A Taste of Honey

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

Summary
Analysis
Months later, Geof and Jo are in the apartment. While Geof is cleaning the floor with a mop, Jo is reading out loud from a book about childbirth that Geof gave her. She makes fun of the book’s tone, which sounds overly enthusiastic and naïve. Jo then ridicules Geof, saying he is old-fashioned in general and that his choices in books reflect his tendency to live in the past. She calls Geof Edwardian, saying that she herself is a pure contemporary, living “at the same time as herself.” Jo gets up and Geof half-angrily pushes her with the mop, saying he just cleaned that section of the apartment.
Geof has taken on a quasi-parental role toward Jo, as he gives her information about how to raise children, wanting her to feel as prepared as possible. Jo’s playful attack against Geof for being old-fashioned identifies one of his central traits: his capacity to remain committed to a single goal (in this case, taking care of Jo). Jo’s attitude, by contrast, is more unpredictable and carefree and, perhaps, in that sense, similar to her mother’s.
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Jo ironically tells Geof he hasn’t admired her house-coat, which she has made herself, but Geof says it looks terrible. Jo then asks him what is cooking in the oven and Geof tells her he is baking a cake. Jo calls him wonderful and admires the fact that he makes everything work in the house, preparing food so that they can eat properly. She feels that he has transformed her.
Jo’s house-coat highlights her struggle to take care of herself on her own. Her comments about Geof’s cooking confirm that an important factor in the success of her current independent life is his presence, since he is a committed, capable, reliable person.
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When Geof moves the sofa to clean, he discovers a hidden pile of garbage, which he finds absolutely disgusting. Jo then realizes that the bulbs she had brought with her when she first moved into this apartment are now dead. This leads Jo to reflect about death. She says that some people take out an insurance policy, choosing to pray to God without fully believing in him, in the hope that they might benefit from their praying if they die and God turns out to exist.
The death of Jo’s flower bulbs, which she had wanted to decorate the apartment with in Act 1, represent the symbolic death of that dream: to turn her cohabitation with her mother into a pleasant experience. At the same time, Jo establishes a parallel between these bulbs and people’s feigned belief in God. Perhaps, she suggests, her hope in the bulbs’ growth—just like her hope in making her life more agreeable—was not wholehearted, but mere wishful thinking, a fragile “insurance policy” against the unpredictability of life.
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Geof says he never thinks about death, merely accepting that people come and go, but Jo reveals her philosophy about the chaotic nature of life. She believes that life is made up of brutal, unpredictable events that one doesn’t chose. Concerned by these gloomy thoughts, Geof asks what has frightened Jo so much and Jo merely asks Geof to hold her hand, which he does, after halfheartedly expressing regret about having to interrupt his cleaning.
Jo seems to relinquish all hope of ever taking control of her life, as she trusts that no one can fully shape one’s destiny. At the same time, her relationship with Geof shows that people can support each other and, through love and care, lessen the impact of life’s troubles, however unpredictable they might be.
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As Geof tries to calm Jo down she admires his hands, saying that she used to try to hold her mother’s hands but that Helen would always pull away from her. Jo notes that Helen always had a lot of love for other people but never for her. Instead of reassuring Jo, Geof tells her that she should be careful not to become like her mother. While Jo argues that she is completely different from Helen, Geof says that she is in fact already similar to her in some ways. Jo then angrily pushes Geof’s hand away and Geof ironically asks if he can return to his cleaning now.
Jo’s comments reveal that her mother’s lack of love and support has left a deep mark on her, making her feel abandoned and rejected to this day. Geof’s warning about Jo’s similarity to Helen contrasts with Jimmie’s previous comment that Helen and Jo have nothing in common. Geof thus shows that he is more aware of the intricate nature of Helen and Jo’s relationship, and that Jo is at risk of mirroring Helen’s mistakes.
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Angry and vengeful, Jo then tells Geof that he can stay with her in the apartment only if he tells her more about himself. She hints at his homosexuality by saying that she used to believe he was immoral but has now discovered that he is more like an old lady, boring and asexual. Geof chases her with his mop and Jo playfully asks him if he doesn’t enjoy living with her. Geof answers that it is rather difficult to live with her most of the time, despite certain enjoyable moments.
