"Master Harold" … and the Boys

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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in "Master Harold" … and the Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon

The most readily apparent cripple in the play, Hally’s father, isn’t just a cripple in body but, it seems due to his alcoholism and attitude, is spiritually crippled as well. He is a broken man unable to give Hally the love and affection he needs, unable to teach him moral lessons. In that respect he is like the apartheid-era South Africa in which the play unfolds. He is unable to provide Hally with much besides the unfair sense of entitlement and privilege that accompany the color of his skin. Hally’s education then, like Sam’s, is interrupted and broken, albeit for different reasons. Willie too, is a kind of moral cripple, unable to see that beating the women he cares about is the very thing that keeps them away. And though Hally, unlike his father, isn’t physically crippled, his ability to empathize (feel with) his friends and mentors—to even see them as friends and mentors— has been shattered by his family life, his culture, and his education. Sam, the fleetest dancer of the three, seems also to have the fleetest spirit, though in one respect at least he considers himself a failure—he was unable to fully open Hally’s eyes to the injustice and bigotry before them.

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Cripples and Broken Things ThemeTracker

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Cripples and Broken Things Quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys related to the theme of Cripples and Broken Things.
"Master Harold" … and the Boys Quotes

Tried to be clever, as usual. Said I was no Leonardo da Vinci and that bad art had to be punished. So, six of the best, and his are bloody good.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has started doing homework and Sam has noticed a caricature Hally drew of his math teacher. Sam compliments the caricature, but Hally says that when his teacher found it he "tried to be clever" by saying Hally was no Leonardo da Vinci, and used this as an excuse to give Hally six lashes of the cane. This story suggests that Hally's teacher gets a kind of sadistic pleasure out of punishing him, even making a joke out of it. It also further emphasizes the thematic importance of artistic skill as a metaphor for desirable behavior. Just as Sam criticizes Willie for dancing stiffly, Hally's teacher (presumably) scolds him for drawing badly. These examples show that both Willie and Hally's behavior is constantly being monitored and evaluated. 

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I’ve heard enough, Sam! Jesus! It’s a bloody awful world when you come to think of it. People can be real bastards.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Having started listening to Sam explain the method the police use to beat black men in prison, Hally suddenly interrupts him, exclaiming that he's "heard enough" and remarking that "people can be real bastards." On the surface, this reveals Hally's childlike innocence and goodheartedness. He is sensitive to the injustices of the world, so much so that he cannot bear to hear about them. At the same time, it also highlights that, because of his race, Hally is shielded from the full extent of Apartheid violence. The fact that he chooses not to hear the rest of Sam's story is somewhat selfish (and it's notable that he has the choice to avoid these realities—a luxury not afforded to Sam and Willie). Despite his age, as someone who benefits from the white supremacist Apartheid regime, Hally arguably has a responsibility to confront the reality of its cruelty.

I know, I know! I oscillate between hope and despair for this world as well, Sam. But things will change, you wait and see. One day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside and get it going again.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Having remarked at the awfulness of the world, Hally has conceded that "there is something called progress," saying that at least people aren't burned at the stake anymore. When Sam skeptically points out that there is still a death penalty, Hally responds that he too "oscillate[s] between hope and despair," but that "one day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside." Hally's choice of words conveys the deep level of violence that permeates all aspects of South African society and affects the psychology of all the characters in the play. Note the irony of the fact that Hally cannot even contemplate a more peaceful, compassionate world without framing it in violent terms. 

However, this invocation of violence is not the only disturbing element within Hally's comment. His optimism that "things will change" is undermined by his suggestion that "somebody"––i.e. somebody other than Hally himself––will change them. As the play reveals, this passive reliance on the idea of social change tends to lead to cycles of cruelty and abuse, not progress. Hally appears unaware that, as a white South African, the burden of building a better world rests disproportionately on him. Meanwhile, Hally is dismissive of Sam's cynicism and is unable to see why Sam would be more inclined to "despair" than hope.  

