A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey Act 1: Scene 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Jo and her boyfriend Jimmie, a young black sailor, are walking in the street and stop in front of the door to Jo’s house. Jo tells him she was not surprised to see him waiting for her outside of school but that she is glad he came, and Jimmie says he is glad too. Jo says she should go inside but Jimmie tries to make her stay. He says he is happy days become dark early in winter, because that gives him more time to kiss her.
The fresh, youthful nature of this scene contrasts starkly with the previous interaction between Helen and Peter—which, while similarly playful, was infinitely less tender and innocent. This scene also shows another side of Jo: the part of her that enjoys lighthearted, affectionate conversations, at odds with the tension and irony that characterizes her relationship with Helen.
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When Jimmie kisses Jo, she complains about it, saying that she likes it but doesn’t want to do it all the time. Jimmie asks Jo if she is worried that people might see them, but Jo says she doesn’t care. Jimmie asks her to repeat this. He is surprised by the sincerity of her answer, and says she is the first girl who has truly not cared. Suddenly, he asks Jo to marry him. Jo says, paradoxically, that she won’t marry him but that he has convinced her to do so.
Jimmie’s surprise at Jo’s lack of shame highlights the stigma that characterized interracial relationships at the time A Taste of Honey was performed. By contrast, Jo is non-judgmental and does not feel constrained by societal categories. Her contradictory reply to Jimmie’s marriage proposal suggests that she might be aware that Jimmie is not speaking in earnest, but that she is willing to play along with him.
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Jimmie asks how old Jo is and she says she is almost eighteen. Still shocked at Jo’s agreement to marry him, he asks her again if she will marry him, to which Jo replies that he shouldn’t have asked her the first time if he was only joking. Jimmie says he wasn’t. He asks her again and she says she loves him. Jimmie asks her how she knows this and she says she simply does. Jimmie says he adores her and gives her a ring he bought earlier that morning in a shop.
Jimmie’s true intentions remain somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, while his repeated proposals suggest that he was not taking it seriously, the fact that he bought a ring signals that he has actually considered the question seriously. Jo’s simple attitude toward love reflects her trust in the purity of this feeling. However, the similarity between this scene and Peter’s earlier marriage proposal to Helen presages trouble, suggesting that the young people’s innocence might not protect them from the failure that the two adults will later experience.
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Jimmie asks Jo what her mother will say and Jo says that she will probably laugh. Jimmie does not understand why Helen would not care to know whom her daughter marries, but Jo says that whomever she chooses to marry has nothing to do with her mother. Jimmie wonders if Helen might disapprove of his skin color, but Jo believes that her mother is not prejudiced in that way.
Jimmie is surprised by the lack of interest Helen takes in Jo. Jo’s reaction is to feign detachment herself, arguing that her mother should have no right to pass judgment on her decisions. However, Jo’s optimism about her mother’s tolerance later proves mistaken, and suggests that, despite her knowledge of her mother’s many flaws, Jo might be blind to some of the darker sides of Helen’s personality.
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The two discuss when they should get married and decide to do it in six months, during Jimmie’s next leave. Jo tries to put the ring on her finger but realizes it is too big. She asks Jimmie for a bit of string to tie it around her neck, commenting that she is going “all romantic.” She searches through Jimmie’s pockets and finds a toy car, which Jimmie teaches her how to use. When she asks to keep it, he says she can have it along with his soul.
Jo and Jimmie’s actions are full of intentional symbolism. Jo’s decision to tie the ring around her neck and Jimmie’s comment about his soul, which imitates clichés about what lovers traditionally say to each other, are innocent and tender, signaling their desire to respect and honor each other, but will also prove slightly exaggerated, given the lack of serious commitment the relationship will later reveal.
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Jo uses her hair ribbon as a necklace for her ring. Jimmie says she has a pretty neck and Jo tries to hide the ring away, so that her mother will not see it and laugh at her. She tells Jimmie that she is leaving school this week to start a part-time job at a bar. When she finds a full-time one, she will leave Helen and find a room of her own.
Jo’s decision to put her financial independence from Helen before her studies reveals how desperate she is to be on her own, but also signals her lack of foresight in planning her future, as she would rather accept a precarious job instead of investing in her general knowledge and skills—suggestion a short-term vision strikingly similar to Helen’s.
