Mother Courage and Her Children: Dehumanization and Futility of War

Categories: Theatre

Brecht, like Wilfred Owen was against war. The ‘pity of war’ beautifully finds its abode in Owen’s war poetry. Brecht and Owen had developed the attitude of anti-war through their experience of war. Brecht through his play “Mother Courage and Her Children” portrays his anti-war attitude, bringing to light the havoc caused by war, resulting in depression in the economy by affecting the lives of the common people, their behaviour, and morals. Unlike writers who had the romantic notion for war, Wilfred Owen, Bertolt Brecht had acknowledged to the readers the futile image of war in their work.

Owen’s attitude of anti-war and dehumanization caused by war is perfectly reflected in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The title of the poem was borrowed from Horace, which states “It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country”. In the persistent fashion of using this term, S. J. Harrison in his work observes “Its frequent appearance on war memorials had led to sardonic and bitter reactions from writers, such as Wilfred Owen and Bertolt Brecht”.

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Owen subverts the meaning of that idea by satirising war; Brecht also shows his anti-war attitude in his magnum opus “Mother Courage and Her Children”. Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” gives a reflection of his bitterness and his sorrowful experience of war in a battlefield, mainly First World War. Likewise, Brecht had to migrate from one place to another because of the devastating horrors and turmoil caused by the Second World War.

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“Mother Courage and Her Children” is Brecht’s satire and reflection of a society capitulated by war and portrays about the war of religion between Catholic and Protestants.

Wilfred Owen in his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ portrays the dehumanisation effect of war, the merciless inhuman treatment of the soldiers, who die in the battlefield. He shatters the romantic ideals of war by depicting the widespread destruction caused to life, property. His main focus lies on subverting the glorification associated with the name of war by slapping at the face of humanity, who had since ages have made a vague attempt to preach war as a glorious deed. On the other hand Brecht through his genius in “Mother Courage and Her Children” had tried to show the agencies of war, through which people try to attain profit. The country which goes through war has to invest large amount of money. Hence the entire economy of the country is imbalanced, resulting in depression. Yet there are people who glorify war like the Sergeant in the play, who through their wit, brainwash the innocents like Eilif to enlist in the army for the fulfilment of their own selfish motives. The innocent lots who engage themselves have no choice left but to face destruction or death. Their acts are nothing fruitful but futile. War also impacts Kattrin, the victimiser of war, both physically and psychologically and degrades Courage to such an extent to show her self-centred nature as she lacks the sense of fellow feeling and compassion. Courage has made war a business. Hence not every person is successful in making profit from war as it completely brings total destruction to humanity and is futile. Hence “Mother Courage and Her Children” to a greater extent draws similarities with the theme of Owen’s poem that depicts dehumanising effects and futility caused by war.

In “Mother Courage and Her Children”, war is titled on Religion which is allowing bloodshed. This is evident from the background of the play i.e. the war between the Protestants and the Catholics. This is in close connections to Owen’s poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, where power hungry rulers are waging war in the name of glory for their own selfish satisfaction.

The play begins with the Recruiter trying to enlist people for raising a troop. He is unable to find anyone enlisting or showing any enthusiasm or faith in it. This also depicts the horror associated with war as nobody wants to give up their life. The Sergeant is acting for the agency of war. His notion of war is based on his greed for power and fulfilment of his wishes and so he comments “peace – that is just a mess; takes a war to restore order” . The Sergeant, who seems to be in a much greater position than commoners, also bears the notion of making jobs from war. The Recruiter finds Courage and her children coming. Mother Courage, the canteen woman, carries her cart, which sells goods like boots, guns and rum. Courage tries to advertise the needs of boots in war and she comments “How can you flog them into battle, unless you get them boots that fit?” Courage’s gesture over here is like a business person, trying to gain profit from war. In Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ states “many had lost their boots”, this emphasises the need of boots in war. Hence Claire Gleitman in his work rightly comments on Courage’s attitude that “She knows what war is about and she seems to have no illusion about the use which the goods, she sells will serve.” In the very same Scene when Courage tries to make profit from the Sergeant and the Recruiter, by offering them a drink, these two people very tactfully takes Eilif to the army with them despite Courage’s disagreement. This reflects the profit making agencies of higher officials who preach war. Courage makes profits by selling goods for war but does not want her son, Eilif to enrol in it. Her hypocrisy is mocked by the Sergeant as he comments “Like the war to nourish you? Have to feed it something too.” Courage is also seen haggling many a times in the play. At first she tries to exploit the cook by demanding a florin for a capon. Courage becomes so inhuman and business minded that she does not let the Chaplain to use her commodity, when he is of its utmost need as he was bleeding. Her money mindedness is also brought to the forefront, when a soldier is unable to pay for the drink and Courage demands his fur coat. In Scene 2, the General demands to feast on meat, it also shows that the corrupt General has money in abundance, but the common cook is exploited in this. When Swiss Cheese was taken into arrest, Courage haggles with her money. Thus Herbert Blau in his work argues “her needs are more superior”. Her being cheapskate in providing the lump sum amount for Swiss Cheese, results in his execution. In Scene 6, Courage sends Kattrin to buy new stock and comments “War’ll go on a bit longer and we’ll make a bit more money.” (Brecht 54). She tries to make money from war but on the other hand comments “war be damned” (Brecht 59), when she finds Kattrin returning molested. Still Courage is at a better position from war in Scene 7, having a silver necklace. Thus Robert Vork in his work observes “Courage survival depends upon her ability to suppress herself and her voice along with those of her family and all those characters in the play who persists at the margins of war”. This proves her business mindedness being the reason behind the death of her children. Her haggling for money causes death of Swiss Cheese. Her business trip being the reason behind the death of Eilif and Kattrin and thus Vork in his work demonstrates “Courage’s life decisions are framed at all times by the larger context of their devastating effects on the lives of her three children”. So towards the end, the greater officials make profit from war but Courage travels alone. War dwindle her family and leaves her childless, penniless and loveless. Though she moves on with the cart for business, without realising that war has made the meaning of her life futile i.e. left her with no family. Hence Claire Gleitman in his work argues “war brought them not only suffering but also the inability to learn from it”. This perfectly highlights Wilfred Owen’s message from the poem, where he mocks the leaders who make profits from war, while others who engage in it falls victim to it.

