A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey Act 1: Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Helen and her daughter Jo are carrying luggage into their new apartment. Jo, who is seeing the apartment for the first time, immediately begins to complain about its run-down state and laments, more generally, having to live off what she calls her mother’s immoral earnings. While Helen agrees that the apartment is in a terrible state, she still defends her choice, telling Jo that she will be able to complain when she has a job of her own. Resentful, Jo replies that she cannot wait.
Jo’s desire for financial independence contrasts starkly with her mother’s seemingly nonchalant acceptance of insalubrious living conditions. Jo’s condemnation of her mother’s “immoral” mode of life, in which the money she earns depends on her sexual relations with her lovers, highlights her desire to have a more stable, materially and emotionally fulfilling life of her own.
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Seemingly indifferent to Jo’s remarks, Helen asks her daughter for alcohol. Jo grudgingly hands her a whisky bottle while Helen complains about her daughter’s lack of respect toward her. Jo, in turn, denounces her mother’s constant drinking. When Jo complains about having to share a bed again with her mother, Helen ironically comments that she cannot stand being separated from her daughter. Jo wishes she had her own room.
Helen’s excessive drinking generates a reversal of roles between mother and daughter, as Jo, behaving as an adult, criticizes what she views as her mother’s irresponsible behavior. Helen’s ironic comment about wanting to stay close to her daughter also underlines the lack of sincere expressions of love between the two of them, as well as the surprising detachment that Helen feels toward her only child.
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While the two of them try to figure out if the apartment has a heating system, Helen tries to convince Jo to drink, but Jo says she doesn’t like the smell. When Jo asks her mother why she drinks, Helen sardonically says it consoles her about life and that it allows her to pass the time. Helen asks Jo for a tissue because of her cold and Jo hands her one. Immediately after, Jo tries to shade the unseemly naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling with her scarf, but burns herself in the process, eliciting exasperated comments from her mother about how she cannot leave things alone.
Helen’s lack of knowledge about the apartment’s heating system reveals the lack of care with which she chose their new home. At the same time, she shows utter lack of concern for their inadequate amenities. Whereas Jo’s first reaction is to try to make their new environment more pleasant to live in, Helen seems willing to accept the apartment’s state of disrepair and resistant to resolving the situation in any way.
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Jo keeps complaining about the apartment’s state and, when Helen agrees that it is indeed in bad shape, Jo says that her mother never thinks before making decisions, noting that all the places they have moved have always been exactly the same. Annoyed, Helen asks for peace and Jo decides to go make coffee. After Helen indicates to Jo where the kitchen is, Jo leaves the room and, from the kitchen, asks her mother how to use the gas stove. Irritated at her daughter’s lack of independent thought, Helen exasperatedly replies that she should try all the buttons. She ironically adds that Jo should avoid gassing herself in the process. A loud bang concludes Jo’s efforts and Helen complains about how noisy her daughter is.
The apparent frequency with which the two women move from apartment to apartment reveals the instability of their lives, as well as their incapacity to achieve economic mobility. Helen’s attitude toward her daughter is contradictory: although she cannot stand Jo’s intellectual independence and her lucid criticism of their situation, she attacks her for being dependent on her help and incapable of performing basic domestic duties. This attitude is highly hypocritical, since Helen herself often proves loath to take care of domestic affairs.
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When Jo asks if young people live next door, Helen says that she is not sure but notes that Jo might be able to find a boyfriend, since she has never had one. They begin to talk about Helen’s “fancy men” and Jo reveals that she was once secretly in love with one of them, but that he made her cry when he ran off with another girl. She mentions his nose and her mother wryly notes that it was not his nose she was personally interested in.
Helen is clearly unaware of the details of Jo’s life, since she does not yet know that, as will soon be revealed to the audience, Jo already has a boyfriend, Jimmie. Her lack of awareness compounds with emotional insensitivity. Instead of feeling concern or sympathy for Jo, who fell in love with one of Helen’s own lovers, she makes a sexual joke—emphasizing the gap between her daughter’s innocent attitude toward love and her own cynical approach to relationships.
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Jo observes the buildings surrounding their new home, saying she smells the river and that the nearby slaughterhouse will probably smell in the summer, to which Helen cynically replies that the entire city smells. Helen complains about cold air passing through the apartment, which only makes her cold worse. When Jo tells Helen to stop sniffing, Helen tells Jo that she is always selfish and uncaring.
