Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Principles

By Bertolt Brecht


RECRUITER: How can you muster a unit in a place like this? […] No notion of word of honour, loyalty, faith, sense of duty. This place has shattered my confidence in the human race, sergeant. (I, 3-13)

The first line of the play sounds like something someone might think about the main characters of Mother Courage. Namely, that they don't care much about principles. Who knows? Maybe their actions "shatter" our own confidence in the human race.

MOTHER COURAGE: Courage is the name they gave me because I was scared of going broke, sergeant, so I drove me cart right through the bombardment of Riga with fifty loaves of bread aboard. They were going mouldy, it was high time, hadn't any choice really. (I, 75-79)

If you think Mother Courage is out to impress you with a story about her valiant conduct, well, forget about it. She makes it clear that, even when she seems to be acting "courageously," she doesn't think much about the virtues of her actions. What's more important is that she needs money to survive.

THE GENERAL slapping Eilif on the shoulder: Now then, Eilif my son, into your general's tent with you and sit thou at my right hand. For you accomplished a deed of heroism, like a pious cavalier, and doing what you did for God, and in a war of religion at that, is something I commend in you most highly, you shall have a gold bracelet as soon as we've taken this town. Here we are, come to save their souls for them, and what do those insolent dung-encrusted yokels go and do? Drive their beef away from us. They stuff it into those priests of theirs all right, back and front, but you taught 'em manners, ha! So here's a pot or red wine for you, the two of us'll knock it back at one gulp. (II, 45-56)

"For God"? For hamburgers is more like it. When we read this line, it's hard not to notice the way the general extols Eilif's virtues, claiming he acted "for God," only to emphasize a seemingly more important point: Eilif has found a way to feed the army. Eilif didn't steal cattle to please the Lord; he stole cattle to get something to eat.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Look, s'pose some general or king is bone stupid and leads his men up s*** creek, then those men've got to be fearless, there's another virtue for you. S'pose he's stingy and hires too few soldiers, then they got to be a crowd of Herculeses. And s'pose he's slapdash and don't give a bugger, then they got to clever as monkeys else their number's up. Same way they got to show exceptional loyalty each time he gives them impossible jobs. Nowt but virtues no proper country and no decent king or general would ever need. In decent countries folk don't have to have virtues, the whole lot can be perfectly ordinary, average intelligence, and for all I know cowards. (II, 161-172)

If you're in need of moral support, we don't recommend Mother Courage. She turns the usual thinking about virtue on its head. She thinks virtuous behavior is necessary, just a way to compensate for the foolishness of the leadership. This reminds us of Eilif's situation with the general, when Eilif's "deed of heroism" (see II, 47), stealing cattle from peasants to feed the army, is no more than a clever way to deal with a problem the general can't fix himself: starvation.

MOTHER COURAGE: Don't you forget they made you paymaster cause you was honest, not dashing like your brother, and above all so stupid. I bet you ain't even thought of clearing off with it, no not you. (III, 39-42)

When it comes to virtue, honesty is a no-brainer. But for Mother Courage, the fact that Swiss Cheese is "honest," meaning he doesn't lie or cheat or even think about stealing the money entrusted to him, isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, Swiss Cheese ends up endangering his family and getting himself killed.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] 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, 123-126)

If Swiss Cheese's honesty is hardly a blessing, at least Kattrin's muteness seems to have its benefits, according to Mother Courage. Without a voice, Kattrin can't risk getting into trouble for speaking the truth. Needless to say, we usually think speaking the truth is a good thing, a principle to live by. In Kattrin's case, when she tries to "speak" up to save her mother and townspeople, she loses her life. But does Kattrin still prove her mother wrong?

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)

Help us, corruption, you're our only hope. Mother Courage not only sees an indifference to virtue in her world; she counts on it, the same way some people believe in God. This line makes a point of equating two concepts, compassion and corruption. While we might think of these as opposites, the words themselves sound similar, and that adds to the humorous-cynical effect of their comparison.

YOUNG SOLDIER: Out of there, you thief! I'll slice you into pork chops, I will. Pocketing my prize money after I'd swum the river, only one in the whole squadron, and now I can't even buy meself a beer. I'm not standing for that. Come on out there so I can cut you up! (IV, 22-26)

C'mon, taking this guy's tip is a low blow. This young soldier is an example of someone in Mother Courage who stands up for something he believes in. But in the end, Mother Courage talks him down. Though he is willing to protest something small, like not receiving a tip for saving the colonel's horse, he's not so willing to stand up for the larger injustice, which is the fact that he and his fellow soldiers don't have enough food.

THE CHAPLAIN: Where's that linen?

MOTHER COURAGE: I can't give nowt. What with expenses, taxes, loan interest and bribes. Making guttural noises, Kattrin raises a plank and threatens her mother with it. […] (V, 35-38)

Sheesh. It almost seems like this line is designed to prevent us from feeling sympathy for Mother Courage. A peasant family has been injured during a Catholic attack, and even then, all she thinks about is money. This line shocks us into wondering whether Mother Courage has any morals at all.

Here you can see respectable folk
Keeping to God's own laws.
So far he hasn't taken heed.
You who sit safe and warm indoors
Help to relieve our bitter need!
How virtuously we had begun!
The world however didn't wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It's fear of God that brought us to that state.
How fortunate the man with none! (IX, 151-160)

The song shared by the cook and Mother Courage is all about the downside of virtue. You think being courageous, wise and self-sacrificing is worth your while? Well, this song asks, why? Does virtue feed you when you're hungry?