Courage seems to lack humanity; her mind is charged by business all the time. She does not care for Kattrin’s marriage and sexuality. She does not want war to end as it is her profit making organisation, she gives fake hope to Kattrin for her marriage during peace time. Thus Courage is acting like those officials who deceive people by showing them dreams, those officials, who glorify war. From the chaplain, it is evident that Courage talks in a ‘dry way’. She is stoic and shows no emotion to anyone or her children. She is unable to save Swiss Cheese also when the dead body of Swiss Cheese arrives, She cunningly fails to recognise him, in order to save herself, also shows her self-centred nature. This goes in tune with Owen’s extract “before my helpless sight”, over here the narrator was not able to save a fellow soldier, and Courage is unable to save Swiss Cheese. Courage as a mother does not feel the pain for her daughter being dumb but a blessing as she says “It can’t be that hard, once you’ve born dumb, it’s a Godsend, being dumb is”, Vork in his work demonstrates “She can’t contradict and is saved from speaking truth?”. Courage in a very cold manner says “Soldier stuffed something in her mouth when she was little”. (Brecht 59). This reflects neither she cares for Kattrin’s feelings nor her psychology. War has dehumanising effect on Courage’s behaviour that left her with no heart, not even for her children as she speaks of Kattrin’s molestation in a matter of fact way, showing no remorse. Eilif slaughters a peasant’s family for food, this act is appreciated by the General as heroic but it’s purely barbaric. Thus the thirty years war has dehumanising effect on Courage. War changes the nature of a person, even Eilifs’ act of butchery is considered heroic, as virtues are destroyed at the time of war.

War has brought misbalance in the economy; the worst sufferers are always the common people. This theme can be highlighted perfectly with Brecht’s poem, “From a German War Primer”. The Cook referred to as lamb, earns his livelihood by cooking at an army camp. Courage exploits him with huge sum, and also the General demands for meat. His livelihood depends on preparing food but not having any. Thus the class difference is evidence from Brecht’s poem, “The fact is: they have/ Already eaten/ The lowly must leave this earth/ without having tasted/ Any good meat/, when peace is declared he loses his job but gets hold of the inn of his mother. Hence Gleitman in his work argues “The commoners always talk about war in Mother Courage but war disempowers them”. Kattrin was molested in her childhood but later on, she was disfigured. Her aspirations and her dream remain unfulfilled. She died saving the town of Halle. Eilif dies young for his same act, which was considered barbaric at peace and Swiss Cheese dies for stealing. This draws similarity here with Brecht’s poem, “They have not yet seen/ the mountains and the great sea/ When their time is already up”. Yvette, due to poverty during war, turns into a prostitute and sells her body. She becomes fat and disfigured; her marrying a Colonel takes her into nobility. This again draws similitude with Brecht’s verse “If the lowly do not/ think about what’s low/ They will never rise”. The family of the Peasant are the worst sufferer of war. The lives of the cattle become more important to them than their own. This incident happens in Scene 11, as the peasant’s family was threatened by the soldier that they will kill the cattle. Thus Brecht’s poem states “The bread of the hungry has/ all been eaten.”... The workers cry out for bread”. Thus Gleitman in his work argues “Battles fought in market place and not in fields and its battalions are commoners struggling to survive within the economic conditions established by war”. Hence war is the medium which brings nothing but futility and devastation. Brecht’s poem states “There were conquerors and conquered/ Among the conquered the common people starved/ Among the conquerors the common people starved too”. Hence it is evident that those who try to overpower war or let war overpower them can never attain victory from it, as common people can never attain victory from war and war is by nature futile. Blau in his work rightly observes “There is no safe and sane and no celebration of common man”.