“...Napoleon regarded all people as equal before the law and wanted them to have equal opportunities for advancement. All ves-ti-ges of the feu-dal system with its oppression of the poor were abolished.” Vestiges, feudal system and abolished. I’m all right on oppression.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam is looking at Hally's schoolbooks, and has asked Hally what the word "magnitude" means. The two discuss Hally's chances of success in each of his exams; Hally says he will not do well in math, but will "scrape through" in history. Sam reads aloud a passage about Napoleon from Hally's history textbook, noting that he has difficulty with the terms "vestiges," "feudal system," and "abolished," but not with "oppression." There are multiple layers of meaning in this passage. First, note the contrast between Sam's curiosity about Hally's schoolbooks and Hally's distinct lack of enthusiasm about his own education. Sam's limited vocabulary shows that he has not had access to the same educational resources as Hally, yet he remains keenly interested, while Hally childishly views his schooling as a chore rather than a privilege.

The passage that Sam randomly chooses to read is also significant. While the textbook claims that Napoleon "regarded all people as equal" and abolished feudalism, this is not actually correct, and reflects the strong bias of Hally's colonial education. In reality, Napoleon was opposed to feudalism in France, but in favor of French colonial rule, including the practice of slavery. Indeed, he sent armed forces to Haiti to restore slavery following uprisings that resulted in the former slave Toussaint Louverture seizing power.

Sam's inability to say many of the terms in Hally's textbook can be interpreted as evidence of the way educational expertise and authority is misused in order to portray colonizing powers in a good light. Meanwhile, Sam's comment "I'm all right on oppression" suggests that oppression is a universal, irrefutable historical fact, and one that Sam is intimately acquainted with through being a black South African. 

…I got another rowing for hanging around the “servants’ quarters.” I think I spent more time in there with you chaps than anywhere else in that dump. And do you blame me? Nothing but bloody misery everywhere you went.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Having debated at length about who counts as a man of magnitude, Hally and Sam have finally settled on Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin. Hally boasts that he has "educated" Sam just as Tolstoy educated "his peasants." The two of them recall memories together, and Hally mentions that he was beaten for spending time in the "servants' quarters." Despite its friendliness, this conversation highlights the stark inequality in Hally and Sam's relationship. At the same time, Hally's words reveal the extent to which he has been coerced into assuming a superior social position to Willie and Sam. The fact that Hally is punished for spending time with his family's servants may incline the audience to view Hally more sympathetically. 

On the other hand, Hally's reasoning for why he was "hanging around the 'servants' quarters'" in the first place conveys the thoughtless and selfish side of his character. His claim that he was seeking to avoid the "bloody misery" in the rest of his household rudely implies that there is no other reason why he would spend time with Willie and Sam; it also shows his lack of consideration of the different kind of misery Willie and Sam themselves experience as black South Africans in a position of servitude. 

The sheer audacity of it took my breath away. I mean, seriously, what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?...If you think I was excited and happy, you got another guess coming… When we left the boarding house to go up onto the hill, I was praying quietly that there wouldn’t be any other kids around to laugh at us.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Related Symbols: The Kite
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has asked Sam to guess his "best memory," before telling him that the memory began one afternoon when Hally was bored and went to Sam's room, where he found Sam constructing something out of wood. In this part of the speech, Hally describes his shock at discovering Sam was making a kite, and his fear that the kite wouldn't fly and that other kids would laugh at them. Although he is telling the story to please and entertain Sam, he interweaves explicit racism into his account ("what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?"). Clearly, it does not even occur to Hally to consider how this comment would make Sam feel. 

Hally's description of the memory also reveals the bizarre logic of the racism that defines the world around him. The idea that Sam's race would make him unable to make a kite is completely nonsensical, and Hally's use of the word "audacity" shows how restrictive and narrow the expectations placed on black South Africans were. At the same time, the story also highlights the way in which racism has even indirectly harmed Hally himself, by making him ashamed of his association with Sam and anxious that other white children will ridicule him. 