Helen’s attitude toward life is marked by pessimism and fatalism. She considers that no apartment is inherently better or worse than another, since the entire city is toxic. Her attack of Jo’s selfishness is hypocritical, since she rarely seems concerned about her daughter’s well-being. It also highlights the generally precarious and belligerent nature of their relationship.
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Jo unpacks some flower bulbs she wants to use to make the apartment look prettier, saying that she hopes they bloom, but Helen doesn’t understand why her daughter is going to so much trouble. She tells Jo to go check on the kettle but Jo tells Helen to go check herself, since she wants to plant her bulbs. This leads Helen to lament the inacceptable way her daughter talks to her, which she would never have dared to do with her own mother.
Paradoxically, despite Helen’s complaints about the apartment, she proves irritated by her daughter’s efforts to improve their situation. Her rejection of Jo’s hope that her flowers might bloom is symbolic of her own inaptitude toward caring for her daughter, as she generally seems unwilling to put effort and love into the act of raising her.
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After asking Jo if she has any aspirins left, Helen notes matter-of-factly that this new move will make Jo’s journey to school much longer. However, Jo announces that she still plans on leaving school at Christmas. Helen reacts by saying she is skeptical that her daughter will actually work, and Jo sarcastically replies that her distaste for work must be genetic. Suddenly nostalgic, Helen recalls her first job in a pub and sings a tune that she used to perform. When Jo asks what Helen would do if she accepted a similar job, Helen tells her to ruin her life in her own way, explaining that she doesn’t believe in interfering in other people’s lives because she already spends so much time taking care of herself.
Despite Helen’s frequent attacks against her daughter’s selfishness, she depends on Jo for many ordinary actions. Previously, she asked her for a drink and tissues, and now she asks for aspirin, as though she were incapable of taking care of herself on her own. This attitude undermines the idea that she effectively takes care of herself, and contrasts starkly with her verbal contempt for influencing other people’s lives. Indeed, while she proves unwilling to care for herself, she seems happy enough to receive assistance from her daughter.
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Upset at her mother’s uncaring attitude, Jo says that Helen could probably do a better job of ruining her life, since she’s already had a lot of practice. However, Jo asserts that she will not get married like her mother did, because she is too young and beautiful. Helen laughs at her daughter’s youthful innocence, telling her that such idealism makes no difference, since everyone is bound to end up the same way.
Helen’s reaction to her daughter’s optimistic views about life is both deeply cynical and partly true, since she rightfully predicts that Jo, too, is likely to commit mistakes—such as becoming engaged and pregnant. However, Helen seems unaware of her own responsibility in influencing her daughter, as her lack of guidance only leads Jo to seek love and care in other people.
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Jo recalls a dream about her mother that she had the previous night. Policemen were digging in a garden and found her mother’s body under a rosebush. Helen makes a sardonic comment about death, saying that she believes everyone should indeed be used for manure when they are dead. She tells her daughter to go make some coffee, which might make her cold better.
Jo’s dream introduces a sense of anguish and doom in the play. It also serves to contrast Jo’s sensitivity and emotional vulnerability (here, to dreamed images and emotions) with Helen’s cynical, down-to-earth attitude toward life’s problems. While Jo gives space to imagination, Helen is only concerned with the physical aspects of life.
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When Helen begins to organize some of their belongings, she sees drawings that Jo has made and is extremely surprised to discover that her daughter has talent. Moved by this discovery, she encourages Jo to go to art school, saying she would pay, but Jo does not like the idea of going to yet another school after moving around so much. Helen concludes that Jo is wasting her talent, but Jo asks her why her mother is suddenly interested in her, since she has never cared about her before. Helen mockingly replies that she is indeed a cruel woman.
Jo’s refusal to invest in her own artistic talent is surprising, given her often-professed desire for independence. Part of this rejection might be spite, as Jo wishes to show her mother how much her lack of care has hurt her. Part of it, too, can be seen as a lack of self-confidence, perhaps the result of the lack of guidance she has received throughout her life—from her mother as well as from school, since she was never given the academic stability needed to develop her skills. Helen’s ironic response demonstrates, once again, her incapacity to take her daughter’s emotional pain seriously.
