Study Guide

Inherit the Wind Themes

By Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Drummond and Brady are out for blood throughout Inherit the Wind, but when it really comes down to it, these ex-friends have soft spots for each other. In fact, Drummond is such a softie that Hornbeck really ribs him after Brady dies because Drummond refuses to laugh at his old buddy. Even after everything that's happened, he's got respect for the guy. So this play shows us that hardheadedness and an unforgiving nature only lead to further conflict, not a solution. It's only through compassion that we can open ourselves to opposing viewpoints, thereby deepening our understanding for others while also lessening our enmity for them. And don't you want to be all noble and stuff, Shmoopers? Do unto others, as they say…

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Which character seems to most clearly exemplify compassion and forgiveness to you?
    2. Do you agree with Hornbeck's or Drummond's philosophy of forgiveness (or, um, lack thereof)?
    3. Is there anyone in Inherit the Wind that you are unable to feel compassion for? If so, why can't you feel compassion for that character or those characters?

    Chew on This

    The play demonstrates that the only way to make a change in society is to have compassion for your opponent.

    The play shows that the only way to make a change in society is to be unforgiving, because your opponent will not have compassion for you. So you've got to go for the jugular, kiddos.

  • Competition

    In Inherit the Wind, we see one big fancy lawyer duke it out with another big fancy lawyer. As you might imagine, things get a little competitive. So while this play is about who's right and who's wrong (i.e., who's an ideological extremist and who's a rational truth-seeker), it's also about who's the better contender. Both Drummond and Brady use all of the tools available to them in order to prove their points, because they know that their win (or loss) will have effects that reach far beyond the little town of Hillsboro. Yet, when all is said and done, Drummond shows compassion for Brady; we think this play's telling us that competition can bring out the worst in people. Kind of like on Survivor.

    Questions About Competition

    1. The big competition in the play is between Brady and Drummond; what other competitions do you observe, and what do they contribute to the overall themes of the play?
    2. Who do you think won the trial in Inherit the Wind, really, and why?
    3. What do you think the playwrights are trying to teach us about competition in this play? Is competition a necessary part of the judicial system? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The competition in Inherit the Wind shows how neither side wins in an ideological, no-holds-barred battle.

    The competition between Drummond and Brady is about more than just whether or not evolution should be taught in schools; it's personal. And when people bring the personal into their professional lives, they can never see the truth totally clearly.

  • Contrasting Regions

    All of Inherit the Wind takes place in the tiny town of Hillsboro, which the big-city reporter Hornbeck calls "the buckle of the Bible belt". Teehee. Luckily for us, enough out-of-towners show up for Bert's big trial that it's easy to see the contrast between city and country in this play. Hornbeck himself is considered to be an atheist devil by many of the townspeople, while Drummond is an agnostic demon. That right there is the conflict between city and country in a nutshell; Inherit the Wind tells the story of a heated battle between God-fearing small-towners and smart-aleck city slickers over the real origins of this world. Pretty cool, huh?

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Which character most represents the country, and which the city in this play? Why?
    2. Does the play privilege either the country or city, or does it treat these two regions equally?
    3. How do the characters' home regions shape their personalities in the play? How do we know who's a "city slicker" and who's a "country bumpkin" in this play?
    4. Do you think Inherit the Wind stereotypes city and country residents? Or does it provide a more nuanced picture of city and country life? Discuss particular characters and cite passages from the play in answering these questions.

    Chew on This

    The city and the country are shown to be equally intolerant in the play. Both sides are stubborn as all get-out; they're just stubborn about different beliefs.

    The play shows how people from small towns are backward and ignorant compared to people from the city… which is a common stereotype in the good old U.S. of A., in 1955 and today.

  • Defeat

    For every winner there's some sad, sorry loser in town. And no number of second-place trophies can cure that sting of defeat, right? Well, in Inherit the Wind, even the winners lose. And the losers feel like they've won. See, Bert's court case ends in an anticlimactic victory for the prosecution; he is pronounced guilty, but his sentence is so light that everyone thinks it's just a slap on the wrist. As a result, the defense parades around like they've won, with Drummond talking about how Bert won't pay his fine and they'll appeal this decision to a higher court and blah blah blah. Brady is so upset that he's lost his chance to make a strong example of Bert that he keels over in defeat. Literally. So this play just goes to show that one can find a win hidden in every defeat. And in every win, a loss.