Jo’s defensiveness precisely echoes Geof’s fear about Jo becoming more like her mother, since her reaction to Geof’s sincere warning is to attack him on a personal level, thus effectively cutting short any constructive conversation. However playful they might be, Jo’s comments about Geof’s sexuality are insensitive, reflecting a desire to hurt him by attacking him where he is most vulnerable.
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Jo complains about Geof always wearing black shirts and then begins to yell at him for finding her a job retouching photographs. She seems to feel that she had to prove something by taking on this job, showing resentment at having to demonstrate her artistic worth. Finally, she attacks Geof’s status as an art student who goes to fancy art schools and focuses on his artistic talent. Geof complains about her shouting but Jo justifies herself by explaining that she is Irish. Following Jo’s comment, Geof agrees it must therefore not be her fault. His response makes Jo laugh and she says that she likes him.
Jo and Geof’s fights are strikingly different from those between Helen and Jo. Even if Jo might feel anger and lash out at Geof, Geof rarely escalates the discussion. Instead, he tries to calm the situation down and to make Jo laugh. Despite Jo’s attacks against him, it becomes apparent that her frustration is less about Geof than it is a reflection of her own sense of inferiority or, perhaps, of jealousy, about Geof’s studies and his active investment in his education and artistic talent.
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The two joke about the Irish and Jo tells Geof that her father was both an Irishman and an idiot. She summarizes the story that her mother told her, explaining that Helen had sex with an idiot because she never had sex with her husband. Surprised by this story, Geof initially believes that Jo is lying. However, when he discovers that Helen actually told Jo this, he concludes that Helen was probably lying in order to make an impression on Jo. He notes that Helen has the tendency to be overly dramatic, adding that she also tends to judge people by their mere appearance without actually knowing much about their character. He uses his own story as an example, describing how Helen always looks at him as though he should receive medical attention.
Jo’s fears about her father’s intellectual capacities reveal that, however often Jo may criticize her mother, she also takes her words to heart. Geof’s lucidity about Helen’s attitude is helpful to Jo, who realizes that her mother is dramatic to the point of being potentially duplicitous. This proves that even though Geof might not have the strength or personality to stand up to Helen, he is a shrewd judge of her character. He also proves capable of being strong in the face of aggression, as he does not take Helen’s insults at heart but understands them as misguided beliefs.
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 Geof laughs at Jo for worrying about her father for so many months, even though this is clearly an untrue story. He asks her if she can actually imagine her mother going out with an “idiot” and Jo admits that Geof is probably right: Helen would never do that. Geof then notes that it is difficult to tell the difference between fools and wise men in life, and the two of them laugh about Jo being potentially crazy. Jo appreciates Geof’s capacity to make her laugh but, suddenly nostalgic, she mentions that she would still want her mother to be there. Geof doesn’t understand her, since the two women fight whenever they are together, but Jo simply says that she feels that her mother should be with her, now that she is close to giving birth.
The two characters’ laughter at the impossibility of Helen dating an intellectually inferior man reflects Helen’s romantic focus on superficial criteria such as money, looks, and reputation. She would probably consider dating a so-called “idiot” to be shameful. Jo and Geof make fun of social categorization, understanding that even the most under-estimated beings are capable of greatness—and, reciprocally, that the sanest individuals can behave in foolish ways. Jo’s desire for her mother’s presence reveals that Helen’s absence remains a source of pain, despite the fact that Jo has endured it throughout her life.
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Jo asks Geof to put his arms around her. Geof then tells her he has a surprise for her and gives her a doll, with which he believes Jo can practice holding the baby. However, when Jo sees the doll, she becomes angry, saying that the color is wrong. She brutally throws the doll away and says she will kill her baby. She concludes that she wants to be neither a mother nor a woman. Geof tries to reassure her and asks her if she wants him to go search for her boyfriend for her, but Jo says that she doesn’t want a man.
It remains ambiguous whether Jo’s anger is directed toward her boyfriend, who has abandoned her, or Helen, who has proven a highly unreliable mother herself. Either way, Jo feels resentment at being forced to take on a motherly role she hasn’t fully chosen herself. However, this difficult situation has only reinforced her desire to be independent and avoid romantic relationships.
