Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Wealth

By Bertolt Brecht


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)

You'd think someone named "Courage" would try to live up to her calling. But here Mother Courage makes it obvious that it's not a name she chose for herself. Even when she seems to be valiant, she's really in it for the money. That is one of the first reasons why Mother Courage is not your typical war hero.

SERGEANT: Oh, you'd like war to eat the pips but spit out the apple? It's to fatten up your kids, but you won't invest in it. Got to look after itself, eh? (I, 199-201)

The sergeant might be onto something, here. A contradiction is at the heart of Mother Courage's obsession with making money off the war while insisting that her children remain out of harm's way. Her story suggests you can't have that cake and eat it, too. (So to speak.)

RECRUITER has taken Eilif by the arm and is leading him away up stage: Ten florins bounty money, then you're a gallant fellow fighting for the king and women'll be after you like flies. (I, 323-325)

Like flies, you say? How tempting. The army first tries to recruit Eilif by injuring his pride, when the recruiter calls him a "chicken" (I, 161), and then turns to promises of wealth and women. Joining the army is sold not just as a livelihood, but also as a way to acquire prestige.

SERGEANT looking after them:
Like the war to nourish you?
Have to feed it something too.

This sergeant sure knows how to bust a rhyme. These are the last lines of Scene 1, and they foreshadow the way things go down in Mother Courage. As Mother Courage departs, already one child short of three, the sergeant's lines remind us of her conundrum: counting on the war to feed you might mean you'll lose everything you love.

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. […] (II, 45-50)

Jackpot! Not only is Eilif promised a gold bracelet; he is invited to share a meal with the general in his special tent. War sets up a system of values and rewards, but when it's over, it's over. When Eilif tries to pull a similar move during peacetime, he's executed. Talk about tough luck.

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 […] 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)

So, what exactly was the main point? In this ironic passage, the cook suggests the king started the war just to raise taxes on his own people. While the war is touted as a war of faith, the cook seems to think that just covers up the reality. War is about money.

MOTHER COURAGE: That's how it goes. Here they sit, one with his faith and the other with his cash box. Dunno which is more dangerous. (III, 321-324)

Mother Courage thinks two things are driving the war: money and talk about religion. Having a lot of either on hand is dangerous when you're just trying to make it through the war.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Look, victory and defeat ain't bound to be same for the big shots up top as for them below, not by no means. Can be times the bottom lot find a defeat really pays them. Honour's lost, nowt else. […] 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, 340-344)

Okay, war might be all about profit, but it definitely profits different people differently. That's what Mother Courage is trying to say here. Just because the "big shots" are also in it for the money doesn't mean "the bottom lot," meaning people like Mother Courage, have their leaders' interests at heart either. Mother Courage's allegiance to the war has nothing to do with the war's outcome. What's best for people in her case, who are just trying to make their living, is when the war keeps going at a steady pace.

MOTHER COURAGE: All your victories mean to me is losses. (V, 57)

Money warps the perspective Mother Courage takes on the war. Here she's complaining that the chaplain has taken some of her shirts to bandage the wounds of peasants injured in a Catholic victory. The "losses" refer to the money she'd hoped to make on the shirts.

THE CHAPLAIN: […] But when I see you picking up peace betwixt your finger and your thumb like some dirty old snot-rag, then my humanity feels outraged; for then I see that you don't want peace but war, because you profit from it; in which case you shouldn't forget the ancient saying that whosoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon. (VIII, 141-146)

Ouch, Chap. This man really doesn't mince words. As the chaplain sees it, Mother Courage's desire for money has pushed her beyond the limits of humanity. She would rather war and brutality continued, just so she could stay in business. Foreshadowing the play's end, he warns her to remain aware of the consequences of her actions.