HALLY: You explained how to get it down, we tied it to the bench so that I could sit and watch it and you went away. I wanted you to stay, you know. I was a little scared of having to look after it by myself.
SAM: (Quietly) I had work to do, Hally

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Kite
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has recounted that, despite his low expectations, the kite Sam made flew brilliantly and that it was "the most splendid thing" he had ever seen. He recalls that Sam walked away and explains that he had wanted him to stay, but Sam quietly responds that he had work to do. This is an emotionally climactic moment within the play, exemplifying the complex tensions and pressures caused by the powerful racist forces that dominate South African society. While Sam claims that he left Hally with the kite because he had work to do, in reality it was because he realized they were on a whites-only bench, and thus it was illegal for Sam to be there.

Hally's ignorance of the true reason why Sam left highlights how sheltered he is from the reality of the racist nation he lives in. Importantly, Sam's lie about having work to do proves that he is also forced to be complicit in keeping Hally in this ignorant, sheltered state. There are several possible explanations for why Sam does not tell Hally the truth. One reason could be that it would be considered improper for Sam to discuss racist laws in front of Hally; by not mentioning it, Sam acts in a manner akin to the effortless way of dancing he encourages Willie to adopt. On the other hand, it is also plausible that Sam feels protective of Hally, and wants to preserve his childhood innocence even if this means misleading him about the true nature of the society in which they live. 

Would have been just as strange I suppose, if it had been me and my Dad… a cripple man and a little boy! Nope! There’s no chance of me flying a kite without it being strange.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Kite
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has finished telling the story about the kite, reflecting that the image of him and Sam flying it together is "strange." Sam has asked if it's strange because he is black and Hally is white; Hally responds that he doesn't know, but that it would have been just as strange to have flown it with his own father because he is a cripple. This passage is likely to elicit further sympathy for Hally; despite the rather thoughtless and offensive way in which discusses both Sam and his father, it is clear that he feels sad and ashamed about not having a "normal" family. 

Indeed, Hally's shame highlights an unexpected connection between his cruel, racist father and the much kinder, more fatherly Sam. Although as a white man Hally's father occupies the most privileged social position in South African society, he is nonetheless still stigmatized for his physical disability. Although this is not the same as the racism Sam experiences as a black man, the parallel nonetheless highlights the complexity of prejudice, and emphasizes the fact that everyone––including Sam, Hally, and Hally's father––is affected by the forces of stigma, discrimination, and shame. 

Don’t try to be clever, Sam. It doesn’t suit you. Anybody who thinks there’s nothing wrong with this world need to have his head examined... If there is a God who created this world, he should scrap it and try again.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally's mother has phoned to tell him that his father will be coming home from the hospital. Hally begs for this not to happen, but with no success. Furious, he has begun to boss Sam and Willie around, exclaiming that life is a "plain bloody mess" and that people are fools who deserve the bad things that happen to them. When Sam comments that if that's true then Hally shouldn't complain, Hally snaps back at him, telling him not to be clever. Once again, Hally's concern about the state of the world––which on the surface could indicate compassion and sensitivity––is undermined by his otherwise rude and selfish behavior. He treats Sam and Willie in a patronizing, scornful way, and only seems to care about injustice when he personally is affected.

There’s no collisions out there, Hally. Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else. That’s what that moment is all about. To be one of those finalists on the dance floor is like… like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker), Hally
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has mentioned that he has to write about a significant cultural event for his homework, and is considering writing about the ballroom dance competition in New Brighton. Sam has described and reenacted the event along with Willie, and when Hally asks if the dancers are given penalties when they bump into one another, Sam explains that the dance competition is "like being in a dream" in which people don't bump into each other. This passage illustrates the symbolic significance of ballroom dance within the play, and shows why Sam and Willie are so invested in it. Unlike the real world, in the ballroom all people work together in harmony, without "accidents" or conflict. Sam admits that this is only an unrealistic "dream," but remains committed to pursuing it if only in the realm of dance. 

It’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like. But instead… we’re bumping into each other all the time. Look at the three of us this afternoon… Open a newspaper and what do you read? America has bumped into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man… People get hurt in all that bumping, and we’re sick and tired of it now.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam has described the ballroom dance competition at New Brighton, and explained to Hally that there are no collisions there. He tells Hally "this is what we want life to be like," and reflects that instead, news of the world is filled with conflict: "England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man." Sam's words further emphasize the symbolic importance of dance, especially to black South Africans whose lives are dominated by tension and discord with the ruling whites. Note that the example of England bumping into India makes an explicit connection between ballroom dance and colonialism. 