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Jimmie says that he would like not to be in the Navy so that he could spend time with Jo. He jokes that he is now trapped in matrimony, and the two of them teasingly fight over who first tried to entice the other. They recall meeting at an empty soccer field that Jimmie knew about. Jo says that he took advantage of her innocence there, to which Jimmie replies he did not, since he had scruples. Jo retorts that he had no scruples at all and would have gone as far as she would have let him. Jimmie argues that they both enjoyed it and Jo concludes that this is an inappropriate conversation for young girls, capable of tainting their minds. Jimmie replies that women do not have young minds, for they are born thousands of years old.
This lighthearted fight contrasts heavily with the resentment and anger that usually characterizes Jo and Helen’s discussion. While Jo appears to attack Jimmie for wanting sex, her prude attitude toward such conversations is feigned. Instead of abiding by society’s standards for women’s naiveté—which define what women should and should not know, do, or say—Jo mocks them, implicitly labeling them irrelevant. Jimmie’s admiration of women’s minds is not ironic. Instead, he seems truly impressed by women’s maturity—a trait that contrasts, perhaps, with his playful attitude toward life.
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Jo tells Jimmie he sometimes looks that old and asks him if his ancestors came from Africa, but Jimmie explains that they came from Cardiff. He mockingly asks her if she is disappointed, but Jo tells him there are still traces of the jungle in him. She then decides to go into the building because she is hungry, and when Jimmie jokingly says they should save up on food and clothes for their marriage, Jo complains about her belongings, saying that she only has one coat which she has to use for everything. Jimmie tries to reassure her by saying she looks fine.
Jimmie’s irony shows self-awareness about the exotic qualities that black people in England at the time were attributed and, while playful, emphasizes that he should be seen as an English citizen in his own right. Jo’s concern for her coat, in turn, reveals her own insecurities about her class and her appearance—which, once again, however playful, point to the larger, potentially harmful reality of her deprivation.
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Jo asks Jimmie if she will see him tonight, but he says he is going out drinking with friends. As a result, Jo decides to skip school tomorrow to meet him during the day instead. After planning to meet the next morning, they kiss each other good night. Jimmie tells Jo he dreamed of her the previous night and fell out of bed twice. She tells him she loves him and when Jimmie asks why, Jo says it is because he is silly.
Jimmie’s mention of his dream emphasizes the sensual, potentially sexual nature of their relationship, while Jo’s simple declarations of love highlight her focus on more emotional matters. At the same time, both characters share the same playful approach toward their relationship, refusing to turn it into a melodrama.
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When Jo enters her apartment, Helen notices that Jo is late and says that her eyes betray the fact that she is in love. Helen interrogates Jo about her boyfriend, whom she did not know about. Jo says he is a lovely, twenty-two-year-old sailor who used to work as a male nurse. Helen tells her to be careful with sailors’ ardor and asks if Jimmie still has contacts in hospitals to give them free samples. Jo tells her mother to shut up.
Helen’s lack of knowledge about Jo’s boyfriend is unsurprising, given how out of touch she is with her daughter’s life. Her reaction to this news is uninterested in Jo’s emotions, focused only on abstract sexual recommendations and her self-interest, as she wants to take advantage of Jimmie’s profession.
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Jo asks Helen to look up in a magazine what is playing at the cinema tomorrow. Helen criticizes the cinema in general, saying it is often difficult to understand what the actors are saying, and complains about what she considers to be a pornographic advertisement. They joke about turning Jo into a movie star but Jo says living in the streets would be more honest, to which Helen replies that that might end up happening.
Despite their low financial means, Jo and Helen’s interest in the cinema—and, in particular, Helen’s informed, if critical, perspective on the subject—reveals the two women’s interest in artistic culture. Helen’s ironic comment about Jo’s potentially homeless future is particularly gloomy, given their current financial situation.
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Suddenly, Jo asks her mother what her birthdate is and Helen admits she doesn’t know, ironically saying she has always tried to forget that date. The two of them discuss Helen’s first marriage and Helen says her first husband was rich but despicable, and that he divorced her when she became pregnant with Jo. Jo says she, too, would have kicked out a wife who had a baby with another man. Helen, however, says that she does not think she would have done that herself.
