Mother Courage and Her Children | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage and Her Children | Themes

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Capitalism

Bertolt Brecht's anti-war stance is clear in his portrayal of the brutal 30-year conflict in Mother Courage and Her Children. One of Brecht's main critical targets is war functions as a source of income—and the longer and more deadly the conflict, the bigger the profits. Mother Courage is essentially a low-level war profiteer as she makes her living from continued conflict. She pulls her cart from battlefield to battlefield, following the soldiers and selling them overpriced wares and alcohol. Brecht makes clear that poor people like Mother Courage the provisioner will never make enough money from war to change their lives—the real money is made by those in charge. However, anyone who profits from war does so at the cost of their morality. Mother Courage values making money over all else, so even if, theoretically, she doesn't like the idea of war with its fraudulent heroism, incompetence, and corruption, she likes its reality. Brecht carefully constructs the scenes in which Mother Courage's three children die (or are about to) to ensure she's doing business at crucial moments: she is haggling over the price of a belt buckle when the recruiter steals Eilif away and is out buying supplies when Eilif returns before being executed and when Kattrin is shot.

Most damning, however, is Mother Courage's reaction to Swiss Cheese's plight. Rather than simply pay to have him freed, Mother Courage attempts to haggle down the price of his release. Thus when forced to choose between her son's life and business, Mother Courage ultimately opts for business, even if not completely consciously or willingly. It is difficult to know whether she acts knowingly—that time is of the essence in saving him—or whether she is simply trying to cut her losses like a good capitalist. At the end of the play, with her children dead, Mother Courage harnesses herself to the merchandise cart and says, "Got to get back to business again."

Indeed, Mother Courage, in her small-scale dealings in items like belt buckles, bullets, and capons, can be seen to represent an entire military-industrial capitalist machine—the needs of the military being clothing, weapons, and food. Brecht had nothing but disgust for such devaluation of human emotion and life.

Power Struggles

In Mother Courage and Her Children war not only supports capitalism, it creates a clear divide between those with and those without power. The most obvious of the power struggles is between the rich and the poor. As Mother Courage laments in Scene 1, "Only the poor have courage. Why? Because they're hopeless." Her description continues, "They stagger, starving, bearing the whole thundering weight of the ... wealthy on their broad stupid backs." Mother Courage herself, of course, pulls the "thundering weight" of her cart throughout the play, never making enough money from the war to change her existence or save her children from death. When Mother Courage attempts to take something—money—from the war, it demands something in return, itself a metaphor for a business exchange. Mother Courage must "feed" the war to each of her children to perpetuate the social condition that allows her to live.

Power struggles also appear between genders. In the 17th century, when the play is set, men hold seeming absolute power, for they decide who lives and who dies. To counterbalance their lack of traditional power, the female characters rely on their wits to survive. Yvette cons the elderly colonel into leasing Mother Courage's cart and ultimately gets the man's rich brother, who leaves her a fortune. Mother Courage uses her wits to convince customers to pay top dollar for her supplies. She also fools the recruiter into thinking she has a sixth sense and concocts a decent plan to save Swiss Cheese's life, although it ultimately fails. Kattrin, who spends most of the play as a victim of male violence, finally finds her voice and reclaims her power, although it ultimately costs her her life.

Courage

Throughout the play various characters question what it means to have courage during the war. Mother Courage, whose real name is Anna Fierling, earns her nickname after "bravely" driving into the battlefield to sell 50 loaves of bread before they become too moldy to eat. Deemed "courageous," it explains her verbally ironic nickname: she was "scared of being broke." Audiences may thus consider whether desperation for money leads to courage and may question the value of courage as Mother Courage herself often does. In his journals Brecht says, "Parachutists ... are dropped like bombs, and bombs do not need courage. The thing that would take courage would be to refuse to climb into the plane in the first place" suggesting Brecht does not intend for audiences to admire wartime bravery.

The general praises Eilif for his bravery in Scene 3 after he "butchers" a family of peasants and steals their cattle so the regiment won't starve. In Scene 8 Eilif commits a similar act during peacetime but is sentenced to death for murder. Eilif's execution raises the question of why violent behavior is considered courageous one day but criminal the next. Does war elicit courageous acts, as the general believes, or does it simply bring "humanity's lowest instincts to the surface," as the chaplain claims? BecauseMother Courage and Her Childrenis clearly an anti-war play, the audience knows the chaplain's assessment closely aligns with Brecht's ideas. Mother Courage reminds everyone in the "slaughterhouse" of war, generals need "courageous" boys to cover their own lack of virtue, for "If [they] knew how to run a proper campaign ... ordinary [soldiers] would do." Her argument makes sense when the audience sees each of her children act courageously—Eilif with the oxen, Swiss Cheese with the cash box, and Kattrin with the drum. But because of the war each courageous act—whether violent, innocent, or noble—ends in the child's death. Courage, therefore, is useless, or at best, if the parachutist lands safely, is lucky.

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