Study Guide

Inherit the Wind Analysis

  • Tone

    Cautionary, Balanced, and Serious

    Inherit the Wind takes itself pretty seriously, and wants everyone else to take it seriously, too. Its tone carries some finger-wagging hues, as though this play is trying to show us that we shouldn't be too sure of ourselves, or we'll turn into Brady.

    The stage directions after Bert's sentence is announced read:

    (The mighty Evolution Law explodes with the pale puff of a wet firecracker. There is a murmur of surprise through the courtroom. BRADY is indignant. He rises, incredulous.) (III, 287-89)

    This sort of heavy-handedness in the play's direction gives us a real sense of the playwrights' desire to teach the audience something. It's a moralistic play. However, Lawrence and Lee don't sink to Hornbeck's level. They try to treat everyone fairly.

    The townspeople are described as "colorful small-town citizens, but not caricatured rubes." Besides the coolness of the word 'rube' (anyone up for reviving it?), the stage directions are careful to be balanced about the different players in this grand game.

  • Genre

    Drama, Historical Fiction

    Calling all drama queens. This is a play, so the genre is kind of a gimme: it's drama. And the good thing is, you don't even have to cry or have your feelings hurt; there is plenty of action in Inherit the Wind that provides all the juicy excitement you'll need.

    Plus, since the play is based on a real historical event (the Scopes Trial of 1925), but retells the events using fictional characters, it can also be called Historical Fiction or Historical Drama. And you thought reenactments were only for the Civil War.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Coming to you straight from the Bible, Inherit the Wind is a shout-out to the book of Proverbs. A verse, which is quoted twice in the play, reads, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind" (Proverbs 11:29).

    This passage refers to the idea that someone who causes problems for mom and pop is going to get a whole lotta nothing come inheritance time. In the play, Brady warns Brown against damning his daughter, citing this verse.

    Hornbeck and Drummond use that same verse as an obituary for Brady after he dies, probably because he got himself so worked up that he ended up with nothing… even after his courtroom win.

    Since Bert ends up with the moral victory, even though he loses his case, it's probably not him that's troubling his house. In fact, the one who ends up with nothing is definitely Brady: no presidency, no chance to talk on the radio, no riding out of the courthouse on everyone's shoulders.

    But why would Brady be troubling his house? Well, maybe the fact that he uses the justice system for personal gain rather than to seek justice is a way of showing that he is troubling the house of his nation. That's one way to think about it.

    Also, Reverend Jeremiah seems to think that Rachel is the one doing the troubling. But even Brady recognizes that it's the Rev who's out of line. He ends up losing his daughter (to Bert), and since we know he has no wife, we believe he ends up all alone. That's what you get when you talk about how your family members are going to burn in hell, we guess.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The last thing that happens in Inherit the Wind is, after all the yakkity-yak, a silent action. Drummond takes up the Bible in one hand, Darwin's The Origin of Species in the other, balancing the two books.

    This action reflects justice, which is usually represented by two scales, weighing different viewpoints. The image also proves to us that the lawyer can hold two different ideologies simultaneously, or at least respect two different ways of thinking. He puts both of the books in his bag, showing that both of them are important, and leaves the stage.

    The playwrights' choice to end the play with this action seems like an attempt to not demonize either side of the debate—to show that each side has its merits. And like any good lawyer, Drummond knows how to weigh two viewpoints intelligently.

    Check out our "Symbols" Section for more on the scales of justice.

  • Setting

    In a Small Town, Not Too Long Ago

    The stage directions lay it out for us in Inherit the Wind: "Time: Summer. Not too long ago. Place: A small town." We soon find out that the town we're dealing with is Hillsboro, "Heavenly Hillsboro. The buckle on the Bible belt" (I, I, 277-78), as Hornbeck calls it.

    Even though the town is specifically named "Hillsboro," and it is characterized as a small town in the South, the stage directions seem to point to a more universal setting. That's the idea, right? That this town is both specific and generalizable?

    The funny thing about trying to understand the happenings of the play as universal is that Inherit the Wind is actually based on a real, live trial that happened in Dayton, Tennessee, back in 1925. So there is a very specific referent. But the playwrights are trying to show that this kind of thing can happen anytime, and anywhere new ideas are being born.

