Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Society and Class

By Bertolt Brecht

Society and Class

RECRUITER: How can you muster a unit in a place like this? I've been thinking about suicide, sergeant. Here am I, got to find our commander four companies before the twelfth of the month, and people round here are so nasty I can't sleep nights. […] 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 takes us right into the world of Mother Courage, at the meeting point of war and the "little folk" who get involved with it. Our first look is through the eyes of a military man. Here, the recruiter complains about the low caliber of the lower class, Swedish locals and man, does he have some nasty things to say. His negative appraisal of the lower classes—"no notion of word of honour, loyalty, faith, sense of duty"—already names the virtues Mother Courage actively rejects.

YVETTE: […] No good our sort being proud. Eat s***, that's what you got to do, or down you go. (III, 68-69)

Alright, that's pretty blunt. When it comes to her options in life, Yvette doesn't exactly wax poetic. But some version of this attitude is shared by most of the characters in Mother Courage. When you're near the bottom of the ladder like Yvette, refusing to work out of pride might mean you'll never see the end of the war—if it ever ends, that is.

THE COOK: […] it cost the king dear trying to give freedom to Germany, what with giving Sweden the salt tax, what cost the poor folk a bit, so I've heard, on top of which he had to have the Germans locked up and drawn and quartered 'cause they wanted to carry on slaving for the emperor. Course the king took a serious view when anybody didn't want to be free. He set out by just trying to project Poland against the bad people, particularly the emperor, then it started to become a habit till he ended up protecting the whole of Germany. They didn't half kick. So the poor old king's had nowt but trouble for all his kindness and expenses, and that's something he had to make up for by taxes of course, which caused bad blood, not that he's let a little matter like that depress him. One thing he had on his side, God's word, that was a help. Because otherwise folk would of been saying he done it all for himself and to make a bit on the side. So he's always had a good conscience, which was the main point. (III, 189-207)

The cook is trying to be ironic. The Swedish king is financing the war by taxing the "poor folk," the lower classes. So, it's a good thing people are convinced this is God's war, because he's probably pocketing a lot of that tax money himself. Right? No. The cook doesn't think it's a good thing at all. In the context of Mother Courage, the cook's irony reminds us that this is an observation from below, a position where earnest resistance is neither an option nor a good idea.

MOTHER COURAGE: They'll never beat him, and why, his men got faith in him. Seriously: To go by what the big shots say, they're waging war for almighty God and in the name of everything that's good and lovely. But look closer, they ain't so silly, they're waging it for what they can get. Else little folk like me wouldn't be in it at all. (III, 212-217)

For Mother Courage, there seems to be a kind of agreement between the lower classes, people she calls "little folk like me," and the "big shots," the ones who wage wars. The big shots wage war for a profit, and the little folk will join anything just so long as they get their cut. "War of faith"? Think again.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] As a rule you can say victory and defeat both come expensive to us ordinary folk. Best thing for us is when politics get bogged down solid. (III, 347-349)

Yeah, being "ordinary" is never fun. Even if the lower classes are only in the war to get their piece of the profits, according to Mother Courage, they're still in a lose-lose situation. If they win or are defeated, that spells the end of their livelihood.

MOTHER COURAGE: Can't help feeling sorry for those generals and emperors, there they are maybe thinking they're doing something extra special what folk'll talk about in years to come […] I mean, he plagues hisself to death, then it all breaks down on account of ordinary folk what just wants their beer and bit of a chat, nowt higher. Finest plans get bolloxed up by the pettiness of them as should be carrying them out, because emperors can't do nowt themselves, they just counts on soldiers and people to back 'em up whatever happens, am I right? (VI, 46-50)

In Mother Courage's view, the head honchos have the say, but they don't have the power. The lower classes, the "ordinary folk" who fight and support the war, are the ones with the power to decide the outcome, but they've given up on any higher aspirations. Or maybe they haven't yet realized their power? Think about it…

THE CHAPLAIN: […] There've always been people going round saying "the war can't go on for ever." I tell you there's nothing to stop it going on for ever. […] It can suddenly come to a standstill for some quite unforeseen reason, you can't allow for everything. A slight case of negligence, and it's bogged down up to the axles. And then it's a matter of hauling the war out of the mud again. But emperor and kings and popes will come to its rescue. […] (VI, 63-75)

Picture the war as an enormous machine, and you'll have a pretty good idea what Chap is talking about here. The people fighting wars don't realize they belong to a mechanism run by the ruling elite: "emperor and kings and popes." But does he mean to say the "little folk" have no power at all?

THE CHAPLAIN: I'd say there's peace in war too; it has its peaceful moments. Because war satisfies all requirements, peaceable ones included, they're catered for, and it would simply fizzle out if they weren't. In war you can do a crap like in the depths of peacetime, then between one battle and the next you can have a beer, then even when you're moving up you can lay your head on your arms and have a bit of shuteye in the ditch, it's entirely possible. During a charge you can't play cards maybe, but nor can you in the depths of peacetime when you're ploughing, and after a victory there are various openings. You may get a leg blown off, then you start by making a lot of fuss as though it were serious, but afterwards you calm down or get given a schnapps, and you end up hopping around and the war's no worse off than before. And what's to stop you being fruitful and multiplying in the middle of all the butchery, behind a barn or something, in the long run you can't be held back from it, and then the war will have your progeny and can use them to carry on with. No, the war will always find an outlet, mark my words. Why should it ever stop? (VI, 102-120)

Chap has made quite a turnaround from thinking the war is for God to thinking it's a meaningless machine. Now he's convinced the war can continue forever because the lower classes have no ambitions beyond their everyday needs. So what's really changed?

THE CHAPLAIN: I told you I'm not a woodcutter by trade. I studied to be a pastor of souls. My talent and abilities are being abused in this place, by manual labour. […] (VI, 193-195)

We get it, Chap. We're not so much about the wood chopping, either. But seriously, this line is not just about splitting logs. It tells us a lot about how the chaplain sees himself and those around him. As an educated man, he belongs to a higher class. And, in case you didn't know, he's into the loftier things in life. How much of what the chaplain says about war and the lower classes can we understand based on his own class position? Does he feel entitled to critique the lower classes because of his education?

THE YOUNG PEASANT forced to his knees, with the pike threatening him: I won't do it, not to save my life.
FIRST SOLDIER: I know what'll change his mind. Goes towards the stable. Two cows and an ox. Listen, you: if you're not reasonable I'll chop up your cattle.
THE YOUNG PEASANT: No, not that!
THE PEASANT'S WIFE weeps: Please spare our cattle, captain, it'd be starving us to death.

Save the cattle! In a feudal society, which describes much of Europe in the seventeenth century, peasants are in the lowest social class. Mother Courage mostly portrays them as faceless bystanders. In this scene, the peasant's son is willing to sacrifice his life over that of his cattle. The soldier knows that if he kills the cattle, the entire peasant family will die. This glimpse into the lives of the peasant class suggests a world in which individual lives and heroism are less valued than the survival of the group.