Helen’s desire to forget her own daughter’s birthdate is particularly cruel, as it symbolizes the utter lack of interest that Helen has demonstrated toward Jo throughout her life. Helen’s sincere admission that she probably wouldn’t have behaved like her rich husband did highlights her acceptance of sexual behaviors outside societal norms.
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In the magazine, Jo notices a commercial for an Arabian mystic who reads people’s destinies, and Helen makes a speech about the only two things that matter in life: work and want. She asserts that everyone is in charge of their own destiny, however ignorantly one might be leading one’s life. At the end of this speech, she tells Jo that she is getting married.
Helen has a cynical definition of life, which eschews all interpersonal concerns to focus only on basic necessities. Her announcement that she is getting married seems to confirm her vision of life as a series of ignorant choices, since this decision is moved by her current fancy, not by long-term considerations.
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Jo initially remains silent when she hears about her mother’s engagement. However, after Helen incites her to react, Jo says she cannot possibly feel happy for her. Frustrated, she says that her mother is too old to get married, noting that Helen looks sixty instead of forty, and that she hopes to be dead by that age.
Jo’s attack against Helen’s looks can be seen as a defensive reaction to Helen’s engagement, since Jo feels frustrated and angry about yet another one of her mother’s decisions that is going to leave her feeling abandoned.
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Peter then enters the apartment with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. While he looks uncomfortable, Jo ironically calls him “Daddy” and Peter realizes that Helen has already told Jo the news. Helen compliments Peter on how handsome he looks and Jo says he must be insane for asking Helen to marry him. She then proceeds to bitterly criticize her mother’s appearance. Peter merely says he finds Helen attractive and hands Jo the chocolate, saying they are for her, which leads Jo to say that he must be buying her silence. Helen leaves the room to get ready to go out with Peter.
Jo’s ironic nickname highlights precisely what Peter is not and never will be: a father, someone who shows interest toward her and will take care of her. His offering of chocolates to Jo is sweet but clumsy, since it is unaccompanied by any actual commitment to be a positive presence in her life. Jo’s ironic comment about buying her silence emphasizes that the two adults are only pretending to show her attention, and do not actually intend to make her part of their plans.
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Peter criticizes the way Jo is devouring all her chocolates, and Jo in turn tells him not to act like a father. Suddenly, in a fit of mixed tears and laughter, she attacks him physically and Helen re-enters the room, telling Jo to leave Peter alone. Peter asks Helen why she cannot keep her daughter under control and Helen turns to Jo, asking her not to tease Peter.
Jo’s words highlight the fact that Peter has no rights concerning her, despite his status as an adult and as Helen’s fiancé. It also underscores that all the parenting she ever seems to receive is negative, focused on what she does wrong instead of celebrating her positive sides as well.
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Peter and Helen then announce that they are celebrating the fact that Peter has bought a house, which leads Jo, surprised and hurt, to comment that her mother has indeed planned everything behind her back. After Helen leaves the room again, Peter shows Jo the pictures of the house, which has multiple tennis courts and swimming pools.
The contrast between the luxury of Peter and Helen’s new house and Jo’s current apartment reveals Helen’s double cruelty: her willingness to abandon her daughter and to selfishly lead a wealthy life while leaving Jo to suffer economic hardship as the result of Helen’s own financial decisions.
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Believing that Peter might be hiding something, Jo notices that Peter has other pictures in his wallet and asks to see them. Peter reluctantly shows her pictures of his family members, whom he hates. Jo then notices there are other pictures he does not want to share and asks him if they are of other women. She cynically speculates that he must have had thousands of girlfriends and, when she asks him about one of the women in a picture, Peter refers to her as “number thirty-eight.”
Peter’s hatred for his family and his treatment of women as numbers—whether jokingly or sincerely—reveal his seemingly uncaring approach to relationships and serve as a dark forewarning of how he is likely to feel toward Helen and, ultimately, to treat her. While this moment shows Peter and Jo calmly chatting, Jo is visibly suspicious of Peter and unimpressed by his attitude.