    The notion the playwrights are trying to put forth is that even though the trial happened in Hillsboro, it wasn't too long ago. And really, it could happen anywhere. So, the play is supposed to work as a warning, or a lesson, against ignorance—and ignorance is a plague that isn't choosy about its victims.

    The fact that it's summertime when the play begins only adds to the hellfire and brimstone imagery that a lot of the religious characters like to use. The heat also probably contributes to Brady's death. When he gets into town he jokes that he "could only wish one thing: that you had not given us quite so warm a welcome!" (I, I, 416-17)

    The oppressive heat is kind of representative of the oppressive religious culture in the play, which won't let people think for themselves. Too bad there's no water park in Hillsboro…

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. (Proverbs 11:29)

    Just like we mentioned in our "What's Up With the Title?" Section, this Bible verse warns against rocking the boat. However, the rest of the verse goes "and the fool shall be servant to the wise in heart," showing the way that the tables turn in the play: in the end, the truth-seekers rule the day.

    Brady is an obvious fool who ends up serving Drummond when he takes the stand. Drummond plays him like a fiddle:

    BRADY. (Floundering) I do not think about things that…I do not think about!
    DRUMMOND. Do you ever think about things that you
    do think about? (II, II, 669-71)

    Brady looks like a real dummy here, after he had seemed so wise to all of the townspeople for the first act of the play. But the truth of the matter is that Drummond is only after the truth. So Brady actually ends up volunteering to help him make his point by taking the witness stand.

    Bad move, dude. And boy, does dude suffer the consequences.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Inherit the Wind uses pretty down-to-earth dialogue, and it's about a topic that's familiar to most people—evolution, and whether or not it should be taught in schools. So, unless you've been living under a rock for most of your life, you'll have plenty of mental energy left to really take in what's important: the philosophical and judicial debates.

    These discussions can get kind of heavy. So focus in on the most important themes of the play, and you'll be golden.

  • Writing Style

    Folksy, Realistic, Varied

    For the most part, the lines in Inherit the Wind are full of down-home goodness. The play tries to capture the way that real people talk, and also to emphasize the small town atmosphere. Lines like "Fitt'n fer a king" (I, I, 203) and "Where we gonna sleep all them people?" (I, I, 215-16) show the folksy people of Hillsboro to be as realistic as those you might meet in any small town.

    However, the writers employ some characters whose style varies greatly from everyone else's. Hornbeck, for example, sounds almost like a beat poet with his crazy rhythm and joking insults:

    I am a newspaperman, bearing news.

    When this sovereign state determined to indict

    The sovereign mind of a less-than-sovereign schoolteacher,

    My editors decided there was more than a headline here. (I, I, 564-67)

    Notice the line breaks and the capital letters at the beginning of Hornbeck's sentences, as if he's speaking in poems; none of the other characters talk like that, that's for sure.

    Brady, too, is a pretty big windbag. He gives some learned speeches that most of the townspeople wouldn't be capable of. In fact, his smarty-pants style comes up against Reverend Brown's thundering damnation style:

    BROWN. Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner—though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!

    BRADY (Rising, grasping BROWN'S arm). Reverend Brown, I know that it is the great zeal of your faith which makes you utter this prayer! But it is possible to be overzealous, to destroy that which you hope to save—so that nothing is left but emptiness. (I, I, 168-75)

    This passage shows off how much the different characters' styles vary, although the playwrights try to make all of them realistic. That's their goal, it seems; to portray the variation in real people's speech. Just like they want to portray the variation in real people's beliefs.

  • The Monkey

    During the preparations for the arrival of The Great Prosecutor, Mr. Brady, the town takes on a carnival atmosphere… complete with hot dogs and, yes, a monkey. No really, a monkey. An organ-grinder shows up with a monkey on a string, who is trained to take money from the crowd.

    Hornbeck, the city slicker journalist, immediately seizes this opportunity to use the monkey to criticize human nature. He's a sly one, you see: 

    (MELINDA hands the monkey a penny.)

    MELINDA. Look. He took my penny.

    HORNBECK. How could you ask of better proof than that? There's the father of the human race! (I, I, 316-19)

    By mockingly calling this cash-taking monkey "the father of the human race," Hornbeck is both avowing his evolutionist beliefs and calling people fundamentally greedy. The fact that the monkey takes a coin is proof that he's a great-great-great-…-grandfather of modern-day humans, because, according to Hornbeck, people are slimy; they'll do anything for a buck.

