The Caucasian Chalk Circle | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle | Themes



The central theme in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the question of motherhood. Does one become a mother simply by giving birth, or is it the act of caring for and raising a child that makes one a mother? This question is central to the conflict between Natella and Grusha, each of whom claims Michael as her son. At the start of the play, Natella appears to be a doting mother. Two full-time doctors have been hired to treat every cough and sniffle from her infant son, for example, and Natella dotes over his every move. The illusion of care disappears, however, during the chaos of the fat prince's coup. Natella frets over which expensive dresses to pack for exile, but she accidentally leaves her son behind. She does not come back for him for three years. She only claims him then because he's the heir to her late husband's estate and she can't gain control of the estate without him. In court Natella waxes poetic about the sacrifices of motherhood, but she has sacrificed nothing. Grusha, on the other hand, truly sacrifices for Michael's well-being. She uses her paltry savings to pay exorbitant milk prices for him. She risks injury by crossing the rotting rope bridge. She invites punishment by attacking the corporal in Michael's defense. Her greatest sacrifice, however, is marrying Yussup to ensure that Michael always has a roof over his head—an act that prevents her from marrying her true love, Simon.

In the end Azdak rules in favor of Grusha as Michael's true mother, which sends a clear message from Brecht about the importance of love and care in society. In the prologue two villages argue about how to best utilize a valley during postwar reconstruction. One village wants to use the valley for goat breeding, therefore using the land to make more money, while the other village wants to plant fruit orchards. The chalk circle story becomes an overarching message to the villagers as well as the readers: care for the earth and it will "bear fruit;" it will blossom, flourish, and benefit everyone, not just those who seek to make money from it. Grusha's mothering style, for which she is rewarded in a rare Brechtian happy ending, reminds readers of Brecht's socialist beliefs. Through The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht expresses his belief that communities should find better ways of caring for one another other rather than simply profiting off of one another. As Brecht wrote in his notes on The Caucasian Chalk Circle, "Motherhood today has to be socially rather than biologically determined."


Through the portrayal of Grusinian society as chaotic, Brecht makes clear arguments against corruption and hypocrisy. All the politicians in the play are obsessed with power, including the governor, the grand duke, and the fat prince. Each strives to gain more power through literally cutting down and killing their fellow man. The fat prince arranges a violent coup to overthrow the grand duke, and three years later, the grand duke arranges a coup that kills the fat prince. During both violent uprisings, it isn't only the powerful politicians who are killed. Hundreds of innocent people are killed as well. These include the governor, who was violently beheaded in his palace in Act 1, the judge found hung outside the courthouse in Act 4, and countless peasants and soldiers. At various times, characters complain that there simply aren't enough men around because they've all been killed—killed simply so one person can gain more power. Throughout all this violence, characters pay each other off, using money as a means of corrupting humanity and morality. The fat prince pays police officers, such as Shauva, a fee for every fugitive they kill. There is no trial, no sense of justice—just immediate death based on someone else's perception of the victim's loyalties. There are so many fugitives running for their life that Shauva stops seeing them as human, referring to them as "rabbits" instead of people.

Greed also corrupts society's sense of justice. In Act 5 Natella's lawyers try to pay Azdak off to rule in their favor, a common practice in some cultures. For many judges the verdict favored whoever paid the judge a higher fee. Azdak laments that poor people such Grusha "want justice, but [do not] want to pay for it." His irony—saying the opposite of what he means—highlights just how ridiculous paying for justice is. The practice corrupts justice (and arguably humanity) to its core.

Money isn't the only tool of corruption in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, however. Brecht, an atheist, also criticizes religion through his portrayal of Aniko, Grusha's pious sister-in-law. Religion has corrupted Aniko's empathy for others, making her judgmental and punitive. Aniko focuses so intensely on her piety that she fails to show her sister-in-law basic humanity. She refuses to arrange a meal or a bed for her starving, weak family member because she assumes that Michael is Grusha's illegitimate child, which means that Grusha must be a sinner. And Aniko does not want to be seen sheltering a fallen woman.


For Brecht, a staunch socialist, greed is the root of all evil, a belief he presents in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Greed is arguably the corrupting force of Grusinian society, from its politicians to its justice system to its mothers. In Act 1 the governor and his wife push through crowds of beggars, casually discussing the gardens they hope to plant beside the new wing of their palace. They pay little attention to the suffering of their fellow man, focused solely on expanding their wealth and status. The family hires two full-time doctors to assess the newborn son's every cough and sniffle, for example, while completely ignoring the complaints of the people, who suffer and starve around him. Natella's greed causes her to lose what should have been her most treasured object—her son. During the coup she focuses so intently on which expensive dresses to pack that she accidentally leaves her son behind. Then, rather than search for him during her three-year exile, she only returns for him when she realizes that he's the sole heir to her deceased husband's fortune. Again, greed has corrupted her motherhood and her ability to love. Similarly, greed corrupts the justice system in Nukha, when legal decisions are made based solely on which party pays the judge a higher fee. Greed for money and power allows men to kill each other in political coups. Brecht argues that if people could treat each other with the self-sacrificing care, love, and humanity that Grusha shows Michael, society might be a much better place.

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