Sam's choice of words is reminiscent of the way adults might teach young children about conflict, using gentle metaphors that obscure the violent reality of such struggles. His statement that people are "sick and tired" of being hurt by "all that bumping" could indicate that black South Africans may be on the verge of revolting against the oppression to which they are subjected; however, the overall impression of his speech seems more to indicate the necessity of escaping this oppressive reality in the "dream world" of dance. 

HALLY: He’s a white man and that’s good enough for you.
SAM: I’ll try to forget you said that.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has spoken to his mother and father on the phone and grown increasingly upset and furious at the prospect of his father being home again. Sam has tried to comfort him, but this only results in fighting. Hally reminds Sam that Hally's father is Sam's boss, and when Sam protests that his boss is actually Hally's mother, Hally responds that his father is a white man and "that's good enough for you." This exchange emphasizes the ease with which the nuance and complexity within Hally and Sam's relationship can be erased by the overarching racism that governs both their lives. Hally's words serve as a reminder that no matter what else happens, he will always be able to hurt and belittle Sam simply through invoking race. 

Sam's response that he will "try to forget" Hally's words highlights the seemingly infinite patience with which he treats Hally. Indeed, throughout the play Hally has oscillated between friendliness and racist cruelty; thus the existence of his and Sam's friendship relies on Sam repeatedly forgetting the offences Hally commits. This deliberate act of forgetting can be seen as the opposite of learning. Hally reveals that he has not truly learned the importance of kindness and justice, and Sam in turn deliberately erases his knowledge of Hally's racist sentiment. 

HALLY: To begin with, why don’t you start calling me Master Harold, like Willie.
SAM: Do you mean that?
HALLY: Why the hell do you think I said it?
SAM: If you make me say it once, I’ll never call you by anything else again

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker), Willie
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hally gets angry at Sam, tells him to stop bossing him around, and orders Sam to start calling him "Master Harold." Shocked, Sam warns Hally that if he is forced to call him that once, he will never go back to calling him Hally. This is a climactic moment in the play, in which Sam and Hally's friendship reaches a dramatic breaking point. Up until this interaction, Hally's treatment of Sam has swung wildly between kindness and cruelty, and so far Sam has mostly tolerated this, deliberately ignoring Hally's callous behavior.

However, Sam's words here point to the fact that calling Hally "Master Harold" would represent an irreparable rupture in their relations, such that their friendship would become another broken thing with no chance of recovery. This claim demonstrates the significance of the word "master," a term that has more potential for damage than all the explicitly racist insults that Hally has thus far used. Sam can perhaps dismiss these insults as childish foolishness; however, by insisting that Sam calls him "Master Harold," Hally positions himself as the authority, and Sam as the inferior. 

HALLY: I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
SAM: You sure of that, Hally? Because it would be pretty hopeless if that was true. It would mean nothing has been learnt in here this afternoon, and there was a hell of a lot of teaching going on…

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam has revealed what really happened on the day of the kite; Hally, dejected, has asked Willie to lock up and goes to leave. Sam has asked if it's possible for them to "try again," but Hally responds that he doesn't know, repeating "I don't know anything anymore." This exchange evokes a tension in the way in which education, ignorance, and power operate. While Sam insists that "there was a hell of a lot of teaching going on" during the course of the afternoon, Hally claims not to "know anything anymore." Keeping in mind the context of Hally's heavily biased, colonial education, this moment seems to imply that for those in positions of power, gaining knowledge can feel like becoming ignorant. 

This passage also illustrates the complex nature of the connection between knowledge and optimism. Hally's claim not to know anything seems closely related to his increasingly defeated, pessimistic outlook; meanwhile, Sam says "it would be pretty hopeless" if Hally truly felt he had not learned anything that afternoon. While it is fairly common to associate optimism with a kind of ignorant naïveté, Sam and Hally's exchange indicates that perhaps it might be necessary to have a hopeful attitude in order to acquire knowledge and understanding, even if that understanding in turn reveals the world to be a rather bleak place.