In The Shoe-Horn Sonata, Misto examines the complicated nature of friendship, proving that even the closest relationships are often full of tension. Bridie and Sheila’s bond demonstrates this, as they form a close relationship in a Japanese prison camp, an environment that only emphasizes the many ways in which friendship sometimes demands personal sacrifice. They each go out of their way to keep one another alive, and though they do this because they care about each other, they also do it for selfish reasons. After all, neither woman wants to face the horrors of the prison camp on her own. As such, sacrifice becomes a somewhat selfish act, though Misto implies that this doesn’t necessarily negate the value of such gestures. What’s more, self-sacrifice also leads—at one point—to resentment between the two friends, as Bridie doesn’t want to feel disproportionately indebted to Sheila. Despite this underlying tension, Bridie and Sheila are able to work through their problems, or at least put them aside to focus on their friendship. In turn, Misto intimates that resentment is often a natural part of friendship, something that can be overcome if both parties are willing to let go of their bitterness.
Bridie and Sheila’s friendship begins with an act of kindness. While floating next to one another in the sea after their respective boats sink, Bridie asks Sheila questions in order to keep her from falling asleep and drowning. Although they’re strangers, Bridie takes it upon herself to make sure Sheila stays awake, periodically tapping her on the head with her shoe-horn. Although this might not seem like an extraordinary act of bravery, it’s worth remembering that these two women have never met. They’re not from the same country, either, so they don’t even share a patriotic sense of camaraderie. This shows that Bridie’s determination to help Sheila is simply a manifestation of her kindness. At the same time, though, she seems surprisingly invested in the life of this stranger, as evidenced by her immense relief when Sheila—after having drifted away for a moment—comes floating back, singing aloud as she bobs on the waves. “And there Sheila was—still clutching her wood…I was so darn relieved I even joined in,” Bridie says, explaining that she sang with Sheila out of pure happiness. In this moment, it’s obvious that Bridie isn’t only interested in keeping Sheila alive for Sheila’s sake, but also for her own, since her relief suggests that she doesn’t want to be alone in the freezing ocean. In turn, readers see that it’s perfectly possible to perform a good deed for another person while also personally benefitting from that deed.
When considering the effect that acts of kindness can have on relationships, it’s worth noting that there are certain situations in which self-sacrifice can infuse a friendship with very complicated emotions. This is what happens when Bridie learns that Sheila saved her life not by trading her shoe-horn for quinine tablets, but by having sex with a group of Japanese guards. When Sheila tells this to Bridie decades after the fact, Bridie says, “You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.” This simple statement emphasizes the fact that Bridie doesn’t want to know the truth about how Sheila saved her, perhaps because she thinks she’ll never be able to repay Sheila for what she’s done. Indeed, this horrific experience will stay with Sheila forever, the memory of it haunting her for her entire life. In contrast, Bridie’s determination to keep Sheila from drowning was a simpler act of kindness, one that didn’t traumatize her or negatively influence her future. It is precisely because of this imbalance that Bridie begins to resent Sheila for having sacrificed herself, eventually telling her in a moment of anger that she “should have let [her] die.” In response, Sheila says, “Yes. Perhaps I should have.” During this conversation, the audience sees the division and antipathy that has crept into Bridie and Sheila’s relationship as a result of Sheila’s bold act of self-sacrifice.
Above all, The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play about the lengths people will go to for their friends. Having established that even self-interested acts of compassion are still valuable forms of kindness, Misto also shows his audience that certain good deeds actually complicate friendships because they imbue the interpersonal dynamic with a sense of indebtedness. Thankfully, Bridie manages at the end of the play to move past this, eventually leaving behind her resentment and helping Sheila tell her story on television, thereby coming to her friend’s side to make it easier for her to cope with her traumatic past. As such, Misto intimates that, although certain forms of self-sacrifice can lead to tension in a friendship, such relational obstacles aren’t insurmountable, especially when each friend is willing to let go of any lingering resentment.
Friendship, Sacrifice, and Resentment ThemeTracker
Friendship, Sacrifice, and Resentment Quotes in The Shoe-Horn Sonata
SHEILA: I’ll always remember that voice of hers. [Mimics] ‘They can starve me till my bones poke out—’
BRIDIE: [joining in] ‘But I’ll die without a fag, love.’ Now that’s a good story for Rick. Ivy and her smokes—those dried banana leaves she puffed on—God they had a terrible stink.
SHEILA: She pulled pages of her Bible out for cigarette papers. When it was over I heard her telling a minister that she’d survived the war because of the Good Book.
BRIDIE: She was sure you’d consider it—‘unrefined’—going on television—airing your feelings.
SHEILA: [starting to unpack] Well you’ve got to admit it’s not very ‘dignified’.
BRIDIE: So why did you come [Casually, trying to make light of it] And don’t say you did it for the chance of seeing me. Not after fifty years of hiding—
SHEILA looks at BRIDIE with surprising intensity—but not with affection. BRIDIE looks back at SHEILA, desperately wanting her to say that she did come to see BRIDIE. A few seconds of silence. It is clear that something is still going on between these two women—even after fifty years’ separation. SHEILA quickly turns to lift her suitcase onto the bed.
BRIDIE: [tersely] You’ll wreck your spine.
SHEILA: [annoyed] I know how to lift a suitcase thank you.
BRIDIE: [taking charge—as usual] We’ll do it like we used to […]
SHEILA instinctively reaches out to take BRIDIE’s hand. They hold hands. And once again they both look very vulnerable. We hear Japanese voices on the soundtrack.
SHEILA: I wanted to cry. [With resolution] But I reminded myself I was a Woman of the Empire. And it just wasn't done to show fear to the natives. [Wistful smile] I could almost hear my mother saying: ‘Chin up, gel! And where are your gloves?’