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Jo asks Helen why they had to move yet again. Before her mother has a chance to answer, she hypothesizes that Helen is running away from someone, but this idea makes Helen angry and she threatens to hit Jo. Jo expresses her frustration at her mother’s incapacity to take her feelings into account when making such important decisions as changing apartments.
Not only does Helen fail to take her daughter’s emotions into account when making decisions that affect both of them, but she also refuses to communicate about the reasoning behind her choices, thus leaving Jo isolated and forcing her to confront her mother about her inability to be a responsible adult.
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Seemingly resigned, Jo decides to go bathe and Helen tells her the communal bathroom is at the end of the hallway. When Jo notes that they spend their lives living out of their luggage, Helen ironically replies that Jo will soon be an independent, working woman. Jo walks toward the door, telling her mother not to sneeze on her and make her sick. She adds that she does not know why she should go get the coffee when Helen never does anything for her.
Helen’s ironic responses are yet another indication that she refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of her actions. Faced with Helen’s inability to communicate openly about her decisions, Jo resorts to irony and aggressive comments. Her final complaint is less a defiant refusal to help out than a final attempt to express her emotions and her sense of abandonment.
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Peter suddenly walks in, boldly, with a cigar in his mouth. Helen is surprised to see him and asks him how he found her address, and after a few seconds of hearing their conversation Jo realizes that he is the person her mother was trying to escape. When Peter discovers that Jo is Helen’s daughter, he realizes that Helen is much older than he had thought. Jo asks if Peter is going to stay at the apartment and, when Peter confirms that he is, she decides to take her bath later. As Peter begins to flirt with Helen, Helen tries to get rid of Jo by telling her to go check on the coffee. Jo leaves the room but returns soon after because the water is not yet boiling.
It becomes apparent that Helen dissimulates or ignores the truth not only with her daughter, but also with her lovers. Her failure to tell Peter about Jo underlines her willingness to use manipulation—or, at the very least, lying by omission—in relationships both familial and romantic. Jo’s decision to stay when Peter arrives highlights her isolation, as she is forced to fight for her right to stay and be free in her own house.
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Full of underlying anger, Jo tells Peter that Helen must never have mentioned to him that she had a daughter. While both Helen and Peter are annoyed by Jo’s presence, Peter’s expression of irritation leads Helen to remind him that no one ever asked him to come. After complaining about Jo (who has, sometime around now, left the room to make coffee), Peter proceeds to criticize the district Helen has chosen, which he finds dreadful and unfit to live in. He also criticizes Jo’s attitude, to which Helen once again replies that she never asked him to come. She asks Peter why he came and he flirts with her, telling her she must be glad to see him, to which Helen replies that she is not. Throughout their conversation, her attitude is one of feigned rejection, as she replies ironically or sharply to his comments but does not seem to actually want him to leave.
Jo’s anger at Helen reflects her desire to be a greater part of Helen’s life—a part that Helen does not try to hide, but actively embraces and cherishes. However, while Helen might not show affection to Jo directly, she does defend her against Peter’s attacks, demonstrating a certain sense of loyalty to her daughter. Peter’s criticism of the apartment emphasizes the inconsistency between what could be expected from a woman like Helen (pride and elegance, for example) and the humble conditions in which she finds herself forced to live.
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When Peter notices that Helen’s nose is damp, he gives her a tissue to blow her nose and she does. He tells her that she cannot possibly decide to give him up, but Helen says that she is tired of sex and men and that she is thinking about abandoning these pursuits completely. Peter finds this unfair to men but Helen says it has to do with what she has done, not what others have done to her. Peter keeps on flirting with her as she tries to get him to go. Wanting the two of them to be alone, he replies that she could get rid of her daughter. When she says she doesn’t want to, he tells her they could go get a drink. Helen initially thinks that this is a good idea, but then changes her mind.
It remains ambiguous whether Helen’s rejection of her sexual habits is feigned, or whether it represents a brief moment of sincerity, the realization that having many short-lived affairs with men does not necessarily bring her (or her daughter) happiness and stability. At the same time, Helen’s actions, which do not seem truly intent on making Peter leave, express what her words do not: her willingness to be convinced and seduced, and to forget about her adult responsibilities.
