A Taste of Honey centers around the relationship between Jo and her mother Helen. Characterized by frequent fighting and animosity, their interactions subvert expectations about how an adult should care for her child. Indeed, although Jo longs for her mother’s love and care, Helen seems incapable of being a reliable presence in her daughter’s life. Instead, Helen neglects Jo emotionally and materially. After leaving Jo alone to go live with Peter, her new romantic partner, Helen finally returns to her pregnant daughter and promises to accompany her through childbirth. However, this seemingly fortuitous reunion raises serious questions about whether Helen will be able to change her ways. At the end of the play, it remains ambiguous whether Helen is truly ready to invest in her family, or if she will, once again, follow her selfish whims and leave her daughter to fend for herself. The very uncertainty of this ending confirms Helen’s volatility, emphasizing that, for Jo to accept her mother’s presence in her life without feeling constantly hurt or disappointed, she will have to accept her as an inherently unstable person—one who has not changed and who, perhaps, never will.
The relationship between Helen and Jo is marked by tension and misunderstanding. While Jo feels excluded from her mother’s life and deprived of motherly love, Helen makes little effort to gain her daughter’s trust or affection. On various occasions, Helen shows that she has little knowledge about—or interest in—her daughter’s life. The two of them constantly fight about Helen’s lovers, her excessive drinking, and her neglect of her daughter. Helen often makes decisions without considering the effect they will have on Jo. Indeed, it is only after the two of them move to a new district that she begins to wonder how her daughter will get to school, now that they live so far away from it. With utter lack of concern, she mentions the “shocking journey” her daughter will have, but does nothing to help solve this problem. Her matter-of-fact attitude reveals her detachment from her daughter’s life.
This lack of care is material as well as emotional. Before leaving Jo to move in with Peter, Helen responds to Jo’s complaints about not having food at home by saying that she has never claimed to be a “proper mother” and that Jo, instead of complaining, should either cook for herself or decide not to eat at all. Helen insists that her daughter should manage the details of her life on her own, arguing that it is a waste of time to try to influence other people’s lives. Because of Helen’s cynical attitude, Jo regularly finds herself alone, without the guidance of a responsible adult. At the same time, Helen demands that her daughter respond to her personal needs. She complains that Jo never gives her respect and that she is selfish. However, it soon becomes obvious that Jo is not actually selfish, but that she simply resents her mother’s lack of care. Helen’s tone is ironic and detached, but Jo’s is visibly hurt and exasperated when she responds: “Why should I do anything for you? You never do anything for me.” While it is easy for Helen to adopt a carefree attitude toward her daughter, Jo clearly longs for love and attention that she is not receiving.
However, despite sharing a relationship of tension and frustration, Helen and Jo occasionally find ways of expressing their concern for each other. When Helen discovers her daughter’s drawings, she realizes, with shock, that her daughter has talent—thus demonstrating, once again, that she knows very little about her daughter’s dreams and personality. Yet this time, instead of ignoring Jo, she tries to encourage her to develop her talents by going to art school. “I’ll pay. You’re not stupid. You’ll soon learn,” she says, revealing her trust in her daughter’s intelligence and talent. “You’re wasting yourself,” she concludes when Jo rejects her offer. Her words suggest that she is aware that her daughter deserves a better life and a better future—two things that she has until now seemed incapable of providing for her.
Helen also demonstrates motherly concern on another decisive occasion. When she discovers that Jo has gotten engaged, she tries to keep her daughter from making what she sees as a bad decision. “Oh Jo, you’re only a kid. Why don’t you learn from my mistakes?” she says, showing that she is truly distraught by the prospect of Jo wasting precious years of her life, since Helen has learned herself that marriage is not always the best choice in life. This is one of the few moments in which Helen is clearly upset about Jo’s situation and wants to have a positive influence on her. Nevertheless, Helen’s commitment is short-lived. She soon proves willing to run off with Peter and leave her daughter alone for an indefinite period of time. Before leaving, after she asks Jo if she is sad to see her go, Jo says: “I’m not sorry and I’m not glad.” Jo’s seeming indifference conceals the more complex feelings that she has toward her mother: resentment and vexation, but also love and affection—and, overall, the desire for her mother to be more present in her life.
These oscillations between aggressiveness and tenderness seem to find a resolution in the play’s ending. Indeed, after Helen abandons Jo for a few months, she finally returns to her pregnant daughter, seemingly willing to accompany Jo through the final stage of her pregnancy. However, Helen’s motives remain ambiguous. It remains unclear whether Jo can finally count on her mother, or whether Helen will run off once again, leaving Jo to handle her problems alone. In the end, it depends on Jo to accept or reject her mother’s presence in all of its inherent unreliability.
Geoffrey, a friend of Jo’s who has been living with her and supporting her through her various ordeals, contacts Helen to tell her about Jo’s pregnancy. Helen comes to the apartment to try to help her daughter, but Jo is skeptical of her mother’s motives. “What do you think you’re running? A ‘Back to Mother’ movement?” she asks Geof angrily, implying that her mother has already deserted her. She denounces the lack of spontaneity or sincerity of her mother’s return by calling it “the famous mother-love act.” Her ironic attitude reveals that she is not only angry at her mother’s absence, but also deeply hurt, and that she essentially considers herself to be motherless. A few months after this episode, Jo tells Geof: “You know, I wish she were here all the same.” Geof is surprised by this comment, since he notes that the two women fight whenever they are together. Even so, Jo feels that Helen should be with her, given that she knows that Jo’s due date is approaching. Her desire for her mother’s presence does not necessarily reflect the pleasantness of their relationship, but does express a deep longing for her parent to accompany her through difficult times.