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Jo then asks Peter why he wears an eye patch. Peter explains that he lost an eye serving as a private in the army. Jo interrogates him about his eye, asking him if he will show her (which he refuses to do) and whether he takes his patch off to sleep (which he does not answer). They look at some more of the pictures in his wallet and Peter says he does not find young women attractive. At the same time, he notes that he does not find Helen old.
Jo’s relentless questioning appears to be an attempt to provoke Peter and make him uncomfortable, more than a sincere effort to get to know him. While Peter’s appreciation of Helen seems loving, he is exclusively focused on her physical attributes, which highlights the superficiality of their relationship.
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Jo asks him why he is marrying Helen and Peter asks her why he shouldn’t, to which Jo gives him a frustrated, obscure answer about how strange his generation is. As though stating an obvious fact, Peter asks her if she doesn’t care much for her mother and Jo replies that Helen doesn’t like her either, which Peter says he can easily understand.
It remains ambiguous whether Jo is frustrated with the superficiality of Peter and Helen’s relationship or with the way in which they both fail to care about her. Peter’s question about Helen and Jo’s relationship proves completely misguided, as he is unable to understand that Jo’s feelings toward her mother are infinitely more complex than mere hate.
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Peter, who has by now become impatient, is about to tell Helen he will wait for her in the pub, but Helen suddenly appears, looking for her hat. She tells Jo, who has been smoking, to put her cigarette out and asks why there are so many books lying about. Peter playfully takes Helen’s hat and puts it on, but Helen, irritated, asks him to give it back and Peter complains that she has no sense of humor. Helen notices that Jo’s books are all children tales, except for the Bible, which Jo tells her she should read. Helen comments that she prefers to drink and be happy, to which Jo replies that she also lives to regret it. Peter mocks Jo’s puritan attitude.
Jo’s later admission to Geoffrey that she only used to smoke to annoy Helen demonstrates that she is always desperately seeking her mother’s attention, even if this attention only translates into negative comments on Helen’s part. Jo’s condemnation of Helen’s drinking reveals her dislike of her mother’s excessively insouciant attitude in life, as Helen cares little about the serious consequences of her actions. It also serves as a reminder to Helen that she is failing in her responsibilities toward her Jo—and might indeed regret it one day.
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Jo asks Helen why she is marrying Peter, and Helen says that it has to do with his money. As the two of them are about to leave, Helen nonchalantly asks Peter to leave Jo some money, since they will probably go on a weekend trip for a few days. Offended, Jo asks Peter if he doesn’t think that she is too young to be left on her own, and Peter turns to Helen to ask if Jo will be all right. Helen merely replies that they cannot take Jo along with them.
Helen is unabashed in her decision to marry for money.  She also feels no shame in leaving Jo alone for an undefined period of time. Peter’s uncertainty about leaving Jo alone, meanwhile, reflects the concern that Helen herself should be feeling but decides to ignore, focusing instead only on practical considerations.
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When Helen and Peter say they are hungry, Jo, trying to remind her mother of her responsibilities, says that she is too and that her mother should prepare her meals. Helen aggressively replies that she has never claimed to be a proper mother and that Jo should either cook for herself or decide not to eat at all. Peter simply notes that Jo already looks seriously thin. Jo also asks for money for a new dress, but Helen says Jo should buy a needle and some thread because all her clothes are falling apart. She says that she would be ashamed to be known as her mother if Jo had an accident in the street. After Peter mentions that he wants to leave this dangerous neighborhood as fast as he can, Helen and he exit the apartment, leaving Jo alone.
Helen’s clear thoughts about motherhood finally come out, revealing that she does not believe she has any responsibility toward her daughter—not even material or financial. Her mocking comments about Jo’s appearance are paradoxical and unnecessarily cruel, since Helen herself is responsible for their finances and, therefore, for her daughter’s appearance. They demonstrate a desire to ridicule and hurt Jo, and reflect Helen’s refusal to feel any sense of responsibility toward her.
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Jo lies down on the bed and begins to cry. Soon, however, her boyfriend walks in. He asks her if she is crying but she hides her emotions, saying she has a cold, and Jimmie believes she might indeed have a temperature. When he asks her if she has been eating, she says she hasn’t. He proceeds to put a pill in some milk for her, which Jo half-seriously says must be an opium pellet, but Jimmie explains it is a cold cure. Looking around, he complains about how dirty this apartment and the neighborhood children are, but Jo says the children’s appearance is the parents’ fault.
