Over the course of the play’s two-year timeline, the Winslow family is placed under increasing pressure, both financial and social, by the ongoing saga of Ronnie’s case. The play, then, creates a kind of microscope in which to explore the way that a family operates under stress. One way this plays out focuses around the normally domineering family patriarch, Arthur, who, much to his family’s surprise, reacts protectively, rather than angrily, to the news of Ronnie’s expulsion. Yet as the family's resources are increasingly sucked into fighting the case, its members are forced to give up more of their individual dreams and desires. In this way, the play shows how one person’s crisis can affect an entire family, and displays the obligations, tensions, and pain that go along with familial loyalty. Overall, the play demonstrates that family stability is a fragile peace, under constant threat from external events and internal conflict.
The Winslow family is clearly ruled over by its patriarch, Arthur. Based on the way that Arthur dominates his wife and children, the other Winslows initially expect him to react angrily to Ronnie’s expulsion. This is why Ronnie hides in the garden when his family returns from church at the start of the play, and it’s why Dickie, Catherine, and Grace continue to hide Ronnie from Arthur after the boy reveals himself to them; they’re all scared of Arthur’s response. Arthur confounds his family member’s expectations, however, once he gets to actually talk to Ronnie and judge for himself whether the boy is lying, He in fact proves to be more upset that Ronnie was scared of him than he is angry about the expulsion, and immediately puts into motion efforts to clear Ronnie’s name. Though his exchange with Ronnie is tense, it also shows that there is tenderness and love beneath his imposing manner. The mistaken expectations of the family members about Arthur's likely behavior exemplifies how complicated family can be, and that nobody truly knows how people will react to a crisis until it actually comes along.
Arthur’s actions also highlight a distinct sense of familial loyalty in suggesting the way the different ways that family members, particularly those with power, may respond to external threats versus internal disobedience. In fact, one of the most important dramatic tensions in the play is between this loyalty and the individual hopes and dreams that each family member hold for their own life. Rattigan shows that these two forces within a family are knotted together, with a change in one always affecting the other. If it weren’t for the court case, these tensions probably wouldn’t come to a head—but because the case puts such a strain on the Winslow's financial and social situation, it has serious consequences for all involved.
Ronnie’s older brother and sister both have plans for their own lives: Catherine is engaged to marry John Watherstone, son of an Army Colonel. Dickie is a student at Oxford, and while he is perhaps having more fun than he is studying, an Oxford degree is his ticket to an expected comfortable career in the civil service. Though both are supportive of Ronnie, their lives are dramatically upended by the ongoing legal action. The cost of the case means that Arthur can no longer afford to support Dickie’s studies, which he suspects Dickie of neglecting anyway. This shift dramatically alters Dickie's prospects, and as the case goes on Dickie's loyalty to his brother is tested. At one point, Dickie says: “My gosh, I could just about murder that little brother of mine. What’s he have to go about pinching postal orders for? And why the hell does he have to get himself nabbed for doing it. Silly little blighter!” Meanwhile, because of the notoriety of the case, and the fact that the Winslow's case is essentially against a decision made by the military, John’s army colonel father withdraws his support for his son’s marriage to Catherine. Both Dickie and Catherine’s lives, then, are irreparably changed by their familial ties in a time of crisis.
Of course, isn’t simply that Dickie and Catherine choose to maintain family loyalty—in Dickie’s case, the decision to end his studies really is his father’s to make. And for Catherine, her commitment to the case is as much about her principles as it is family loyalty. At the same time, though, the crisis brings her closer to Arthur; he confides in her, and the play’s one moment of true tenderness comes when he kisses her on the head after talking about her split from John. The fun-loving Dickie, for his part, admits he was likely not going to complete his Oxford degree anyway, and is pushed into finding stable employment—in a sense, into finally growing up. Rattigan, then, shows that even as family crises can cause stress and test loyalties, they can also make families—and the individual members within them—stronger.
Family Quotes in The Winslow Boy
Ronnie’s the good little boy, I’m the bad little boy. You’ve just stuck a couple of labels on us that nothing on earth is ever going to change.
GRACE: You’re such a funny girl. You never show your feelings much, do you? You don’t behave as if you were in love.
CATHERINE: How does one behave as if one is in love?
ARTHUR: One doesn’t read Len Rogers. One reads Byron.
CATHERINE: I do both.
ARTHUR: An odd combination.
CATHERINE: A satisfying one.
JOHN: The annoying thing was that I had a whole lot of neatly turned phrases ready for him and he wouldn’t let me use them.
CATHERINE: Such as?
JOHN: Oh – how proud and honoured I was by your acceptance of me, and how determined I was to make you a loyal and devoted husband – and to maintain you in the state to which you were accustomed – all that sort of thing. All very sincerely meant.
CATHERINE: Anything about loving me a little?
JOHN: That I thought we could take for granted. So did your father, incidentally.
DICKIE: Who’s going to break the news to him eventually? I mean, someone’ll have to.
CATHERINE: Don’t let’s worry about that now.
DICKIE: Well, you can count me out. In fact, I don’t want to be within a thousand miles of that explosion.
ARTHUR: Why didn’t you come to me now? Why did you have to go and hide in the garden?
RONNIE: I don’t know, Father.
ARTHUR: Are you so frightened of me?
I wish I had someone to take me out. In your new feminist world do you suppose women will be allowed to do some of the paying?
DICKIE: Suppress your opinions. Men don’t like ‘em in their lady friends, even if they agree with ‘em. And if they don’t – it’s fatal. Pretend to be half-witted, then he’ll adore you.
CATHERINE: I know. I do, sometimes, and then I forget. Still, you needn’t worry. If there’s ever a clash between what I believe and what I feel, there’s not much doubt about which will win.
My gosh, I could just about murder that little brother of mine. What’s he have to go about pinching postal orders for? And why the hell does he have to get himself nabbed doing it?
ARTHUR: I know exactly what I’m doing, Grace. I’m going to publish my son’s innocence before the world, and for that end I am not prepared to weigh the cost.
GRACE: But the cost may be out of all proportion –
ARTHUR: It may be. That doesn’t concern me. I hate heroics, Grace. An injustice has been done. I am going to set it right, and there is no sacrifice in the world I am not prepared to make in order to do so.
JOHN: But people do find the case a bit ridiculous, you know. I mean, I get chaps coming up to me in the mess all the time and saying: “I say, is it true you’re going to marry the Winslow girl? You’d better be careful. You’ll find yourself up in the front of the House of Lords for pinching the Adjutant’s bath.” Things like that. They’re not awfully funny –
CATHERINE: That’s nothing. They’re singing a verse about us in the Alhambra.
SIR ROBERT: What are my instructions, Miss Winslow?
CATHERINE: (In a flat voice.) Do you need my instructions, Sir Robert? Aren’t they already on the Petition? Doesn’t it say: Let Right be done?
CATHERINE: You don’t think the work I’m doing at the W.S.A. is useful?
ARTHUR is silent.
You may be right. But it’s the only work I’m fitted for, all the same. (Pause.) No, Father. The choice is quite simple. Either I marry Desmond and settle down into quite a comfortable and not really useless existence – or I go on for the rest of my life earning two pounds a week in the service of a hopeless cause.
ARTHUR: It would appear, then, that we’ve won.
CATHERINE: Yes, Father, it would appear that we’ve won.