Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Innocence

By Bertolt Brecht


MOTHER COURAGE: […] to Kattrin: 'Tain't your fault, you can't speak, I know. (I, 335)

Let's face it: when we talk about innocence as a theme in Mother Courage, we're usually talking about Kattrin. She is the one character who attempts to reclaim her voice, taken away from the war, by sacrificing herself to save others. This line is the first suggestion that Kattrin's inability to speak stands for her innocence and blamelessness. Though it seems insignificant, this line is important for allowing us to understand Kattrin's character development.

MOTHER COURAGE: Let that be a lesson, Kattrin. Don't you start anything with them soldiers. Love makes the world go round, I'm warning you […] Be thankful you're dumb, then you can't contradict yourself and won't be wanting to bite your tongue off for speaking the truth; it's a godsend, being dumb is. (III, 118-126)

This one seems a little counterintuitive, but Kattrin's muteness is often characterized as a good thing. For one, it means she's usually free of blame when things go wrong. But her mother also sees her muteness as a blessing because, as in this passage, it means she'll never be able to say she loves someone, or contradict herself, or speak the truth. All those things are framed here as ways innocence can be lost.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Thank the Lord they're corruptible. After all, they ain't wolves, just humans out for money. Corruption in humans is same as compassion in God. Corruption's our only hope. Long as we have it there'll be lenient sentences and even an innocent man'll have a chance of being let off. (III, 644-649)

In Mother Courage's world, traditional values get turned upside-down. So, she can be grateful for corruption, since she's definitely not naïve enough to think that there will be justice for the innocent.

FIRST SOLDIER: Those are Protestants. What they have to be Protestants for?

MOTHER COURAGE: They ain't bothering about faith. They lost their farm.

SECOND SOLDIER: They're no Protestants. They're Catholics like us.

FIRST SOLDIER: No way of sorting 'em out in a bombardment. (V, 27-33)

Darn, those peasants just don't stand out much. Peasants in Mother Courage tend to be portrayed as anonymous, innocent victims of warfare. When the soldiers debate about whether the injured peasants are Catholics or Protestants, it becomes even clearer how far outside the reach of wartime politics the peasants are. As Mother Courage says, they're probably more concerned with farming than with religious schisms.

MOTHER COURAGE: How nice, found another baby to cart around? Give it to its ma this instant, unless you'd have me fighting for hours to get it off you, like last time, d'you hear? (V, 52-54)

Just because Kattrin doesn't say, well, anything, doesn't mean we don't get to know her. In fact, we can often draw conclusions about Kattrin's thoughts and desires based on what her mother says about her. This, for instance, is where we learn about Kattrin's desire to be a mother. The fact that she still can have maternal longings when she has been so damaged by war is another indicator that her innocence seems able to defy wartime misery and cynicism. She is a symbol of hope. But as the play suggests, hope can be dangerous.

MOTHER COURAGE: Wish I knew what went on in that head of hers. Just once she stayed out all night, once in all those years. Afterwards she went around like before, except she worked harder. Couldn't get her to tell what had happened. Worried me quite a while, that did. She collects the articles brought by Kattrin, and sorts them angrily. That's war for you. Nice way to get a living! (VI, 269-275)

When it comes to Kattrin, mysterious doesn't even come close to describing her. There are aspects of Kattrin that remain inscrutable even to her own mother. Mother Courage seems to understand that Kattrin has sexual desires and a longing for a family of her own, yet she can't quite understand what stops Kattrin from acting on these desires and running off. In the end, this inscrutability adds to an image of Kattrin as sacrificial and innocent, almost to a point beyond comprehension.

THE CHAPLAIN: Now they'll be burying the commander in chief. This is a historic moment.

MOTHER COURAGE: What I call a historic moment is them bashing my daughter over the eye. She's half wrecked already, won't get no husband now, and her so crazy about kids; any road she's only dumb from war, soldier stuffed something in her mouth when she was little. As for Swiss Cheese I'll never see him again, and where Eilif is God alone knows. War be damned. (VI, 279-285)

Here's one of few moments when Mother Courage is not in total support of the war as business. It's one thing for her to have lost her own innocence. But when her innocent children are killed or injured, she reveals some darker feelings about war. This is short-lived, but its effect is to humanize Mother Courage.

THE COOK: Padre, I'm fed up already with this bloody peace. Human race has to go through fire and sword cause it's sinful from the cradle up. (VIII, 256-258)

Sheesh, Mr. Cook, that's a little harsh. This line might explain why the cook remains cynical about war and human values all the way until the end. He doesn't believe in innocence. He sees human beings as "sinful" by nature, living in a godless world that is ruled by war.

MOTHER COURAGE: Cooky, how's she to pull the cart on her own? War scares her. She'll never stand it. The dreams she must have…I hear her nights groaning. Mostly after a battle. What's she seeing in those dreams, I'd like to know. She's got a soft heart. Lately I found she'd got another hedgehog tucked away what we'd run over. (IX, 74-79)

Mother Courage turns down the cook's offer to open up an inn with him and start a stable business. She chooses instead to continue on with her daughter, who would have to stay behind if she joined the cook. Courage can't imagine leaving a daughter like Kattrin behind. C'mon, nothing says innocence like saving little hedgehogs. This is another instance in which Courage's need to protect her daughter adds a human element to her character.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Better if you'd not told her nowt about your brother-in-law's kids. (XII, 22)

Kattrin is dying, after saving her mother and a town full of people. Now, you'd think her mother would be proud of her bravery. Instead, Mother Courage suggests that it wasn't Kattrin's strength of character, but her weakness and vulnerability that brought about her death. In one of the last moments of the play, Mother Courage still cannot accept an act of self-sacrifice.