Faced with economic and emotional hardships, the characters in the play adopt various strategies to confront—or, on the contrary, to escape—the difficulties of life. Although Helen and Jo adopt a common strategy of irony and cynicism to cope with their problems, Helen proves more prone to fatalistic resignation, while her daughter generally attempts to try to change her difficult circumstances. These differences in attitude make Helen more inclined to embrace detachment and negativity, while Jo is more sensitive to her environment’s changes, and oscillates between youthful enthusiasm and despair. Ultimately, however, despite their essential differences, both characters prove capable of enjoying moments of hope and positivity, brief instants in which they enjoy “a taste of honey,” a respite from the heavy burdens of adulthood.
In the face of adversity, Helen and Jo often adopt strategies of ironic detachment and verbal attack. While this method gives them a sense of control over their lives, it also highlights the actual dangers and problems they face. Helen and Jo’s dissatisfaction with their lives often expresses itself through direct verbal attack. In one instance, they criticize each other’s physical condition in order to ridicule the other. Jo mocks her mother for seeming older than she actually is. “You don’t look forty. You look a sort of well-preserved sixty.” In turn, Helen mocks Jo’s physique and Peter declares that Jo “already looks like a bad case of malnutrition.” These comments aim to insult the other, but also indirectly highlight the actual insecurity and danger of their lives, revealing that Helen has indeed aged prematurely and that Jo looks seriously ill. Therefore, however intentionally ironic these comments might be, they still indicate that there truly is danger in the way the two women are living.
Helen and Jo also exaggerate the dangers in their life in a dramatic way. When the two of them first discover their new apartment, Jo makes bleak predictions about the future, arguing that they will never survive in such an insalubrious place. “Tomorrow? What makes you think we’re going to live that long? The roof’s leaking!” Her mother takes this cynical attitude one step further. As Jo keeps on complaining about the apartment, anticipating that it will smell bad in the summer, Helen interjects that “this whole city smells.” Instead of reassuring her daughter, Helen thus confirms and expands her daughter’s worries. She is not merely pessimistic, but fully resigned to living in an unpleasant atmosphere—in their apartment, in the city as a whole, and, more generally, in their life. Instead of using her dissatisfaction to move forward, Helen thus adopts a fatalistic attitude, aimed at accepting the unpleasantness of reality.
While Helen’s attitude is characterized by resignation, Jo, moved by hope in the future, proves more inclined to try to change her situation. However, Jo’s efforts are often met with resistance, as Helen seems incapable of conceiving of a life defined by hope and positivity. Indeed, although Helen’s honesty occasionally appears to be at the service of helping her daughter, she usually fails to accompany her criticism with healing acts. “Look at your arms! They’re a couple of stalks!” Helen tells Jo when she sees her pregnant daughter after many months. This observation about her daughter’s ill health is meant to encourage her to accept her financial help. However, Helen never actually gives her daughter any money, thus proving that her brutal, often cruel honesty is mostly gratuitous, as she is unable to bring any solution to the problems she identifies.
Jo is incapable of such resignation, because it makes her feel hopeless. Unlike Helen, whenever Jo feels unable to change the situation she is in, she gives in to despair. Obsessed with her dire material situation and her disgust at being pregnant, Jo becomes so desperate that she tells her friend Geoffrey she wants to throw herself in the river. While Geof manages to reassure her and it becomes apparent that Jo is not actually planning to kill herself, Jo’s dissatisfaction with her life thus expresses itself as emotional vulnerability, not cynical resignation. Instead of giving in to fatalism, Jo prefers trying to try to change her situation.
However, Helen often disrupts her daughter’s efforts to make life more agreeable. For example, while Helen gives in to excessive drinking to cope with her problems, Jo refuses to drink alcohol and, throughout the play, maintains her commitment to have no alcohol in her home. This represents her effort to separate herself from her mother’s bad habits. Yet instead of encouraging her daughter in this healthy path, Helen mocks her and insists that she try drinking. On another occasion, Jo wants to plant bulbs to make the apartment look livelier. Once again, instead of encouraging her daughter, Helen merely asks her: “Why do you bother?” Helen crushes her daughter’s optimistic, creative ideas, imposing her belief that any effort to make life more colorful, joyous, or healthy is ridiculous and bound to fail.
By the end of the play, this situation shifts momentarily. While Jo is about to face the pains of childbirth head-on, Helen gives in to a brief moment of emotional vulnerability. In this way, she proves that she, too, can enjoy “a taste of honey”—a brief moment of joy and optimism, providing a respite from the heaviness of adult life. Although Helen criticizes Jo’s idealistic views about the future, she admits that being young and hopeful can be admirable. When Jo expresses her belief that she can have a bright future, Helen is both mocking and fascinated. “Listen to it! Still, we all have funny ideas at that age, don’t we – makes no difference though, we all end up same way sooner or later.” Helen ultimately draws a fatalistic conclusion but still admires her daughter for her “funny,” optimistic ideas about life. Her comment thus reveals her capacity to be fascinated by her daughter’s eager attitude toward life, which is so different from her own.
