, however, is more concerned with whether to raise her prices before peacetime. The chaplain tries to convince Mother Courage to enter into a romantic relationship with him, but she's not interested.

When Kattrin returns from buying supplies, she has a wound above her eye. Mother Courage blames the drunken soldiers, but the chaplain blames those in charge, for war "brings humanity's lowest instincts to the surface." Mother Courage laments that wartime has traumatized Kattrin, who is now unlikely to find a husband. She also reveals the horrific reason for Kattrin's inability to speak and her fear of not seeing Eilif again.

Scene 7

Soon after, Mother Courage's cart is full of new goods for sale, and she wears a silver necklace as she continues along the road. She praises the war as a good financial provider, for it kills off the weak and allows the strong to survive.

Scene 8

Later that year bells signal peace and the death of the Swedish king. Mother Courage is disappointed the war should end immediately after she buys fresh supplies but is relieved Eilif and Kattrin will no longer be in danger. Thinking peace has arrived for good, Mother Courage packs her belongings and enterprisingly prepares to sell everything she has before prices hit bottom.

The chaplain, traveling with Mother Courage, puts his Lutheran robes back on. Both he and the cook, who reappears after leaving his regiment, have developed feelings for Mother Courage, and the men squabble over their relationships with her. The cook tells Mother Courage Eilif is on his way to see her. Yvette arrives and recognizes the cook as the man who broke her heart when she was 16 and pushed her into prostitution. Mother Courage ignores everyone, focused solely on making money before the townsfolk learn the war has ended. Shortly after she leaves to sell her wares, two soldiers arrive with Eilif under arrest for murder. He has killed peasants and stolen their livestock, just as he did "heroically" in Scene 2, but with the war over, his actions are now capital crimes. As Eilif is led offstage and executed, the cook and chaplain vow never to tell Mother Courage the truth. When she rushes back to camp with the news the war has started again, she and the cook pack up and get ready to travel to the next battlefield.

Scene 9

Mother Courage and the cook, struggling to survive, are reduced to begging. The cook learns he has inherited a small inn and asks Mother Courage to move in and help him run it, but Kattrin cannot join them. Mother Courage then refuses the offer, vowing never to leave Kattrin or the cart. Throwing the cook's belongings out of the cart, the two women move on.

Scene 10

As they pull the cart through the central part of Germany, Mother Courage and Kattrin pass a peasant's house and hear a voice singing about the beauty and joy of flowers and the delight in having shelter during the winter. After stopping to listen, the women continue.

Scene 11

Two years later Mother Courage has parked her cart on a peasant's land and gone to buy supplies in the town. Kattrin watches as two soldiers approach and force their way into the house, demanding to be shown the way to the town. After they leave, the peasant father climbs to the roof of his house and spots an army in the distance. Distressed because the sentry hasn't seen the enemy regiment approaching and because the Catholic forces will "butcher" the entire village, the peasants pray for the village children's safety. Hearing this, Kattrin rushes to the rooftop with a drum from the cart and frantically beats it, hoping to alert the sentry. The two soldiers return and try to muffle the sound of the drum and get Kattrin to stop. Unsuccessful, they shoot and kill her, but she has already been heard.

Scene 12

As Mother Courage stands over Kattrin's body, the peasant family begs her to leave before the next regiment arrives. They promise to give Kattrin a proper burial, and Mother Courage gives them some coins for the service. She still thinks about trying to find Eilif but doesn't know where he is. Strapping herself to the cart, she hopes she can pull it alone and exits, singing the same song as in Scene 1, leaving as the same character she was at the start, and now alone.

Mother Courage and Her Children Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Mother Courage predicts the deaths of her children.

Rising Action

2 Eilif joins the army and is praised for heroism.

3 Swiss Cheese is executed because he is honest and loyal.

4 Mother Courage won't provide linens to help the wounded.

5 Mother Courage refuses the cook's offer of work at the inn.

6 Eilif is executed for murder, considered heroic in war.

Climax

7 Kattrin beats the drum on the peasants' rooftop.

Falling Action

8 The enemy soldiers shoot her dead for refusing to stop.

Resolution

9 Mother Courage returns to business.

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