    The playwrights, Lawrence and Lee, deliberately use a trained monkey here—not a puppy or a squid or whatever—because one of the biggest problems that people in the play have with evolution is that it posits that humans descended from monkeys.

    And who can blame them, really? Who wants to admit that their ancestors had blue bottoms or ate each other's lice? Still, science is science. Proof is proof.

  • David and Goliath

    The big cage fight in this play is between Drummond and Brady, it seems. But really, the battle is between two intellectual giants—even if Brady wants to call himself an underdog and identify with David rather than Goliath.

    Brady welcomes the arrival of his ex-friend, now-rival, Drummond, saying that "if the enemy sends its Goliath into battle, it magnifies our cause" (I, I, 628-29). However, the description of Brady falling in the final act of the play shows that he is actually Goliath, brought down by a little stone:

    (There seems to be some violent, volcanic upheaval within him. His lower lip quivers, his eyes stare. Very slowly, he seems to be leaning toward the audience. Then, like a figure in a waxworks, toppling from its pedestal, he falls stiffly, face forward.) (III, 429-33)

    The harder they fall, right?

    The fact that this Battle Royale is compared to David and Goliath's fight gives the viewer a little hint as to what's to come. Anyone who's read their Bible stories knows that the little guy ends up winning. And while Brady tries to make himself out to be David to Drummond's Goliath, his eating abilities and physical presence let us know that he's a lot more of a giant than an underdog.

  • The Scales of Justice

    Which weighs more, a pound of monkeys or a pound of dust? Trick question: a pound is a pound is a pound. So, in the final scene of the play, which has Drummond holding the Bible in one hand and Darwin in the other, shows that the two books, and the two belief systems they represent, should get equal weight:

    ([. . .] DRUMMOND is left alone on stage. Suddenly he notices RACHEL's copy of Darwin on the table.)

    DRUMMOND (Calling) Say—you forgot—
    (But RACHEL and CATES are out of earshot. He weighs the volume in his hand; this one book has been the center of the whirlwind. Then DRUMMOND notices the Bible, on the JUDGE's bench. He picks up the Bible in his other hand, he looks from one volume to the other, balancing them thoughtfully, as if his hands were scales. He half-smiles, half-shrugs. Then DRUMMOND slaps the two books together and jams them in his brief case, side by side. Slowly, he climbs to the street level and crosses the empty square.) (III, 721-35)

    The image of the scale is an old symbol for justice, because justice requires balance in order to work. (No, we're not talking about the digital kind that tells you when you overate; we're talking about the old-fashioned kind with two hanging dishes…)

    The last scene of Inherit the Wind lets us know that Drummond believes both sides should be treated fairly. But it isn't clear whether he believes that these two sides are necessarily equal. Drummond's definitely on the side of teaching evolution in the schools, so you might think he would give Darwin a little extra weight; but maybe he's just showing that you can't only know one side of the story.

    Both sides are always necessary for a complete sense of the truth.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      A Young Hero Falls Under the Shadow of the Dark Power

      Bert, who is the young hero in Inherit the Wind, starts off in the town jail. He seems like a good enough guy, and even has a nice girl come visit him in the slammer. But since he taught evolution in the public school, he has broken a law, and is facing trial soon.

      All is Well

      Things don't seem so bad while Bert talks to Rachel. Then again, things don't usually seem so bad when you're talking to your crush. They seem more like puppies and roses.

      We can see that Rachel cares about Bert, and even the bailiff seems to have a soft spot for him. In fact, the bailiff says that jail is the safest place a person can be. Since many of the townspeople are wandering the streets who're out for Bert's (metaphorical) blood, we have to agree with him on that one.

      Living Death

      Okay, that's a little dramatic, but Bert is kind of paralyzed with fear during the trial. The fact that he has no control over his destiny doesn't help. He feels caught up in the whole carnival of the trial, and things don't go so well for his side at first.

      The trial turns into an intellectual head-to-head between two big lawyers who are trying to assassinate each other's characters. Bert sort of fades into the background. Even though it's his life that will be affected, the trial is much bigger than just his story. It's about freedom, religion, and other big ideas.

      The Dark Power Triumphs…or Does It?

      Bert is found guilty. But his sentence is a measly one hundred dollar fine, and his bail is set to $500. So the guy came out pretty scot-free, actually, despite this whole conviction-being-on-his-permanent-record deal.