At the end of the play, even Helen reveals her own potential to think positively. As she is stroking her pregnant daughter’s hair, she recalls her own childhood. In a long speech—the longest in the entire play—she describes the games she used to play and places she used to go as a child. She remembers how she used to sit on a hill all day, without anyone knowing where she was. These lengthy, nostalgic thoughts reveal Helen’s pleasure in the idea of escaping her adult responsibilities. Like her daughter, who finds joy in being young and free, she relishes the time when she could be an innocent child, without having to worry about issues such as money and family—in this case, her daughter’s pregnancy. Her recollection of this idealized period of life suggests that part of her still longs for such simplicity and insouciance.
By the end of the play, both Helen and Jo thus reveal that, while they confront certain difficulties through irony and cynicism, both of them are also vulnerable in their own ways. This vulnerability reflects their underlying desire for their life to change, even if they do not necessarily know how to achieve this. As a result, every now and then, they both embrace the pleasure inherent in having a hopeful, carefree vision of life, far from the oppression of everyday responsibilities—enjoying a “taste of honey” in an often cruel, oppressive world.
Adversity and Resilience ThemeTracker
Adversity and Resilience Quotes in A Taste of Honey
JO: I’m going to unpack my bulbs. I wonder where I can put them.
HELEN: I could tell you.
JO: They’re supposed to be left in a cool, dark place.
HELEN: That’s where we all end up sooner or later. Still, it’s no use worrying, is it?
JO: I hope they bloom. Always before when I’ve tried to fix up a window box nothing’s ever grown in it.
HELEN: Why do you bother?
JO: It’s nice to see a few flowers, isn’t it?
JO: Anyway I’m not getting married like you did.
JO: I’m too young and beautiful for that.
HELEN: Listen to it! Still, we all have funny ideas at that age, don’t we—makes no difference though, we all end up same way sooner or later.
HELEN: You stupid little devil! What sort of a wife do you think you’d make? You’re useless. It takes you all your time to look after yourself. I suppose you think you’re in love. Anybody can fall in love, do you know that? But what do you know about the rest of it?
JO: Ask yourself.
HELEN: You know where that ring should be? In the ashcan with everything else. Oh! I could kill her, I could really.
JO: You don’t half knock me about. I hope you suffer for it.
HELEN: I’ve done my share of suffering if I never do any more. Oh Jo, you're only a kid. Why don’t you learn from my mistakes? It takes half your life to learn from your own.
GEOF: Has anybody ever tried?
GEOF: Taking you in hand.
GEOF: What happened to him?
JO: He came in with Christmas and went out with the New Year.
GEOF: Did you like him?
JO: He was all right . . .
GEOF: Did you love him?
JO: I don’t know much about love. I’ve never been too familiar with it. I suppose I must have loved him. They say love creates. And I’m certainly creating at the moment. I’m going to have a baby.
JO: This place stinks. [Goes over to the door. Children are heard singing in the street.] That river, it’s the colour of lead. Look at that washing, it’s dirty, and look at those filthy children.
GEOF: It’s not their fault.
JO: It’s their parents’ fault. There’s a little boy over there and his hair, honestly, it’s walking away. And his ears. Oh! He’s a real mess! He never goes to school. He just sits on that front doorstep all day. I think he’s a bit deficient.
[The children’s voices die away. A tugboat hoots.]
His mother ought not to be allowed.
JO: His mother. Think of all the harm she does having children.
JO: You know, some people like to take out an insurance policy, don’t they?
GEOF: I’m a bit young for you to take out one on me.
JO: No. You know, they like to pray to the Almighty just in case he turns out to exist when they snuff it.
GEOF [brushing under the sofa]: Well, I never think about it. You come, you go. It’s simple.
JO: It’s not, it’s chaotic—a bit of love, a bit of lust and there you are. We don’t ask for life, we have it thrust upon us.
GEOF: What’s frightened you? Have you been reading the newspapers?
JO: No, I never do. Hold my hand, Geof.
JO: So we’re back where we started. And all those months you stayed away from me because of him! Just like when I was small.
HELEN: I never thought about you! It’s a funny thing, I never have done when I’ve been happy. But these last few weeks I’ve known I should be with you.
JO: So you stayed away.
HELEN: Yes. I can’t stand trouble.
JO: Oh, there’s no trouble. I’ve been performing a perfectly normal, healthy function. We’re wonderful! Do you know, for the first time in my life I feel really important. I feel as though I could take care of the whole world. I even feel as though I could take care of you, too!