It is a truth universally acknowledged that children are our world’s future. So much so that Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, characters from Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, take it upon themselves to run a boarding school for young girls. The sweet and innocent notion of educating young girls is turned upside down when a student named Mary initiates a series of harmful lies that change the lives of many characters. What is interesting about the lies she initiates, is that she deflects from words that are essential to the lies and implies many circumstances. Mary hints that her teachers, Karen and Martha, are lesbians, but refers to their assumed affair without coming right out and saying it.
When speaking to Mrs. Tilford, Mary tiptoes around the word lesbian and refers to Martha’s (insinuated) feelings as “funny” or “unnatural.” As Mary says, “She said there was something funny about it, and that Miss Dobie had always been like that, even when she was a little girl and that it was unnatural.” It becomes clear how much more powerful it is to refer to lesbianism in an indirect way, than to call it by name. The speculation of the topic has more power than the topic itself. The words “funny,” “that,” and “unnatural” bring more emphasis to the topic because it enables Mary to keep speaking of lesbianism freely while deteriorating Martha’s reputation. By using these words, Mary is able to hide her insidious intentions to make herself seem like an innocent child that does not understand serious topics, though she obviously does. This seems like an intentional choice by Hellman to show how society acknowledges lesbianism but refuses to speak of it openly as if it truly is unnatural. Furthermore, Hellman’s choice to have Mary be the first character to talk about lesbianism in such a shy manner, demonstrates how society has childlike and negative views of the Gay and Lesbian communities.
Furthermore, the word that Mary uses that has more impact is “unnatural.” In fact, it deeply disturbs Mrs. Tilford and Mary is able to beguile her with this. After hearing Mary rant, Mrs. Tilford asks Mary to, “ Stop using that silly word.” Mary replies, “But that was the word she [Mrs. Mortar] kept using.” Here, the impact of the word “unnatural” makes Mrs. Tilford uncomfortable because Mary talks about adult themes that are difficult for young children to understand. It is, in fact, quiet unnatural for Mary to speculate what is “unnatural” as she is just a child, and this also shows how malicious Mary is. The dialogue between Mary and Mrs. Tilford reveals how fast Mary is able to think on her feet because she quickly reminds Mrs. Tilford that it was Mrs. Mortar who emphasized “unnatural.” Mary uses Mrs. Mortar as some vague evidentiary support since Mary emphasizes “she.” What is alarming in this passage is that the stage directions for the play state that Mary, “Vaguely realize[s] that she is on the right track, [and] hurries on [with the story].” Here, Mary is further characterized as a manipulative and smart character. Though Mrs. Tilford is not sure if she should believe Mary, the topic still manages to fluster her and Mrs. Tilford digresses from the topic as well since she focuses on the words that Mary uses and not the content.
Hellman makes a subtle emphasis on the importance of education consisting of more than reading, writing, and arithmetic, but to also include social justice. Throughout the play, it is unclear whether or not Martha was indeed a lesbian or not because she confesses to Karen that maybe she loved her “the way they said.” Because of society’s crippling homophobia and pressure, Martha is led to believe she is a lesbian because she never married, and felt sad that Karen would be getting married soon, thus leading to her eventual suicide. If it is to be true that children are the future, Hellman proposes that tolerance should be part of the curriculum, especially when it comes to talking about LGBTQ issues.
Lillian Hellman was born in Louisiana in 1905 and died June 30 1984. She attended Columbia University and New York University while being exposed to different cultures. Throughout her career, she wrote plays to promote political activism and social justice, especially with works such as The Children’s Hour and Watch The Rhine.