In the end, after Peter leaves Helen, Helen returns to her daughter. While it is obvious that Helen has returned not because of moral qualms and a sense of commitment to Jo but, rather, out of pure necessity, she still tries to prove that she will take care of her grandchild. She talks about cleaning the apartment and getting everything ready for the baby. These actions signal a desire to help her daughter as much as they reveal her tendency to dominate the household. For example, instead of thanking Geof for being such a committed friend to her daughter, she indirectly forces him to leave the apartment for good, thereby depriving Jo of the only strong and reliable presence in her life. Finally, when she discovers that Jo’s baby might be black, she decides to go out for a drink, leaving her daughter alone in her room even though she is about to give birth. These various actions demonstrate that Helen is more interested in imposing her authority and following selfish whims than in doing what makes her daughter happy. Although the two women are finally reunited, it remains ambiguous whether Helen will truly support her daughter in difficult times or, instead, will follow her egocentric inclinations.
Paradoxically, this uncertainty brings Jo neither hope nor despair. Instead, it merely confirms what Jo has always known: that her mother is an unstable presence in her life. Jo’s light-hearted singing, the play’s final words, allows the play to end on a soft note. It suggests that Jo’s only solution to her mother’s absence is to adopt a similar detachment that Helen displays toward her. By lowering her expectations about her mother’s behavior and choosing to enjoy life regardless of what her mother does, Jo might finally be able to accept her mother’s presence in her life without enduring emotional pain and disappointment.
Care and Responsibility ThemeTracker
Care and Responsibility 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: See yourself. I’ve got to find somewhere for my bulbs.
HELEN: See yourself! Do everything yourself. That’s what happens. You bring’em up and they turn round and talk to you like that. I would never have dared talk to my mother like that when I was her age. She’d have knocked me into the middle of next week. Oh! my head. Whenever I walk, you know how it is! What a journey! I never realized this city was so big. Have we got any aspirins left, Jo?
HELEN: […] Have you ever thought of going to a proper art school and getting a proper training?
JO: It’s too late.
HELEN: I’ll pay. You’re not stupid. You’ll soon learn.
JO: I’ve had enough of school. Too many different schools and too many different places.
HELEN: You’re wasting yourself.
JO: So long as I don’t waste anybody else. Why are you so suddenly interested in me, anyway? You’ve never cared much before about what I was doing or what I was trying to do or the difference between them.
HELEN: I know, I’m a cruel, wicked woman.
PETER: Is she always like this?
HELEN: She’s jealous . . .
PETER: That’s something I didn’t bargain for.
HELEN: Can’t bear to see me being affectionate with anybody.
JO: You’ve certainly never been affectionate with me.
PETER: Still, she’s old enough to take care of herself.
HELEN: […] There’s two w’s in your future. Work or want, and no Arabian Knight can tell you different. We’re all at the steering wheel of our own destiny. Careering along like drunken drivers. I’m going to get married. [The news is received in silence.] I said, I’m going to get married.
JO: Yes, I heard you the first time. What do you want me to do, laugh and throw pennies?
HELEN: There’s plenty of food in the kitchen.
JO: You should prepare my meals like a proper mother.
HELEN: Have I ever laid claim to being a proper mother? If you’re too idle to cook your own meals you’ll just have to cut food out of your diet altogether. That should help you lose a bit of weight, if nothing else.
PETER: She already looks like a bad case of malnutrition.
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.
HELEN: I don’t suppose you’re sorry to see me go.
JO: I’m not sorry and I’m not glad.
HELEN: You don’t know what you do want.
JO: Yes, I do. I’ve always known what I want.
HELEN: And when it comes your way will you recognize it?
JO: Good luck, Helen.
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.
HELEN: Well, come on, let’s have a look at you. [JO turns away.] What’s up? We’re all made the same, aren’t we?
JO: Yes we are.
HELEN: Well then. Can you cut the bread on it yet? [JO turns.] Yes, you’re carrying it a bit high, aren’t you? Are you going to the clinic regularly? Is she working?
HELEN: You couldn’t wait, could you? Now look at the mess you’ve landed yourself in.
JO: I’ll get out of it, without your help.
HELEN: You had to throw yourself at the first man you met, didn’t you?
JO: Yes, I did, that’s right.
HELEN: You’re man mad.
JO: I’m like you.
HELEN: You know what they’re calling you round here? A silly little whore!
JO: Well, they all know where I get it from too.
JO: It’s taken you a long time to come round to this, hasn’t it?
JO: The famous mother-love act.
HELEN: I haven’t been able to sleep for thinking about you since he came round to our house.
JO: And your sleep mustn’t be disturbed at any cost.
JO: You’ve got nice hands, hard. You know I used to try and hold my mother’s hands, but she always used to pull them away from me. So silly really. She had so much love for everyone else, but none for me.
GEOF: If you don’t watch it, you’ll turn out exactly like her.
JO: I’m not like her at all.
GEOF: In some ways you are already, you know.
GEOF: That doesn’t mean to say it’s the truth. Do people ever tell the truth about themselves?
JO: Why should she want to spin me a yarn like that?
GEOF: She likes to make an effect.
JO: Like me?
GEOF: You said it. You only have to let your hair grow for a week for Helen to think you’re a cretin.
HELEN: What an arty little freak! I wasn’t rude to him. I never said a word. I never opened my mouth.
JO: Look, he’s the only friend I’ve got, as a matter of fact.
HELEN: Jo! I thought you could find yourself something more like a man.
JO: Why were you so nasty to him?
HELEN: I wasn’t nasty to him. Besides, I couldn’t talk to you in front of him, could I? Hey, wait till you see these things for the baby.
JO: You hurt people’s feelings and you don’t even notice.
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!