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Geof argues that, in that case, Jo should probably consider giving her baby up for adoption. He wonders if Jo might feel differently about motherhood once her baby is born but Jo denies that possibility. Geof then asks her if she still loves her boyfriend, and Jo explains that he was only a dream of hers, bound not to transform into firm reality. She explains that she wanted someone to be with her at Christmas, since Helen usually leaves her to spend time with her boyfriends, and that Jimmie was able to keep her company and give her affection.
Geof’s attitude is pragmatic and focused on what would be best for Jo as well as for the baby. His practical approach is all the more relevant given the negative effects that Helen’s lackluster parenting has had on her own daughter. Receiving insufficient love from Helen has led Jo to seek it elsewhere, thus leading to a cyclical situation in which she, too, seems at risk of giving too little love to her child.
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Geof then encourages Jo to forget about that dream and to focus on her present responsibilities. He asks her if she remembers the time when he asked her to marry him. Jo doesn’t remember that moment, so Geof reminds her that her reaction was to go lie on the bed. Jo notes that Geof didn’t follow her there, using this piece of information to conclude that there has never been any romantic love between them. This makes her feel grateful and relieved.
Geof’s mention of one’s responsibilities and of his marriage proposal emphasizes his willingness to commit to the long-term project of taking care of Jo. Jo seems to appreciate this partnership all the more because it is non-sexual, and therefore devoid of what she considers to be typical of romantic relationships: fickleness and the possibility of abandonment.
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Realizing that he will never take the place of a romantic partner, Geof assumes that Jo is simply staying with him until she finds a new boyfriend, but he declares himself content enough to give her love in the meantime. Jo finds him funny and says he is unique, because he gives her love without asking for anything in return.
It remains ambiguous whether Geof has actually harbored romantic feelings toward Jo. Despite Jo’s conviction to the contrary, he seems intent on mentioning it on various occasions. Jo’s admiration for Geof’s behavior only highlights the terrible role models she has had in her life.
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The two go to the kitchen to get the cake ready and Jo playfully notes that they do not need to think about marriage, since they have already been married for a thousand years. Talking about the baby, Geof asks her what she is going to call it, and Jo says she might give it to Geof and call it Number One, arguing that “it will always be number one to itself.”
Jo’s optimism about the strength of her relationship with Geof is later proven wrong, as Geof finds himself forced to leave the apartment. Her recognition of the high esteem that the baby will inevitably have of itself insists, beyond all irony, on the necessity to treat children with the consideration and respect they deserve.
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Helen suddenly enters the apartment, carrying luggage in the same way she did at the very beginning of the play. She calls to see if anyone is home and announces that she has come back. Expressing all her thoughts without stopping, she gives Jo flowers, complains about carrying her luggage, and says the apartment looks more cheerful. Jo offers her a cup of tea, which she accepts even though she would have liked alcohol. She looks at her daughter and concludes that Jo is indeed going to give birth soon. She interrogates her about whether she has been receiving regular check-ups and doing the exercises she needs, but doesn’t wait for her daughter’s answer before asking her if her luggage is ready. Surprised, Jo tells her she is not going to the hospital because she wants to have her baby in the apartment.
The similarity between this scene and the play’s opening reflects Helen’s utter lack of social and economic mobility, her inability to invest in a long-term, sustainable future for her daughter and herself. This time, Helen is forced to rely on her daughter for help, thus demonstrating that Jo has been more successful than her mother at leading a healthy, stable life. Helen’s efforts to interrogate Jo about her pregnancy ring hollow, revealing a shallow attempt to compensate for the lack of actual support she has given her daughter during the entire pregnancy.
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Geof joins the conversation and Helen is shocked to note that he is still there, although she also expected it. She then tells Jo that she cannot have a baby in that apartment, since the birth of one’s first child can be tricky. Geof intervenes to reassure Jo. He tries to sound confident about the fact that there will be nothing complicated or dangerous about Jo’s labor, but sounds a bit insecure when he turns to Jo for her to confirm these thoughts. Geof and Helen begin to argue but Jo ignores them both, telling her mother straightforwardly that she has decided to have the baby in the apartment and will not change her mind. Geof explains that a district nurse will come to take care of everything.