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Finally, Peter nonchalantly asks Helen to marry him. Surprised, Helen tells him she is too old for him, but Peter persists. He tells her that he is giving her an excellent opportunity, since he is young, handsome, and financially successful. While Helen initially tries to reject him, thinking he must be drunk, she tells him that she might actually accept his offer if he makes it again.
Helen’s quasi-acceptance of Peter’s proposal confirms that she was not earnest in her rejection of men and sex. Peter’s mention of money emphasizes the material nature of this proposal, which is less sentimental than it is financially prudent. It also reflects what must be evident in Helen’s attitude: her attraction to money and an extravagant lifestyle.
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Jo, who has left the room to get the coffee ready, returns and coughs to make her presence heard. She interrupts their conversation by sitting down and thus keeping them from talking. Peter complains about Jo’s attitude and Helen says she is jealous because she doesn’t like seeing her mother behave affectionately toward other people. Jo replies that Helen certainly has never been affectionate with her. Peter finds the coffee terrible and Helen says that Jo always makes it weak on purpose, because she knows Helen likes it strong.
Helen’s mocking comment about Jo’s jealousy is doubly callous, as it demonstrates that she is fully aware of her daughter’s feelings but chooses to ridicule them instead of trying to mitigate them. Helen even reverses roles when she argues that Jo—not she—is the one who takes pleasure in being malicious. By contrast, the lack of irony in Jo’s response emphasizes that, for her, this topic is not a light, joking matter, but one that she wishes her mother took more seriously.
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Jo says that Helen should be in bed and asks if Peter is going to leave. Helen decides that he should indeed avoid catching her cold and, when she stands up to accompany him out, Peter pulls her toward him, asking her if she wants an engagement ring and saying that he knows she is interested in his money. Jo slyly comments that their relationship is at odds with such symbolism. Ignoring Jo, Peter embraces Helen and begins to tell her a dirty joke but Jo interrupts their conversation again, asking him about his cigar. She then asks Peter if he truly plans on marrying her mother, since Helen is “a devil with men,” to which Helen replies that she does not, indeed, consider herself “a slouch.” Peter finally leaves, making a joke about frail old ladies as he goes.
Peter’s offer of an engagement ring, a formal symbol of serious commitment, contrasts with his attitude, which is generally playful, inconsiderate, and inelegant in its obvious flirting. Jo’s interruptions aim to scare Peter off from such a serious commitment, but they fail in their intent, since both Peter and Helen seem well aware of the primarily sexual, informal nature of their relationship. Jo’s interference thus reveals her desire for attention and her fear that Peter might take away the minimal time and consideration she receives from her mother.
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Helen goes to bed, saying that they can always take care of cleaning tomorrow. Jo, who has noticed the hallway is dark now, decides to take a bath tomorrow. Helen asks her if she is afraid of the dark and Jo says that her mother already knows she is. Helen tells her that she should try not to be scared, but Jo says that that doesn’t help. When Helen lies down on the bed, she says it feels slightly less comfortable than a coffin. This leads Jo to ask her if she has ever tried one, and Helen says she certainly will one day.
Helen’s advice to Jo about her fear of the dark is both trite and unhelpful, demonstrating no true attempt to understand her daughter’s fear or make her feel better. Helen’s joking comments about death demonstrate that, unlike her daughter, she is unaffected by topics that inspire awe and fear, since she focuses on their physical—and not their spiritual or emotional—aspects.
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Jo ironically says that Helen should have made Peter stay, since it is not the first time her mother has kicked her out of bed for such reasons. Helen gets angry at Jo, telling her to shut up. Jo asks if they are going to clean their belongings up, but they both agree that the room looks fine—better, in fact—in the dark. Helen comments that she does not understand why Jo is afraid of the dark, but Jo says that she is only scared of the darkness inside houses. Helen then asks Jo what she would think of her getting married again, and Jo replies that she would send her to a psychiatric institution.
Whenever Jo becomes explicit about the ways in which her mother has dismissed her to focus on her lovers, Helen reacts defensively with anger instead of her usual sarcasm. This strong reaction suggests that Helen might very well be aware of the way in which she often abandons Jo—but that she does not want to be forced to face her own unfair actions. Her single attempt to elicit her daughter’s opinion is largely perfunctory, given that she ultimately takes a decision about marrying Peter without actually considering Jo’s feelings.
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