As Helen’s life is characterized by sexual promiscuity and her cynical attitude toward love, Jo often feels alienated from her mother’s affection. As a result, she finds herself forced to search elsewhere for the intimacy and affection that is so blatantly lacking in her home. She initially believes she has found love in her relationship with a young sailor, but soon becomes disappointed with the experience. As time goes on and she becomes pregnant, she is forced to face the practical consequences of her relationship. However, instead of enduring this ordeal alone, she finds comfort in the presence of her friend Geoffrey, who moves in with her and takes care of the practical details of her life. Soon, she realizes that the love of a committed friend can be infinitely more valuable and reliable than romantic or familial love.
Sex and seduction are prominent parts of Helen’s life. Described as a “semi-whore” in the stage directions, Helen depends financially on “fancy men”—that is, lovers who give her money. Helen’s promiscuous lifestyle sets her and her daughter apart from the traditional, sexually conservative norms of society. When Peter asks Helen to marry him, Jo asks: “You’re not going to marry her, are you? She’s a devil with the men.” Her comment suggests that Helen has no interest in committing to a serious relationship. It soon becomes evident that Helen is interested in men not only for sexual pleasure, but even more importantly because of the money they give her. This leads Jo to consider her mother’s earnings “immoral.”
Despite Jo’s negative opinion of her mother’s interest in sex over love, Jo, too, has sex with men without building committed relationships. Helen worries about leaving her daughter in the house alone, knowing that she would probably invite her boyfriend Jimmie to the apartment. When Helen worries aloud that Jo might “ruin [herself] for good,” Jo replies: “I’m already ruined.” Both women thus see themselves and each other as disreputable because of their sexual behavior—which does not conform to the double standards held by society for women. After Jo’s boyfriend, a sailor, leaves for the Navy, Jo discovers that she is pregnant. When Helen and Peter learn of Jo’s pregnancy, Peter calls Jo “a bloody slut” and Helen tells her daughter that everyone is calling her “a silly little whore.” Instead of feeling shame, Jo provocatively replies: “Well they know where I’m getting it from, too.” Because she is pregnant at a young age and single, it begins to seem that Jo is going to end up living a life of emotional and financial insecurity just like her mother.
Jo’s cynical attitude toward sex does not preclude her from seeking the joys of love. Yet after her boyfriend abandons her, she becomes disillusioned and decides that romantic love only brings trouble. When Jo meets her boyfriend in the street, the scene offers a refreshing glimpse into the innocence of adolescent love, in stark contrast to the relationship between Helen and Peter, which is motivated by the desire for money and sex. When her boyfriend mentions a sexual experience, Jo says ironically that “[t]his is the sort of conversation that can colour a young girl’s mind.” Given her knowledge of her mother’s sexual life, it is unlikely that she is sincerely outraged at the mention of sex. Instead, her words can be taken as a joking comment about the innocence and chastity that society assumes young women should display.
At the same time, Jo also harbors a sincere longing for the intimacy of a loving relationship. This desire is visible in the simplicity and honesty with which she tells her boyfriend that she loves him: “I don’t know why I love you but I do.” When he tells her he loves her and will come back, however, Jo reacts with skepticism. Their dialogue reveals that, while Jo might be able to give her love freely, she is skeptical of others’ intentions, since she has never benefited from the support and commitment that love can bring. This time, her distrust is not proven wrong, since it soon becomes clear that her boyfriend has no real intention of coming back and taking care of her. This period of youthful elation thus gives way to a cynical, disappointed understanding of the tricky nature of love and commitment. “I don’t know much about love,” Jo reflects. “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’s definition of love has become practical instead of spiritual or emotional, as she now defines love purely in terms of its effect on her body: her pregnancy. She has given up on the idea that love can create anything beyond the purely physical.
Yet this experience does not keep Jo from experiencing love in other forms. Instead of finding trust and reliability in romantic love, Jo discovers that the love of her friend Geoffrey is infinitely more reliable and fulfilling than any love she has experienced to date. During Jo’s pregnancy, when Geof asks Jo if she wishes her boyfriend were here, she responds that she doesn’t—and that, anyway, she is sick of love. She tells Geof that the main reason she enjoys having him by her side is because she knows he will not try to start a romantic relationship with her. Her intense hatred of love can be understood as an expression of disappointment in the two people—her mother and her boyfriend—who were supposed to provide for her and take care of her. Her experiences in life have forced her to give up on both romantic and familial love and, instead, invest her energy in her friendship with Geof.
She realizes that Geof’s presence makes her feel secure. She calls him a “big sister,” an affectionate term that emphasizes their closeness as well as the asexual nature of their relationship. Jo appreciates the effort Geof puts into taking care of the house and making sure she is well. “[Y]ou make everything work. The stove goes, now we eat. You’ve reformed me, some of the time at any rate.” The seemingly transformative effect that Geof has had on Jo’s life demonstrates that simply being present and accompanying her through the emotional and practical concerns of everyday life is an act of love that can be much more powerful than a family tie, and stronger too than elevated but ultimately false promises of romantic commitment. In this way, Jo realizes that the forms of love that are most widely celebrated and recognized as legitimate may not necessarily be the most abiding.
Love, Sex, and Friendship ThemeTracker
Love, Sex, and Friendship Quotes in A Taste of Honey
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: 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.
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.
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.
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 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: 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.
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!