Geof’s attempts to shield Jo from her mother’s alarming assertions about childbirth demonstrate his desire to protect Jo’s feelings. In this way, he attempts to maintain the stability and emotional comfort that the two of them have succeeded in creating in their home. However, Jo proves stronger than both Helen and Geof when she defends her decision, refusing to listen to Helen’s warnings or to Geof’s fragile reassurance, asserting her choice without asking for confirmation.
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Helen then changes the subject, asking for a cup of tea and complaining that her suitcases were hard to carry. Jo asks her why she is carrying so much luggage and Helen reveals that she has come to take care of her daughter. Slyly trying to force Geof to leave, she mentions that the apartment might become too crowded for the three of them. Geof understands her hint, saying he can move out. Irritated by Geof’s submission, Jo tells him not to give in to Helen’s domineering attitude.
Helen’s change of subject reveals her weakness, as she understands that she cannot win this discussion. Her desire to kick Geof out is purely selfish, as she wants her daughter to herself and does not consider what consequences this might have on anyone else. She cannot accept that Geof has been such a good friend and roommate to Jo, taking care of her in ways Helen never even tried.
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Helen then directly asks Geof to leave, saying she wants to talk to her daughter, and Geof submissively says he actually wanted to go do some grocery shopping. While Jo tells him he shouldn’t let Helen control him, Helen complains about Geof’s mumbling. Helen calls Geof a “bloody little pansy” and Jo tells her not to insult her friend, but Helen merely replies that she does not like his style. Geof tells Jo not to worry and decides to leave, asking Jo if she wants him to buy wool, which leads Helen to make a contemptuous comment about the fact that Geof knits. While Jo tries to convince her friend not to go, Geof ignores her and leaves the apartment.
Helen’s insults aim to make Geof feel belittled and degraded. Her attitude also demonstrates her intolerance toward anyone who subverts societal expectations about gender, as she shows a rigid understanding of what constitutes male and female activities in the household. Jo’s attempts to make Geof stay demonstrate her attachment to her friend and her desire to keep him close to her, a possibility her mother constantly attempts to sabotage.
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Helen feigns surprise at Geof’s departure and Jo attacks her for being rude. Helen defends herself, claiming she did nothing wrong, but Jo explains that Geof is her only friend. Instead of trying to understand this, Helen tells her daughter she could find herself “something more like a man.” Jo criticizes Helen for not even noticing when she hurts other people’s feelings, but Helen defends herself by saying that she merely wanted Geof to leave them alone for a while.
Jo’s belief that her mother does not realize when she hurts other people is relatively naïve. Indeed, it seems equally likely that Helen does understand that her words are harmful, but that she doesn’t care or want to do anything about it. Her goal seems to be to dominate and control every situation, regardless of how this might impact others.
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Jo asks Helen to stop being mean to Geof and inquires whether Peter has kicked her out. Instead of answering, Helen tries to change the subject, showing Jo a dress she bought for the baby and telling her that the reason she is moving is to be with her daughter during this period. She criticizes Jo’s living situation, saying that there will be no one to take care of the baby while Jo works, but Jo says she can take care of her problems on her own.
Helen’s repeated change of subject reflects her incapacity to confront the consequences of her own actions and her general vulnerability. Her attempts to convince Jo of her good will are material, as she gives her baby-related gifts. Jo, however, tries not to let her mother intervene and attempts to protect her independent life and spirit.
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While Helen seems contemptuous of Jo’s lack of definite plans, Jo criticizes her mother’s attitude of superiority, reminding Helen that being offered an engagement ring only led to her being kicked out of her marriage and forced to return to this shabby apartment. Helen acts as though she doesn’t mind this situation, but Jo calls her a fool and insists that this apartment is now hers, to which Helen replies that she has some money.
Jo highlights the fact the hypocrisy of Helen’s attitude, since her attempt to escape poverty through Peter was only based on fragile promises and the desire to lead an extravagant life, instead of a more pragmatic, sustainable approach to her economic problems.