      Drummond says he'll appeal the ruling, of course. Everyone else just kind of moves on with their lives, except for Brady, who uses this chance in the spotlight to make a big speech.

      The Miraculous Redemption

      Brady talks himself to death. Literally. And the journalist Hornbeck ends up paying Bert's bail, setting him free. So Bert and Rachel go off into the sunset together, liberated from Rachel's crazy-mean dad and the shackles of intellectual oppression. Golf claps.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Jailhouse Rock

      Bert Cates gets thrown in the slammer for teaching evolution in the public school. His friend-who's-a-girl, Rachel, asks him to just say it was a joke so he can get out of the clink. The town gets ready for a show: the impending trial of Bert Cates. The stage is set for the huge conflict that's about to roll into town like Barnum and Bailey Circus.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us

      The two lawyers, a couple of big shots from out of town, show up on the scene. One of them, Matthew Harrison Brady, used to run for president. Run, but not win, to be clear; he's like a professional presidential candidate.

      His opponent, Henry Drummond, is a famous agnostic who defends evildoers. At least that's what the more conservative townspeople think. The catch is that Drummond and Brady used to be friends. Who doesn't love a tale of two BFFs-turned-arch-nemeses?

      Brady's reaction to the announcement of Drummond as the defense attorney lets the audience know that this is a major complication in the plot. Bert's trial is not just any old criminal case; it's a clash of titans. A meeting of minds.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      This Whole Court's Out of Order

      Drummond has Brady take the witness stand and ends up making a fool out of him while quizzing him on the Bible. The mighty Brady even ends up blubbering like a baby after the people in the courtroom laugh at him. This is a turning point because Brady, who had seemed to hold all the cards, is now at the mercy of Drummond, the former underdog. The case seems to swing, pendulum-like, in Drummond's direction.

      Falling Action

      The Harder They Fall…

      Bert's found guilty, but don't cry for him (slash Argentina) yet. His sentence is a one hundred dollar fine—a mere slap on the wrist. Brady can't stand the fact that, even though he won, his opponent isn't going to rot in jail like a good cautionary tale for other free thinkers.

      Brady tries to give a long speech, but no one listens or cares. So he collapses. This is falling action because there's no turning back for Brady now; things are going in Drummond's direction, and his good juju is only gaining momentum.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      Get the Heck out of Dodge

      Brady ends up dying. They say it's from a heart attack, but we're pretty sure it's because he couldn't stand the fact that things didn't turn out his way. It's a severe case of Bad Loser-itis, in our humble opinions.

      Anywhos, Drummond feels bad about losing his frenemy. He's kind of a softie, after all. Rachel decides to leave town, and asks Bert to come with her. Drummond dramatically takes both the Bible and Darwin to the train station with him. All the loose ends are tied up (until the appeal, that is).

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Um, this is kind of simple. Act I in the plot analysis is conveniently the same as Act I in the play: all of the important players have arrived: Bert, who's on trial; Rachel, who's his crush and also his adversary's daughter; Brady, the prosecutor; Drummond, the defense attorney; you get the idea.

      And we know where the line in the sand is. Some people think evolution is an evil, Godless idea, and it definitely shouldn't be taught in schools. That'd corrupt the young kids' minds even worse than Marilyn Manson, you know? Some people (cough cough, Drummond and the journalist Hernbeck, cough cough) think otherwise.

      Act II

      And, whaddyaknow, Act II corresponds to Act II in the play as well. In this act, arguments are made for both sides. Brady attacks Bert's character, trying to prove that he's a heathen and generally sucks as a person. Drummond attacks Brady and makes him look like a hypocrite and all-around dummy.

      So, what's said is said. What's done is done. And the jury is set to deliberate. Nobody knows what's going to happen… unless you've read a history book, that is.

      Act III

      Surprise, surprise: Act III = Act III. Bert's found guilty, but not in the way that Brady had hoped. He gets a slap on the wrist along with his guilty verdict—a fine for a hundred dollars—not a jail sentence.

      Bert and Drummond also don't back down; Drummond says that Bert won't even pay the stupid one hundred smackaroos, because they're appealing this case to a higher court. Brady drops dead unceremoniously, and Rachel, Bert, and Drummond get out of town. Fin.