The Shoe-Horn Sonata

by

John Misto

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The Shoe-Horn Sonata: Act One, Scene Five Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Back in the television studio, Bridie tells Rick about the night of February 13, 1942, saying that 12 nurses drowned when her ship sank. And although 22 others somehow managed to make it to shore, they were shot by Japanese soldiers. For whatever reason, the Japanese spared Bridie and Sheila after picking them up, keeping them alive and taking them to Sumatra, where they were put in a camp with 800 other women and children. This camp was “really a few suburban streets hemmed in by barbed wire,” and when Rick asks if it was like being in a “normal” jail, the two friends remind him that they’ve never been in a “normal” jail. After all, people in jail understand why they’re there, whereas Bridie and Sheila knew they hadn’t broken any laws, and they didn’t know when or if they’d be set free.
Part of what makes Bridie and Sheila’s survival story so remarkable is that they are able to endure such psychologically intense conditions. Needless to say, their time in the prison camps is difficult because they have to face all kinds of adversity, but perhaps the worst part is that they don’t know whether or not they’ll ever be set free. This is most likely one of the worst parts of being a prisoner of war, as detainees are completely isolated from their past lives, and their governments utterly powerless when it comes to helping them. Given these conditions, then, it’s unsurprising that Bridie and Sheila form such a close bond. After all, friendship becomes one of the only things they can depend upon.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Friendship, Sacrifice, and Resentment Theme Icon
Bridie explains that she and her fellow prisoners had to go to the bathroom in an open “latrine” under the gaze of Japanese guards. Worse, they had to use leaves to clean themselves. Just as Bridie begins to tell Rick what happened when the women got their periods, Sheila tries to stop her. Nonetheless, Bridie pushes onward, saying, “Well it happened… But after a while we stopped. Thank goodness.” Hearing this, Rick clarifies what she means, asking if the prisoners stopped “menstruating,” and Sheila says, “Just the women.” Bridie then tells him that their menstruation cycles didn’t resume until after the war. “It was fear that did it,” she says. “Fear and rotten food.”
When Sheila tries to stop Bridie from talking about the prisoners’ menstrual cycles, she once again demonstrates her hesitance about discussing the details of her wartime experiences. A woman who is proud to belong to the British Empire, she sees herself as too polite to talk about such matters, which she believes are undignified. However, if she must discuss such things, she quickly resorts to humor, joking that “only the women” stopped menstruating. In this way, the audience sees her eagerness to take attention away from the gravity of her situation, ultimately avoiding the issue so that she doesn’t have to relive it. In turn, humor becomes both a positive coping mechanism and an emotional crutch, one that Sheila uses to keep her painful memories at bay.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Pride and Patriotism Theme Icon
Trauma and Repression Theme Icon
Rick asks if the guards ever tried to “take advantage” of Bridie or Sheila. “Not really,” Sheila replies, but Rick remains unconvinced. As such, Bridie tells him that they once tried to take advantage of her, explaining that the guards had an “officers’ club” where they forced Australian nurses to be “hostesses.” Sheila says this was an Australian prisoner’s idea, but Bridie reminds her that they don’t know that “for sure,” pointing out that there was a group of British women in the camps who had sex with the guards. Going on, she bitterly accuses these women of “selling themselves,” but Sheila insists that they did this out of necessity. “They had children to feed,” she says. “We didn’t judge. We accepted.” Hearing this, Bridie speaks out, saying, “I didn’t! To go with a Jap—to give him pleasure—how could you ever live with yourself?”
Despite Sheila’s relative unwillingness to talk about whether or not the guards sexually abused the prisoners, she eventually expresses genuine empathy for the British women who had no choice but to have sex with the Japanese men in order to feed their children. This outspoken support stands in contrast to her desire to keep quiet about what happened in the camps. Indeed, Sheila obviously understands that these women shouldn’t be shamed for what happened to them, since this would mean blaming victims who ultimately had no control over their fates. Bridie, on the other hand, faults these women, failing to empathize with their situation and refusing to consider that they were heroes to sacrifice themselves for the good of their children.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Trauma and Repression Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Bridie continues her story about the officers’ club, explaining that a group of nurses “were ordered to attend the opening night” of the “glorified brothel.” Unfortunately, she was one of those nurses. To prepare, she and her fellow inmates rubbed dirt under their fingernails and put grease in their hair. When they arrived, the officers courted them, but they politely declined their advances. Before long, their refusals agitated the guards, who sent everyone home except Bridie and three other women. When one guard gave Bridie a glass of saki, Bridie said, “Thank you, sir. May you always have syphilis.” The guard, of course, didn’t understand, so she continued to fill his glass, hoping he’d get too drunk to rape her.
Even in this frightening scenario—in which she faces the possibility of rape and violence—Bridie clings to her sense of humor. By saying, “May you always have syphilis” to the guard, she adds a certain amount of levity to the situation. And though this obviously doesn’t do anything to improve what’s about to happen, it allows her to enact a small kind of dissent—something that is important, since humor is one of the only ways she can embody a sense of agency in an otherwise powerless situation.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon
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Still telling her story about the officers’ club, Bridie says that she watched another nurse pull out a handkerchief and cough. The handkerchief was bloody. Apparently, this nurse had saved a soiled rag from the “hospital hut” so that she could pretend to have tuberculosis, knowing the Japanese guards were horribly afraid of catching the disease. After seeing this brilliant display, the other three nurses—including Bridie—started coughing loudly, and the guards immediately sent them away.
This nurse’s ingenious decision to use the guards’ fear against them is yet another example of the many different methods of survival that help people like Bridie and Sheila make it through World War II. Although The Shoe-Horn Sonata is largely about the psychological coping mechanisms that enable a person to withstand hardship, this anecdote reminds readers that true resilience often requires quick thinking and clever manipulation.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon
After this story, the lights go out and a picture appears on the screen behind Bridie and Sheila, showing an image of frail, malnourished children. When the lights come on again, Sheila talks about how hungry she and Bridie always felt before their stomachs shrank. She explains that they used to chew on an old “chop bone” each day, and as she says this, she pulls it out and shows the camera. Bridie, for her part, can’t believe that Sheila still has the bone, but Sheila admits she couldn’t bear to get rid of it. The two women then reminisce about how they used to chew on this bone and talk about lavish meals.
Once again, Misto provides the audience with yet another example of how Bridie and Sheila use their friendship as a means of survival, sharing even the smallest pleasures in order to sustain themselves. Indeed, even this insignificant “chop bone” becomes not only something they can covet, but something they can share, integrating it into their relationship and thus bolstering their sense of camaraderie, which in turn makes them feel less alone.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Friendship, Sacrifice, and Resentment Theme Icon
Rick asks why Bridie and Sheila didn’t simply “give up” and “die.” In response, they tell him that a group of British women formed a vocal orchestra, saying that this helped them maintain their spirits. At first, Bridie wasn’t part of the orchestra, but she was so jealous of Sheila’s involvement that she went simply to watch. And since  Miss Dryburgh—the British missionary who organized the entire thing—needed someone to keep time, she ask Bridie to mark the beat with her shoe-horn, which she always wore on a necklace. In this way, their orchestral choir took shape, giving them something to focus on. “We forgot the Japs—we forgot our hunger—our boils—barbed-wire—everything…” Sheila says.
Like humor, music becomes something Bridie and Sheila use to distract themselves from their terrible living conditions. As such, audience members see the importance of seeking out ways to cathartically express anguish in times of hardship and emotional turmoil.
Themes
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Theme Icon