Mother Courage: Metaphors

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War Images and Metaphors


In Brecht’s poetic and compressed style, images and metaphors are important for conveying the overall effect. He uses devouring metaphors for war, such as eating. As terrible as it is, war is attractive to young men. Mother Courage complains about her sons wanting to enlist: “They take to war like a cat to cream” (Scene 1, p. 31). Leaders like war as well. For King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, “First it was just Poland he tried to protect from bad men, especially the Kaiser, then his appetite grew with eating, and he ended up protecting Germany too” (3, p. 48). Mother Courage’s middle child is called “Swiss Cheese.” He is an innocent, and it does not take long for him to be eaten up by the war. When the recruiting officer says what they need in the army is discipline, Mother Courage says no, they need “sausages” (Scene 1, p. 26). Her business is to supply or feed the armies that are tearing each other to pieces.


War is an uncontrollable beast. The Chaplain calls Mother Courage a “hyena of the battlefield” (Scene 8, p. 87). There is something more beastly than a beast, however, and that is an army. Mother Courage tries to bribe the officers to let Swiss Cheese go, saying confidently, “They’re not wolves, they’re human and after money” (Scene 3, p. 61). She tells the Cook that the troops are starving, having laid waste the fields in their siege of Wllhof, Poland—they are all fighting to catch the same field rat to eat. She is trying to sell him meat, a rare commodity that can turn men into killers. Her own son turns into a monster to get bullocks for the army by duping and killing peasants. This becomes a heroic deed to the Commander, for in war it is eat or be eaten. In the Siege of Magdeburg (Scene Five), the Catholic forces go out of control and massacre almost all the inhabitants. The soldier wearing a woman’s fur coat for plunder makes him seem as if he has turned into an animal.


War is like gambling, says the Swedish sergeant in Scene One. It is hard to get it going, but once a war is going, it is hard to stop, like a dice game. Mother Courage is constantly speculating and gambling on whether to buy supplies to sell. Sometimes she wins; sometimes she loses. Losing, however, seems built into the game, for she and all the players leave empty-handed, both victors and defeated, Protestant and Catholic, nobles and peasants, city and countryside. When Mother Courage makes the sergeant and her children draw slips of paper out of the hat to tell the future, all of them pick a black cross, meaning death. There is gambling in a war, but only one fortune for everyone.


Business Images and Metaphors


There are many business metaphors in the play. Mother Courage knows it is not a war of religion; it is a war of business. She says, “In business you ask what price, not what religion” (Scene 3, p. 52). She says this to explain why she sells to either side. She got her name by selling bread during a siege. She does not risk her life for a cause, but for her business. In the beginning, Mother Courage is excited about the war; she says she comes from Bamberg, Bavaria, to Sweden because she can’t wait for the war to get to her. She sings, “For they can get from Mother Courage/ Boots to march in till they die” (Scene 1, p. 24). The Recruiting Officer does not want to buy her wares, but he wants to buy her sons for the war. He tells the Sergeant to get Mother Courage involved in a business transaction as he buys Eilif with money and promises. The Sergeant warns her, “When a war gives you all you earn/ One day it may claim something in return!” (Scene 1, p. 33). Mother Courage has to pay for her success with her children’s lives.


In an argument with the Chaplain, Mother Courage claims that the soldiers follow King Gustavus Adolphus, not because of religion, but because they believe in him: “they want a good profit out of it, or else the little fellows like you and me wouldn’t back ‘em [the leaders] up (Scene 3, p. 48). It’s all a business proposition, as she sings in Scene Seven. She tells Yvette, “If I look ahead and make no mistakes, business will be good” (Scene 3, p. 43). The regimental cash box protected by Swiss Cheese becomes a symbol of what the war is really about. Everyone fights over it, including Mother Courage, and it causes her son’s death. No matter what tragedies occur, Mother Courage finds strength in doing her business. Even at the end of the play, with all her children gone, she harnesses herself to the wagon and says, “I must get back into business” (Scene 12, p. 111). The canteen cart itself, dragged through war zones, is a major metaphor for business. All the characters gather around it to find shelter or to make a deal. There they buy and sell, speculate, gamble, and endure.


Religious Images and Metaphors


Religion is a topic for Brecht’s strongest satire, for the religion of the characters is rife with hypocrisy. Both sides declare their violence in the name of God. When it serves a purpose, the war becomes a holy war, as the Swedish Commander praises Eilif for killing peasants to get cattle: “You’ve played a hero’s part, you’ve served the Lord in his own Holy War” (Scene 2, p. 35).


Mother Courage is irreverent. In Scene One when asked for her papers by the Swedish soldiers, she proves she is Protestant by showing them a Catholic missal she wraps cucumbers in. She is also pragmatic; she tells the Chaplain, “I don’t have a soul” (Scene 6, p. 78). This allows her freedom of movement and conscience. When she is caught behind the Catholic lines in Scene Three, she hides the Protestant Chaplain who is cowardly and takes off his pastor’s clothes, becoming her barman. His taking off his Protestant clothes is a metaphor for the shallowness of his religion. In this period of history, people and governments frequently changed their religion to suit their needs. Mother Courage and the Chaplain pretend to be Catholics, and she is able to double talk about holy candles and the anti-Christ, terms she learned from Swiss Cheese’s Catholic father. She takes religion with a grain of salt since her travels have been extensive. She has come from Catholic Bavaria when the play starts, where Protestants are persecuted. The city of Bamberg which she just left, became famous for witch burnings that reached a height during the Thirty Years’ War. Mother Courage could easily have been seen as a witch with her brood of illegitimate children, ability to tell fortunes, and her business skill.


Usually references to religion are comic, but the death of Swiss Cheese is a tragic moment in the play, and the Chaplain highlights the parallel of the innocent Swiss Cheese to Christ by singing “The Song of the Hours” about the passion of Christ on the cross (Scene Three). In this analogy, Mother Courage is a Judas figure, selling her son out for money, for holding on to her cart instead of immediately getting the cash to set him free. As Peter denied Jesus, so she denies her son when the soldiers show her his dead body.


Kattrin symbolizes the trauma of women in the war and the ways in which they are restricted by religious and social concepts. She is dumb, her mother explains, because of some event having to do with a soldier. She never says anything explicit, but it is clear that she suspects Kattrin has had a lover or misadventure with a man. Mother Courage calls her the stone of Dalarna because no one can get any information from her, but she tells Kattrin being dumb is a blessing, for she won’t get into trouble with men. A stone is not noticed. Kattrin wants a normal life and wants to have children. The Chaplain thinks she is attractive when he first meets her, but she is disfigured in the battle by a saber cut to the face and becomes ashamed of her looks. Her mother says now she won’t have a husband, but comforts her with an analogy: it is the straight trees that are cut for timber. The crooked trees are left alone. These images of the stone and crooked tree illustrate that she is invisible and undesirable. The facial scar and dumbness are also metaphors for Kattrin’s suffering. The red boots stolen by her from the prostitute Yvette symbolize her womanhood and desire to be sexy. Kattrin becomes a martyr by beating the drum to save the children of the village. War brings out in women the whore/saint dichotomy religion foists on them. Brecht has the last word, however, by making the prostitute Yvette the only successful person in the play: the war makes her a rich widow. Once again, it is ironically shown that virtue does not pay, no matter what religion may say.

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