Jo’s pain demonstrates that she is not inured to her mother’s attacks, as she tends to be much more emotionally vulnerable than Helen. While Jimmie’s observation about the state of the apartment once again highlights Jo’s dire financial situation, Jo’s note about the children’s appearance emphasizes that parents should be held accountable—a comment that serves as a direct response to Helen’s earlier words about Jo’s own appearance.
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Jimmie asks her about the couple he just saw exiting the building and Jo tells him it was her mother and her new fiancé. Jimmie notes that Jo would be a lovely bridesmaid but Jo says she would rather go to her own funeral. Jimmie convinces Jo to drink the milk he has prepared, which Jo doesn’t like, and comments on how young her mother looks to have a daughter of Jo’s age. Jo asks him if he likes Helen but Jimmie says that is an inappropriate question to ask one’s fiancé.
As a reaction to Helen’s intentional detachment from her daughter’s life, Jo wants to have nothing to do with her mother’s romantic life. Her mother’s wedding is, in a way, a “funeral,” since it marks yet another abandonment, and the beginning of Jo’s life on her own. At the same time, Jo feels threatened by her mother, seemingly considering her a rival.
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When Jimmie notices how cold it is in the apartment, Jo explains that the heating doesn’t work and asks him if he is going someplace warm with the Navy, which Jimmie says he is. Seemingly obsessed with Helen, Jo continues interrogating Jimmie about her mother, asking him if he finds Helen beautiful and if Jo looks like her. Jimmie says Helen is beautiful but that Jo does not look like her at all. This piece of information makes Jo happy, since she doesn’t like the idea of resembling her mother.
Jo and Jimmie’s relationship is marked by its upcoming ending, as Jimmie is going to leave with the Navy—a fact that Jo never forgets or ignores. Jo’s fixation with Helen reveals the depth of her resentment as well as a sense of rivalry and competition, as though Jo has to compete for other people’s love and is afraid it will automatically go to her mother.
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Jimmie then tenderly puts on Jo’s necklace. When Jo asks him about the ring, Jimmie admits that he bought it a supermarket, but Jo still finds his intention endearing. On the bed, as Jimmie embraces Jo, he compares himself to Shakespeare’s Othello, asking Jo if she will be his Desdemona. Jo accepts and, in turn, asks him to stay with her during Christmas, which makes Jimmie call her naughty. Jo replies that she must take advantage of the time they have together, since she has a feeling she will never see him again.
Jo and Jimmie’s gentle actions once again contrast with Helen and Peter’s, demonstrating the pleasure they draw from each other’s affection. Jimmie’s comparison to Othello, a character Shakespeare defines as a “Moor,” reveals his self-consciousness about his skin color, as he identifies with this particular character more than any other of Shakespeare’s couples. Additionally, since Othello kills Desdemona in the end, it’s a pretty bleak comparison to make, and it foreshadows the way Jimmie will abandon Jo
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When Jo says she merely wants to make the most of the limited time they have together, Jimmie jokes about her believing that he is “only after one thing,” but he ultimately playfully agrees that he is. However,  when he says he loves her and promises to return, Jo is taken aback and asks him how he can say that. Jimmie says that he is not sure what his words mean, but that they are true. When he embraces Jo she asks him not to do that, saying that she likes it. The scene fades out and wedding bells are heard.
While both Jo and Jimmie seem intent on making the most of their short amount of time together and are both happy to enjoy the sexual aspects of their relationship, Jo proves unwilling to accept promises that will likely turn out to be false—an attitude that Jimmie takes lightly, as he utters words whose weight he does not seem fully aware of.
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Helen is bearing boxes full of wedding clothes and is excitedly telling Jo to hurry up. Jo, who has a heavy cold, walks in in her pajamas. Helen tells Jo that she is excited because Peter has been spending a lot of money on her and has been giving her gifts. She mentions that she was going to ask Jo to be her bridesmaid but Jo tells her not to be silly.
Helen’s appreciation of Peter clearly has less to do with his personality than with his capacity to give her an extravagant lifestyle. Helen’s passing comment about Jo as a bridesmaid reveals that she has, for once, thought about Jo, but that she has once again done so in a light, superficial way.
