Shelagh Delaney’s play depicts characters who live at the margins of 1950s English society. Because of Helen and Jo’s social class, Geoffrey’s homosexuality, and Jo’s boyfriend Jimmie’s skin color, these characters all experience social marginalization in different ways. Their nonconformity highlights the generational shift that is beginning to take place, as English social life and culture undergoes a transformation, becoming more mixed and more diverse. Although Helen tends to categorize people according to what constitutes socially acceptable behavior, Jo defends the opposite point of view, according to which social differences can be met with love and respect. Among all the characters in the play, Jo proves the most capable at accepting others’ differences without judging or belittling them, instead giving people the freedom to be themselves. Through Jo’s character, the play reveals the potential for a diverse group of people to live together in harmony through openness and mutual respect.
Throughout the play, Jo is confronted to characters whom society has marginalized in different ways, because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Instead of seeing these differences as a source of shame, Jo accepts them and embraces the diversity of the people around her. In this way, she proves that social diversity can be a motor for love and compassion. Jo first subverts societal norms by engaging in a relationship with a black boy. When Jimmie kisses her in the street, he notes with surprise that Jo is not afraid to be seen with him. Rather, she is the first person he has known who does not actually mind his skin color. His surprise highlights the conservative attitude that English society had at the time toward interracial relationships, as well as Jo’s unique qualities of tolerance and respect.
In addition to racial diversity, Jo also embraces sexual diversity. Her friend Geoffrey is constantly criticized for his feminine qualities and his homosexuality. Jo herself initially asks him provocative questions about his sexual life, hypothesizing that his landlady threw him out of his previous apartment after seeing him with a man. She expresses her curiosity about “people like [him],” thus immediately categorizing Geof as a member of a taboo demographic. When Geof reacts with anger, Jo realizes that she was rude and disrespectful, and apologizes for being so insensitive. As the two of them get to know each other, Jo appreciates Geoffrey for who he is, admiring his capacity to take care of the home and to give her emotional support—two intimate activities that bring her joy and comfort, but are not traditionally expected of a man.
Jo herself occasionally expresses her frustration with rigid gender categories. Her recurrent complaints (“I hate babies;” “I hate motherhood;” “I don’t want to be a mother;” “I don’t want to be a woman”) demonstrate that she associates womanhood with motherhood, and that she embraces neither. Geof finds Jo’s attitude surprising, since he thought motherhood was natural in women, but Jo only replies: “It comes natural to you, Geoffrey Ingram. You’d make somebody a wonderful wife.” This inversion of traditional gender roles, subverting the idea that the woman is supposed to take care of children and that the man should not invest energy in the household, was highly unusual for the time. Jo embraces the idea that family roles are not necessarily fixed, but that each person should be free to take on the roles that best fit their personality and desires.
In contrast with Jo’s open-minded acceptance of diversity, Helen is often brutally judgmental, proving more concerned with abiding by society’s expectations than with respecting people’s independence of thought and behavior. While Jo has found peace and joy in her cohabitation with Geof, Helen is unable to treat Jo’s friend with respect. Instead, she attacks him for being too feminine and considers his attitude unacceptable. She derogatorily calls him a “nursemaid” and a “pansified little freak,” telling Jo that she could have found herself “something more like a man.” Helen’s lack of compassion toward Geof reveals an entrenched prejudice toward homosexuals and, more generally, a rigid understanding of how women and men should behave according to society’s expectations of them.
In addition, while Jo initially believed that her mother would not mind knowing that her boyfriend was black, Helen reacts with shock at the news, realizing that walking around with a black baby is even more shameful than being called a slut or a whore—the names that her daughter has already been labeled. Instead of supporting her daughter, she shows fear and decides that she needs to go have a drink to process this piece of news, thus demonstrating that she is more concerned about her social reputation than her daughter’s happiness or well-being.
Helen’s rejection of people who do not conform to society’s norms extends to her very self. Despite having very limited financial means and leading an economically unstable life, Helen looks down on poverty, therefore refusing to accept that she is poor herself. Not only does she ultimately call the district she has chosen “rotten” and unfit to live in, but she also mocks Jo’s ragged appearance, telling Peter to buy a needle and cotton for Jo since “every article of clothing on her back is held together by a safety pin or a knot. If she had an accident in the street I’d be ashamed to claim her.” The harshness of Helen’s comment is unjustified, given that she is the only wage earner in the family and is therefore responsible for her daughter’s appearance. It indicates the shame she feels surrounding her poverty, which she projects unfairly onto her daughter.
The opposition between Helen and Jo’s attitudes represents the difficulty many people face in accepting social change and becoming more inclusive. However, through Jo’s pregnancy, the play ultimately suggests that social change is on the way—however much people might resist it.
By the end of the play, it remains uncertain whether any of the characters’ status has changed. Geoffrey is kicked out of Jo’s house and, thus, forced to endure social isolation once again. Similarly, Helen is still leading the same unstable life that she always has, at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Her conservative attitude reveals that she has also not changed her mind about diversity. The selfishness of her decision to go have a drink when her daughter is about to go into labor emphasizes the hypocrisy of societal standards, which are more concerned with appearances (such as the shame of a white woman walking with a black baby) than with deeper values such as family love and support.
Helen’s reaction thus highlights the conservative and prejudicial nature of society. However, Jo’s indifference to her baby’s skin color or to Geof’s homosexuality suggests that generational change is already well underway, and that people can learn to handle unfamiliar social issues in a positive and compassionate manner. Jo’s attitude is an optimistic illustration of the possibility for diverse people to live together in harmony and solidarity, without being confined to pre-existing roles or others’ expectations of them.
In addition, the fact that Jo is bringing a mixed-race baby into the world serves a concrete signal that society is indeed becoming more socially diverse, regardless of what opinions other people might have on the issue. Jo’s personal experience thus has the potential to make inter-racial relationships more visible in society and, perhaps, over time, to make inter-racial relationships seem normal and acceptable. In this way, Jo becomes a powerful promoter of the idea that social diversity does not need to involve exclusion and rejection, but that it can be met with love and care.
Gender, Class, and Race ThemeTracker
Gender, Class, and Race Quotes in A Taste of Honey
HELEN: When I find somewhere for us to live I have to consider something far more important than your feelings . . . the rent. It’s all I can afford.
JO: You can afford something better than this old ruin.
HELEN: When you start earning you can start moaning.
JO: Can’t be soon enough for me. I’m old and my shoes let water . . . what a place. . . and we’re supposed to be living off her immoral earnings.
HELEN: I’m careful. Anyway, what’s wrong with this place? Everything in it’s falling apart, it’s true, and we’ve no heating—but there’s a lovely view of the gasworks, we share a bathroom with the community and this wallpaper’s contemporary. What more do you want? Anyway it’ll do for us.
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?
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.
JO: Look, I’ve got a nice comfortable couch, I’ve even got some sheets. You can stay here if you’ll tell me what you do. Go on, I’ve always wanted to know about people like you.
GEOF: Go to hell.
JO: I won’t snigger, honest I won’t. Tell me some of it, go on. I bet you never told a woman before.
GEOF: I don’t go in for sensational confessions.
JO: I want to know what you do. I want to know why you do it. Tell me or get out.
GEOF: Right! [He goes to the door.]
JO: Geof, don’t go. Don’t go, Geof! I’m sorry. Please stay.
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: 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.
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.