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Mother Courage and Her Children | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage and Her Children | Scene 2 | Summary



Two years pass. In the general's tent Mother Courage is haggling with the cook over the price of a capon. As they argue, the general enters, praising a soldier, Eilif, for "hacking the yokels" and stealing their oxen. The general invites Eilif to stay for dinner, offering him anything he'd like. Eilif asks for meat, and immediately Mother Courage raises the price of the capon. Although outraged, the cook pays her. Mother Courage, who remains hidden from the men, listens intently as Eilif describes how he fooled the villagers before violently killing them. Pleased, the general asks Eilif's advice on their upcoming attack. Mother Courage hisses angrily to the cook that young men wouldn't need attributes like bravery, courage, and loyalty if the men in charge would keep them out of danger.

Eilif launches into a song for the general, detailing the sorrowful story of a soldier who fails to heed the warnings of a girl before he embarks across a frozen lake. At the end of the song the soldier falls in and drowns. Mother Courage joins her son loudly halfway through the song, alerting him to her presence. Delighted to be reunited with her, Eilif embraces his mother, who slaps him hard across the face for "not surrendering when those four [peasants] went for you and wanted to make mincemeat of you. Didn't I say you should look after yourself?"


Eilif's "courageous" act on the battlefield amounts to little more than murder as he "butchers" a group of peasants to steal their oxen. Because it's wartime, the general praises Eilif for helping provide food for the regiment. Starvation appears to be widespread, as Mother Courage recounts images of suffering during the quarrel about prices. Although the cook thinks the peasants have food, she tells him "Some were ... licking their fingers after boiling some old leather strap." Despite the starvation of peasants and soldiers, the generals always have a hot meal prepared, which reminds readers those in charge don't suffer as much as the poor—or in Marxist thinking about economic society applied to the military, the generals reap the benefits of the enlisted men, or remain safe while the poor recruits face enemy fire directly.

Mother Courage scoffs the general wouldn't need courageous soldiers if he simply kept his men out of danger. This is one of the many messages Brecht sends his audience throughout the play: the powerful reap the benefits of war without claiming the burden of risk. They do not care how many brave, young men like Eilif die as long as they ultimately get their reward. Just as they do not care their virtuous soldiers eat moldy bread while they gorge on a fattened rooster.

Eilif's song serves not only to distance the audience from the emotional undertones of his story, it also symbolizes Eilif's views of war. As he sings proudly and does a lively dance, his lighthearted attitude suggests he doesn't comprehend the gravity of what he has done—or perhaps doesn't care. Like the boy in the song, Eilif won't see the danger of the war, both physically and morally, until he's drowning in it.

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