    Questions About Defeat

    1. How do Bert and Brady deal with their defeats in the play? What do these coping strategies reveal about their characters?
    2. What do you think the play's message is when it comes to defeat? Is it positive or negative? How complex a picture do the playwrights paint of what it means to win or lose?
    3. Are there any real losers or real winners in the play? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Inherit the Wind is about finding victory, even in defeat.

    Inherit the Wind is about the defeat of tradition by modernity, by progress.

  • Education

    You're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big … These are the famous last words uttered to babysitters, older siblings, and, oh, yes, teachers. But really, teachers do have a lot of influence over the younger generations in a society, so naturally, people are pretty preoccupied with just what they're teaching all those fresh, malleable minds. Inherit the Wind shows us what happens when worry over what is being taught in public schools is taken to the extreme, and a biology teacher is put on trial for teaching about Darwin's theory of evolution. What's the proper separation between church and state, anyway? Questions like this one are still a big deal today.

    Questions About Education

    1. Who do you think has the right to decide what is taught in public schools? Why?
    2. What is the difference between Rachel's attitude toward education and Bert's? Where do you think their differences come from?
    3. How does Howard, Bert's student, contribute to the trial? What evidence does he provide, exactly?
    4. What do you think the goals of public education are? How is this vision of education similar to or different from the one presented in Inherit the Wind?

    Chew on This

    This play shows how public education is at the mercy of politics.

    Inherit the Wind proves just how important it is for the entire community to be involved in students' education.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Besides the obvious facts—the play is based on a real-life court case, and the climax is the verdict—Inherit the Wind contains some deeper critiques of the American justice system. In fact, we think it's the justice system itself that's really put on trial in this play, as the spectator is shown the unfairness of a system that would jail a person for speaking "the truth" (in this case, science). The trial proceedings also bring out the worst in both Brady, the hopelessly egocentric prosecuting attorney, and Drummond, an otherwise compassionate lawyer who simply must beat Brady. And once all is said and done, Bert's pronounced guilty, but his itty bitty fine leaves both sides feeling like they've kind of won, but kind of lost. It's all shades of grey in this play.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Do you think that justice is served in the play? Why or why not?
    2. What does the character of the Judge reveal about the justice system?
    3. How would you judge Bertram Cates, if you were the Judge?
    4. What do you think of Drummond and Brady—do they seem like realistic trial lawyers to you?

    Chew on This

    Justice is not served in Inherit the Wind, because the Mayor influences the Judge, and both Drummond and Brady have personal motivations for their actions in the courtroom.

    Justice is served in Inherit the Wind because the ever-selfish Brady dies at the end.

  • Principles

    Would you be willing to go to jail in order to teach something the law says you shouldn't, if you thought that thing was really important to the education of young minds? If you were a lawyer, would you defend someone who was sure to lose, just because you thought it was the right thing to do? These are tough decisions, but most of the characters in Inherit the Wind choose the high road without batting an eye. They are highly principled people who aren't willing to compromise their beliefs, no matter the consequences. And the consequences aren't always pretty.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Which of the characters in the play do you consider highly principled? Which of the characters do you consider more ego-driven than honorable?
    2. Are any of the characters in the play ever required to betray their values? If yes, what is it that they have to do? How do they seem to feel about making these compromises?
    3. Can someone be too principled? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Inherit the Wind shows that there are some conflicts of values that are simply irreconcilable.

    In the play, having principles is the most important characteristic a person can have. When everything else goes wrong, at least you can say you lived according to your beliefs.

  • Religion

    Did we come from monkeys, or were we created from the dust? That's the big question at the center of the trial in Inherit the Wind, and it's a question that many people believe pits religion against science. Do you think it's possible to reconcile the two? Or are they forever condemned to an eternal death match? This play suggests religion and science can co-exist—Drummond holds the Bible and The Origin of Species together, balancing them, at the end of the play. Plus, Inherit the Wind shows that some non-believers can be just as stubborn and judgmental as some religious leaders; the play shows us that these are flaws of mankind, not any particular man or woman.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think that Drummond is a religious man? Why or why not?
    2. What role does religion play in the life of the community of Hillsboro?
    3. How does religion affect the outcome of the trial, if at all?
    4. How do you understand Rachel's religious beliefs? Bert's?

    Chew on This

    Religion is made out to be an old-fashioned tradition that impedes progress in Inherit the Wind.

    The play shows that religion and science can coexist. It's all of our jobs to figure out how.