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 While getting ready, Helen suddenly notices that Jo is trying to hide something. Aggressive in her curiosity, she finally succeeds in grabbing hold of the string around her daughter’s neck and snatches the ring off. Jo then reveals that she is going to get married to Jimmie, which leads Helen to explode in a rage, telling Jo she is stupid and would be useless as a wife. Visibly disturbed by this situation, Helen argues that while Jo probably feels in love, this is no reason to make such an important commitment. Jo merely says that she could say the same thing to her.
Helen’s outburst of anger is different from her previous ones, in which anger was the result of petty irritation or guilt. Here, Helen is truly upset about what she considers to be a serious mistake. While her anger still expresses itself partially as insults, for the first time since the beginning of the play she attempts to take on a motherly role and give advice to Jo. Jo’s reaction seems to imply that she is conscious of imitating her mother’s mistake—and perhaps even defiantly following Helen’s path.
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Helen, who seems truly distraught at her daughter’s decision, suddenly softens in an effort to convince Jo that she is too young to get married and that she should learn from her mother’s mistakes. Helen begins to feel guilty for leaving Jo alone and not being able to make sure that she doesn’t get herself into trouble. However, Jo only confirms her mother’s fears, saying that she is already “ruined.” Helen then reacts with anger, telling Jo she makes her sick. In a final effort to calm down and share her thoughts with her daughter, she tells her to be young and free instead of trapping herself in marriage.
This is Helen’s first notable attempt at effective communication, as she leaves irony aside and tries to convince Jo through reasoning. Jo’s defiance can be seen as yet another effort to attract her mother’s attention and confront her about her motherly responsibilities. However, these efforts are all short-lived, since despite Helen’s professed guilt, she ultimately proves as willing as ever to abandon her daughter.
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Jo changes the subject to her cold, saying this too is Helen’s fault. She asks her mother for some water but Helen hands her whiskey, which leads Jo to complain that Helen has been drunker these past weeks than Jo would have even thought possible. Jo makes jokes about Helen’s spiritual destruction, and Helen answers her with even more irony.
Jo’s accusations against Helen imply that Jo’s current actions can be seen as the consequences of her upbringing, in which Helen has been a negative influence. Her drinking is only one aspect of this general lack of care.
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Before Helen leaves, Jo asks Helen what her father was like. Helen ends up revealing to Jo that her father was “a bit retarded,” “a bit stupid.” While Jo initially believes her mother is lying, Helen matter-of-factly insists that she is telling the truth. She explains that their love affair lasted only a short while and that the man later died. Jo asks if madness is hereditary and Helen initially jokes about Jo needing to judge for herself if she is mad, but finally tells her that she is merely joking and that Jo is obviously no less intelligent than anyone else.
While Helen does not seem to understand (or to care) about the impact that her story is having on her daughter, who would have wanted her father to be a more noteworthy man, she does succeed in understanding that Jo is truly worried about the genetic impact of madness. She demonstrates her respect for her daughter by reassuring her—without, however, making her feel particularly special, since she concludes that Jo is just like everyone else.
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Disappointed with what her mother has just told her, Jo complains about her father’s story, but Helen retorts that it is simply the truth. Jo asks her how she could have gone out with an “idiot.” Helen explains that he had nice eyes and that he provided a respite from her husband, a rich man who hated sex. She recalls this period of her life, and in particular her first sexual experience with Jo’s father, with fondness. Finally, Helen announces that she will see Jo after the honeymoon. As Helen is about to go meet Peter, she says that Jo must not be sad to see her leave, but Jo says that she is neither glad nor sorry. Ready for her wedding, Helen exits the apartment, saying that she will be back if Peter doesn’t show up, and Jo wishes her good luck.
Jo seems to take her father’s story personally, considering that his lack of intelligence reflects on her own identity. Helen’s attitude toward romantic relationships seems to have changed little since her first marriage, as both now and then her decisions are less concerned with long-term consequences than with present enjoyment. Jo’s evasive reaction to her mother’s departure reveals that she does not actually hate her; she is probably feigning indifference in order to hide from Helen how much her abandonment hurts her, and how much she wishes her mother were more present in her life.
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