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Helen finally reveals that Peter left her for another woman, and Jo cannot believe that the two of them are now back to where they were at the beginning. Jo expresses her resentment at being abandoned for yet another man, just like Helen used to do when Jo was a child. Seemingly indifferent to her daughter’s pain, Helen merely explains that she never thinks about her daughter when she is happy, but that she felt bothered these last few weeks, since she knew that Jo was pregnant. Jo notes that this clearly did not lead Helen to actually come help her, but Helen justifies herself by saying that she hates trouble. Jo, however, explains that she has been doing perfectly well. She says that, for the first time in her life, she feels important and capable of taking care of everyone—even of Helen herself.
Jo’s feeling that her entire life with her mother has been a series of abandonments reveals that her long-desired, professed independence could not exist without the harm that Helen has inflicted on her; Jo’s desire to be left alone can be seen as a direct reaction to Helen’s unsupportive upbringing. Helen does not attempt to justify her selfishness. Instead, she merely affirms it—an attitude that leaves little space for actual change. Jo’s optimistic outlook nevertheless overcomes her mother’s selfishness. It reveals that time alone has done her well, as it has given the strength she needs to face life’s problems with self-confidence.
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Helen tells Jo that she has ordered a baby cot for her. When Jo shows her the wicker basket that Geof has already gotten for that purpose, Helen criticizes it, as well as the general state of the apartment, which she finds unhygienic. Jo then goes to lie down and Geof returns soon after. When he asks for Jo, Helen curtly says she is lying down and that he should not wake her up, which Geof says he would never do. Helen criticizes everything she sees—the cleanliness of the apartment, which Geof says he has just cleaned, as well as the groceries he bought. When Jo hears Geof’s voice, she asks him for headache pills and Geof promises to give her some.
Helen’s vehement criticism of the apartment can be understood as a defensive reaction to Jo’s lack of enthusiasm toward her material gifts. Feeling threatened by Jo’s obvious attachment to Geof, Helen does everything she can to try to get rid of him. Her actions are not actually motivated by disgust with the apartment, since she has never shown any concern about the material conditions her daughter lives in, but more accurately by jealousy and resentment toward Geof.
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Helen then asks Geof to throw out the wicker basket, saying she refuses to put her grandchild in it. As with Helen’s other comments, Geof rebuts her criticisms by saying that Jo likes it. Helen then enters the kitchen, which she finds as messy as the rest of the apartment. When she returns to the living room, she notices that Geof is getting ready to leave. Helen, seemingly unsurprised, merely tells him to take the groceries with him when he goes, as though she had been expecting his departure all along. Geof refuses but, in a subdued voice, while Helen tells him not to mumble, he asks her not to frighten Jo, saying he does not want to scare Jo about the difficulty of childbirth. Instead of feeling compassion or understanding, Helen merely tells Geof not to give her orders about what to do with her own daughter.
In stark contrast to Helen’s aggression and generally critical attitude, which is meant as an effort to dominate, Geof reminds her that Jo’s actual feelings are what is most important. Helen shows no genuine concern for Jo’s well-being, since she does not hesitate to eject the only supportive, reliable person in her daughter’s life. Even on his way out, Geof emphasizes that his concern has always been to protect Jo’s material and emotional welfare. Once again unable to face constructive criticism, Helen reacts defensively, showing that she only cares about her pride, and not about ameliorating the situation.
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Geof says he is leaving but notes that Jo had said she wanted him with her during labor, since that would keep her from feeling scared. Helen finds the idea of a man’s presence during childbirth revolting, but Geof argues that husbands are usually present. Helen then slyly asks him whether he is Jo’s husband and Geof is forced to admit he isn’t. As Geof is leaving, explaining that Jo cannot cope with both of them at once, Helen tries to force him to take the groceries with him. When Geof categorically refuses, she throws all of them on the floor. Outraged, Geof finally leaves the apartment, cursing women and saying goodbye to Jo even though she is not present.
Helen proves incapable of understanding (or, perhaps, eager to ignore) the strong bond that exists between Geof and Jo, which cannot be represented accurately through the traditional category of matrimony. At the same time, Geof’s furtive departure reveals his cowardly nature, as he does not even inform Jo of his choice and allow her to fight for him. Helen’s violent action reveals her frustration and that she wants to be as aggressive toward Geof as possible.
