Mother Courage | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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Mother Courage | Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Three years later Mother Courage is traveling alongside the Finnish regiment. Swiss Cheese has taken a job as paymaster, and Mother Courage has befriended Yvette, an alcoholic prostitute. Mother Courage is doing laundry and bargaining with an armorer, who wants to sell her army ammunition, which she purchases with the intention of reselling. She and Yvette discuss the war's progress, with Mother Courage looking forward to prolonged fighting as a source of income. Yvette sings her "Song of Fraternization," which reveals the backstory of her broken heart because of a man she calls "Puffing Piet," an army cook who abandoned her on the battlefield when she was 16, essentially forcing her into a life of prostitution. The song also warns Kattrin to stay away from men. After the song Yvette sulks away, leaving behind the multicolored hat she was sewing and her high-heeled red boots.

The cook and the chaplain arrive. The chaplain tells Mother Courage that Eilif will soon be moving to a dangerous location and she should give him some money now, before he dies. He claims that dying in a religious war pleases God, and Mother Courage should be proud of Eilif's sacrifice. The cook has come along because he is "impressed" by Mother Courage and seemingly hopes to start a romantic relationship with her. The three continue their conversation about the war, with a long discussion of the king, who benefits from it as usual while his poor subjects pay the price. As they talk, Kattrin tries on Yvette's hat and boots. As sudden cannon fire interrupts the conversation, the group realizes the Catholic forces have overtaken the Finnish regiment, and the three prepare frantically to be taken prisoners. The chaplain changes into a Catholic robe to hide his Lutheran affiliation. Mother Courage quickly pulls down the Finnish regimental flag on her cart and covers Kattrin's face in ashes to make her less attractive to the victorious troops. Swiss Cheese frantically searches for a place to stash the regiment's cash box.

Three days later as payday approaches, Swiss Cheese feels overwhelmed with responsibility for the cash box, which he has been unable to return to the general. He decides to return it immediately, despite the risk. Mother Courage and the chaplain leave to buy a Catholic flag, with Mother Courage pleased the Catholic forces haven't asked about her Protestant faith and have allowed her to continue trading. Before she leaves, however, Mother Courage discovers Kattrin has stolen Yvette's red boots. A man with an eye patch, earlier revealed to be a spy, arrives in search of members of the Finnish army. A terrified Kattrin tries to warn Swiss Cheese of the man's presence, but because she cannot speak, Swiss Cheese ignores her as he leaves to return the cash box. Shortly after, the man returns with Swiss Cheese under arrest. Rather than incriminate herself, Mother Courage denies knowing him, and the chaplain sings a song about Jesus's crucifixion.

That evening Mother Courage excitedly returns to the cart with the news the Catholic sergeant is open to a bribe to spare Swiss Cheese's life. She concocts a plan with Yvette, who returns shortly after in the company of the wealthy colonel with whom she's romantically involved. Yvette convinces him to buy Mother Courage's cart and supplies as a gift, claiming she wants to start her own business. Mother Courage plans to use the 200 florins she receives for the cart to buy Swiss Cheese's life and then use the money from the regiment cash box to buy back her cart. Yvette rushes off to the sergeant and returns with the news they will accept Mother Courage's offer. However, she learns also that while being tortured, Swiss Cheese admitted to throwing the cash box in the river, not hiding it as Mother Courage previously thought. She asks Yvette to go back with a counteroffer, which would allow her to retain some money to continue trading, even if she can't buy back her entire cart. The sergeant refuses and executes Swiss Cheese. Soldiers carry Swiss Cheese's body back to Mother Courage's cart, and again she denies knowing him.

Analysis

Haggling over the price of Swiss Cheese's life the same way she negotiates over the price of the armorer's ammunition at the opening of the scene highlights the fact that Mother Courage values money over humanity. Swiss Cheese's honesty, alluded to in Scene 1 as the virtue that would lead to his death, prompts him to admit he threw the cash box in the river, forcing Mother Courage to choose between her business and her son's life. Ultimately, she chooses her business by trying to haggle down the price of Swiss Cheese's release. In a play about the evils of capitalism and war profiteering, this incident highlights the lesser value of human life as opposed to making a profit.

The chaplain's "Song of the Hours" about the crucifixion may remind audiences of the apostle Peter's denial of Jesus just as Mother Courage denies knowing Swiss Cheese. The song may lead audiences to compare Swiss Cheese and Jesus Christ. On the surface it appears Brecht casts Swiss Cheese as an honorable, blameless victim, but given Brecht's adamant atheism and strong message of the worthlessness of religion in war, it seems a strange connection to make. Swiss Cheese dies because of his naive honesty: he couldn't lie, even to save his life. In fact Brecht suggests Swiss Cheese is stupid—his mother calls him stupid multiple times in the play—and through the song connection suggests Jesus, or religion in general, is equally useless in war. Moreover, at such times, which seem to go on forever, qualities like honesty and loyalty, generally admired, are worthless, for they lead to torture and death. The ability to survive by one's wits, whether honest or dishonest, is far more admirable than traditional virtue. Also, unlike the death of Jesus Christ, which Christians believe brought them eternal life, Swiss Cheese's death has brought nothing. His body is simply thrown in a pit to rot.

The idea of the worthlessness of religion is evident in the chaplain's hypocrisy. At the beginning of the scene the chaplain urges Mother Courage to take pride in the knowledge that her son will give his life for God—something the chaplain himself has no intention of doing. During the Spanish incursion, the chaplain renounces his faith, quickly changing religious affiliation to avoid persecution. When Mother Courage raises the new flag, the chaplain mutters, "All good Catholics here." As far as Mother Courage is concerned, it doesn't matter which religion is in power as long as she's allowed to continue selling, for one doesn't "ask trades people their faith but their prices." Thus capitalism wins over religion.

This scene provides insight into Kattrin's character as well. The audience sees Kattrin try on Yvette's high-heeled boots and strut around provocatively. Mother Courage admits that Kattrin wants marriage and children. However, the never-ending war prevents this. Not only do the red boots symbolize Kattrin's sexual awakening, they also remind the audience during the war, Kattrin's best chance of "love" is through prostitution. In keeping with her character, this is another trade Mother Courage might be willing to make for business, and the audience sees Kattrin as a rather helpless victim. Although she witnesses many of the play's most harrowing events, she cannot speak to stop them. She sees the recruiter taking Eilif away in Scene 1, for example, and here wishes to warn Swiss Cheese of the spy's presence. Wartime trauma—as revealed later in the play—has stolen Kattrin's voice and transformed her into a seemingly helpless victim to violence.

Finally, Mother Courage and the chaplain's long discussion about the nature of war supports the theme of power struggles. Both characters admit the person benefiting most from the war is the king, and those paying the highest price, whether through increased taxes or lives lost, are the poor. Mother Courage notes in another of Brecht's strong messages to the audience, "as a rule you can say victory and defeat both come expensive to ordinary folk."

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