SHEILA: They got the idea from a prisoner—an Australian—he set it up.
BRIDIE: [annoyed] We don’t know for sure he did.
SHEILA: [to camera] People blame the British for Singapore. There were Aussies too who were hardly saints.
BRIDIE: [annoyed with SHEILA] Have you forgotten how many of the British collaborated? [To the camera] The Japs wanted us because they knew they couldn’t have us. But they could pick and choose from amongst the Poms. Those women who’d lorded it over everyone at Raffles were selling themselves for a hard-boiled egg.
SHEILA: They had no choice. They had children to feed. We didn’t judge. We accepted it.
BRIDIE: [disgusted] I didn’t! To go with a Jap—to give him pleasure—how could you ever live with yourself?
SHEILA: They were people I grew up with. A lot of them were friends of mine.
BRIDIE: And the Japs were the enemy. Every woman who gave in made it harder for the rest.
SHEILA: It was the only way they could feed their kids.
BRIDIE: [with disgust] Sleeping with a Jap? I’d never have done that—not for anyone. How could you go on living with yourself—or look your family in the eye?
This is a shattering remark for SHEILA, but she does her best to conceal any reaction.
BRIDIE: Don’t laugh. It was important. Caramel was our only luxury. Sheila sold her brooch to buy some—from a native who used to smuggle it. Every week—on Sunday night—we’d pop that caramel into our mouths—for one minute each—one minute of bliss—then we’d store it away till the next week.
M. VOICE: You were never tempted to eat it all?
BRIDIE: No. We were very strict about that. It had to last till the end of the war.
BRIDIE: […] In 1945—when I was still in a Singapore hospital bed. I got a note from you saying you were going off to England—and you’d send me your new address. I’m still waiting, Sheila. [Hurt] Why did you leave me?
SHEILA: [not telling the truth] All we had in common was the camp. I didn’t want to keep talking about it—I couldn’t, Bridie—it hurt too much. And when something hurts you run away... or you dig a hole and bury it.
BRIDIE: You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.
SHEILA: [angrily] You were the one who wanted to know. I told you to leave it alone.
BRIDIE: [shocked] You didn’t sleep with a Jap. Not you.
SHEILA: You were screaming. And he went and got quinine. For you. And he showed the tablets to me—and he pointed to the barracks—where his mates were waiting.
BRIDIE: Don’t! I don’t want to hear this!
BRIDIE: [upset] Why did you have to go with that Jap?
BRIDIE: You were only a girl—a child!
SHEILA: I had to do it. I couldn’t let you die.
BRIDIE: If only I’d known—I would never have let you... Sheila—please—let me try and help.
SHEILA: [haunted] Every night when I fall asleep, Lipstick Larry’s waiting. He calls to me and I go to him— and no one can change that. Not even you.
I almost confided in mother once. [Sadly] Isn’t that amusing? It was just before I sailed from Singapore. I took her hand and whispered that... there was something I needed to tell her—about the Japanese. Mother poured herself a drink and said: ‘You know what the Bible says, my dear. “No cross, no crown.” We must pull up our socks and get on with it.’ Took more than a war to change Mother.
I’m not just anyone, Bridie. [Thinking of them both] Keeping a secret wears you down. Believe me—I know. In the end you’ll do anything just to escape it.
SHEILA: I don’t see why it... should have to be a secret. Not now.
BRIDIE: [unnerved] You mustn’t discuss it beyond this room. You know how cruel other people can be. It’s the only thing that hasn’t changed in the last fifty years. What on earth has possessed you to—
SHEILA: [haunted] When I went back to Belalau—searching for the graves— I kept on thinking, why did they die? Was it all for nothing? All our friends? And that’s when I realised I had to talk about it. There are probably thousands of survivors like us—still trapped in the war—too ashamed to tell anyone. Lots of people will be watching when Rick’s programme goes to air. It mightn’t be too late to—
BRIDIE: [upset and threatened] To what? You think the armies of this planet will stop murdering each other because some old English woman disapproves of all the killing?
SHEILA shakes her head sadly.
Then what possible difference will it make?
SHEILA: [haunted but gently] Probably none. I know that, Bridie. But the war hasn’t ended. Not for me. For me it goes on. And now I want peace. And if the only way to get it is to tell the truth then—
BRIDIE: You were always impulsive and you haven’t changed since camp. [Bitterly] This is what Rick’s been after all along, I’ll bet. This is why the free booze and the room with ocean views. He’s been softening us up. Can’t you see that, Sheila?
SHEILA: And what if he has? It's still my decision.
BRIDIE: You know what they’ll call you. They’ll call you a whore.
SHEILA: [nervously] My knees were shaking— I was— terribly frightened. I said ‘What if the Japs come after us, Bridie?’ [Smiling sadly] I remember her words so clearly. ‘And what if they do?’ she said. ‘Since when have we ever been scared of the Japs?’
BRIDIE reaches out and takes SHEILA’s hand.
BRIDIE: So Sheila and I walked out of that camp. [Gently, fondly, perhaps smiling sadly] And on four wobbly legs we went down to the village. Sometimes I dragged Sheila. Sometimes Sheila dragged me. The main thing is we got there. And we could never have done that alone.
She went to... the Japs... to a Japanese guard—and... she sold herself to him for tablets. She was a beautiful, kind and brave young woman. [Looking at SHEILA.] She wasn’t just my friend— she was— she is—the other half of my life. And she gave herself to him... so that I... could have quinine... And she never told me till two nights ago. For fifty years she never told anyone... They don’t give medals for things like that. But they should.