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Helen goes to sit by Jo’s side and Jo asks her if childbirth is painful. Helen recalls her own experience giving birth to Jo and tells her that it is not necessarily painful, but that it involves a lot of hard work. Jo tells her that she had a dream while she was sleeping but Helen does not want to hear about it, arguing that her daughter’s dreams lead to morbid conversations. Jo asks if Geof has returned and Helen says he hasn’t.
Helen’s outright lie to her daughter once again confirms her unwillingness to be held accountable to her actions and behave as a responsible adult. Her aversion toward her daughter’s dreams also shows her lack of interest in the more imaginative, fantastical aspects of life.
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Jo then worries about where Helen is going to sleep but Helen tells her not to worry. As she is wondering where Geof might be, she suddenly feels a contraction. Helen tries to help her feel better and Jo kneels on the bed, saying that she feels a bit better. Faced with the stress of the situation, Helen concludes that she needs a drink.
Jo’s concern for Helen contrasts with the lack of concern Helen has shown for Jo’s well-being throughout her life—revealing that Jo is more generous and understanding than her mother, who tends to disappear at the mere sight of trouble—such as the pain of her daughter’s labor.
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Helen then hears children singing outside and recalls her own childhood. She gives a long speech about her childhood activities, remembering the games she used to play and the places she used to go. She nostalgically recalls sitting on the top of the hill for the entire day, watching the landscape, while no one knew her whereabouts. Concluding her speech, she offers to prepare some tea, but when she enters the kitchen she realizes that she doesn’t know how to use the stove. Jo tells her to turn all the knobs but to be careful not to gas herself.
Helen’s nostalgic recollection of her childhood is unprecedented, as she rarely reflects on her past. Instead of reminding her of her daughter, the children’s singing reveals her desire to escape her adult responsibilities completely and to return to the innocence of childhood, when she could be entirely on her own. Jo’s instructions about the stove serve as a complete reversal of one of the opening scenes, thus proving that Jo is now the one behaving in the way a parent should.
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Jo then announces that her baby is going to be black. Taken by surprise, Helen at first doesn’t understand what Jo is saying and thinks Jo is merely giving in to a moment of fright. However, when Helen realizes that Jo’s boyfriend was black, she begins to panic, imagining the shame she will feel to carry her black grandchild in the street. Filled with self-pity, she decides she needs to go out for a drink. She wonders if they should drown the baby or give it up for adoption to the district nurse Jo and Geof have contracted, whom Jo says is also black.
Helen’s reaction to her grandchild’s skin color is not only disrespectful, as she is unable to accept the reality of racial equality, but also entirely selfish, since she only shows concern for her own reputation. It becomes apparent that she has not given up her bad habits, such as drinking, and that she will probably never be able to face problems head-on without seeking an escape.
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Irritated, Jo tells Helen that she can leave if she is not satisfied with the situation. Helen gets ready to go for a drink, angrily telling Jo that she doesn’t know what to do with her. When she sees her mother preparing to leave, Jo asks her if she is just going out for a drink and if she will come back, to which Helen curtly says yes, though she is clearly focused on her own thoughts and preoccupations.
Helen becomes aggressive once again, exchanging compassion and support for insults and anger. Jo’s questions aim to probe whether her mother has truly changed, or whether she will merely abandon her as she has in the past. Her awareness of her mother’s unreliability, however, does not seem to make her doubt the honesty of her mother’s replies.
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Before leaving the apartment in a rush, Helen concludes that what she will with the baby is to “put it on the stage and call it Blackbird.” After Helen hurriedly leaves the apartment, Jo looks around the room and remembers the playful nursery rhyme that Geof once recited to her. Smiling, she recites it again, concluding her speech with the two verses that had intrigued her when she first heard it: “If I had half a crown a day, / I’d gladly spend it on you.”
Helen’s final words break the imaginary boundary between the play and the spectators, recognizing the existence of a “stage” on which she is performing. This highlights the fact that many of the social issues the characters deal with in A Taste of Honey are pressing social issues in real life as well. Finally, the comfort that Jo finds in Geof’s nursery rhyme serves as a reminder of the commitment that Geof was ready to make in Jo’s regards and the hope that people might show compassion and solidarity to each other. It also emphasizes Jo’s enduring innocence and, as such, her capacity to face her troubles with youthful strength and courage.
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