Kattrin, one of the most important characters in the play, shows courage. In scene V, the war seems to expand in more areas. Courage faces loss in her business. The victory of Tilly causes loss for her. The Chaplain bleeds and Courage refuses to aid him. Courage shows inhumanity, money mindedness and thinks about her profit, thus she argues “I’m giving nowt, don’t want to, got to think of meself.” (Brecht 49). Kattrin at that point saves the baby from fire and she also shows humanity by forcing Courage to offer the linen to the Chaplain. “Kattrin raises a plank and threatens her mother with it”. (Brecht 49). Hence Kattrin’s bravery is reflected, she acts like a constructive force, trying to bring an order to the society through her love, hospitability and compassion for others. However war does not do her any good. Kattrin is an embodiment of virtues; she has dreams and aspirations which are curbed by war. She returns molested and disfigured therefore, her wish of possessing a husband and family remains unfulfilled. Hence war shatters her dreams and Courage claims “she is dumb from war”. (Brecht 59). After the trauma of molestation, Kattrin does not come before anyone and stays aloof. Courage as a mother fails to provide Kattrin comfort and also fails to understand her heart and mind. Kattrin’s speechlessness also reflects the “psychic and physical rape of her heart” as demonstrated by Vork in his work; he further argues that “the survivor’s silent testimony bears witness only to the aftermath”. Courage describes Kattrins dumbness in a very cold hearted manner as if nothing much had happened shows Courage’s insensitivity and lack of motherly affection. So, when Kattrin cries in front of Courage, she commands her to mute her tears, Courage is unable to show sympathy or affection to Kattrin. To this Vork in his work argues that “no healing is provided as because other people’s life depends on it”. Hence it is evident that for Courage, her first priority is business and war serves profiteering purpose in her life, therefore she can’t go against it. The above segment finds a resemblance with Brecht’s poem, “Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry/ of wonderful times to come”. Courage argues “war gives its people a better deal”, (Brecht 59), from this response, Courage seems to depict war as positive agent as she profits from it. Courage boldly shows Kattrin, her sole purpose for not accompanying the Cook. It was her business and not Kattrin, further questions the motherhood of Courage. Hence Kattrin’s silence also depicts the unbridgeable gap between them, as Courage fails to understand her. Kattrin, the innocent girl becomes victim to war. On one hand, Courage makes business from war; on the other hand, Kattrin tries to save people from the butchery of war in the town of Halle. Kattrin is an emblem for change, when the peasant woman prays to save the people from the horrors of war; Kattrin takes the initiative of alarming people by beating the drums. Kattrin’s effort of trying to bring a change is ambitious but her end is tragic, as she is shot dead. Kattrin’s drumming is purposeful as it has a constructive effect to the town; her contribution saves the life of the innocent people and renders her humane. It also shows her resistance and revolutionary spirit though she is dumb but her deeds echo after she is dead. Thus Vork in his work argues that “One life has spared the life of many”. Kattrin, the young blood and the young mind is filled with revolutionary spirit but the cruel hands of war nullify her existence. The society is ravaged by war, the one who make profit from it want it to remain active, while the victims want peace. War brings eternal silence to Kattrin, hence war brings huge loss to innocent and revolutionary people like Kattrin who work for the betterment of people. This draws similarity to Owens poem, as he speaks about the loss of innocent soldiers who die in the battlefield and is a huge loss to society. Vork in his work has perfectly argued that “Kattrin’s loss can’t be repaid”. This shows the futile nature of war i.e huge losses to life to those are the future of tomorrow. Thus for Courage war prospers her business but on the contrary brings futility to her life as Vork argues “her second generation is wasted in war”.

Brecht had tried to showcase the life of the common people, in Mother Courage; they are the worst sufferers as the futile nature of war makes their life miserable, while the rich officials remain unaffected by war. War also dehumanizes people by making them unethical thereby bringing change in their behavior as they are caught to choose between their survivals or negate all relations and fellow feelings as observed in Courage. Brecht in his poem states “those at the top say/ this way to glory/ those down below say/ this way to grave” and in Mother Courage higher officials glorify war and the commoners gets exploited, In Owen’s poem, Owen negates war as a medium of deriving glory and hence calls it “the old lie”. Thus Brecht and Owen show their resolute towards the futile nature of war.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Mother Courage and Her Children: Dehumanization and Futility of War. (2024, Feb 05). Retrieved from

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