Mother Courage Endures Life Itself

Bertolt Brecht. Mother Courage and Her Children. 1939. Blackly comic tragedy.

Mother_CourageAnna Fierling (aka “Mother Courage”) is a rough-voiced, sturdy, hard-bitten peasant woman with a very strong survival instinct. She earned her epithet by driving a wagon out of a besieged city through enemy lines, lest the bread she’d been selling be spoiled if she lingered. Now her horse has died and she and her three grown children are dragging their peddler’s wagon themselves, trudging along in the wake of the Protestant armies that annihilated millions as they marched back and forth across the ravaged seventeenth-century German landscape during the Thirty Years’ War.

Writing as World War II exploded across Europe, Bertolt Brecht made this play into a radical antiwar polemic, a blackly comic tragedy that captures not only the evils of war but also the weakness or meanness of the human beings who wage and endure it. Mother Courage is one such weak and mean person (not nasty, just normal). She profits from war like a vulturine venture capitalist, following in the wake of the marching armies like a corpse-feasting raven from Odin’s shoulder.

“Real,” unselfish courage in wartime will only get you killed, as Courage’s children, one by one, prove. Only Mother Courage herself, too hard-nosed and disillusioned to contemplate acting the hero, survives the end of this tragedy, resolving her heartbreak into the iconic final image of her hitching herself to the wagon and trudging off after the next army.

“Courage” implies choosing to perform heroic deeds, but Mother Courage does nothing braver than living. That makes her into a damned fine existential hero, for she embodies the truism that living in this grim world, without hope of its ever changing, is the bravest deed of all.

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