Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy is the story of a family that sacrifices everything in order to uphold the “truth.” Ronnie Winslow, the boy of the title, is expelled from his Navy College for allegedly stealing a postal order worth just five shillings. Arthur, the boy’s domineering father, trusts in his son’s moral integrity and is willing to go to any length to defend it. The Winslows ultimately win the ensuing court case, but its pursuit causes the family significant financial and social hardship. What’s more, the moment of court victory is anticlimactic rather than triumphant, leaving the audience wondering whether it was all worth it. For Arthur and his daughter, the principled feminist Catherine, no price is too high to right an “injustice.” But as the play goes on, the family loses its financial security and Arthur’s health deteriorates—leading his wife, Grace, to believe that the cost of their defense of Ronnie may be “out of all proportion.” One of the questions at the play’s core, then, is this—are “truth” and “justice” universal standards that must be defended at all costs?
On its surface, Ronnie’s expulsion is a serious matter but not, ultimately, the end of the world. At the start of the play, the Winslows easily have the means to send him to a new school and forget about the stealing episode. It would be possible, in other words, to just move on. Arthur instead pursues legal action—which has to go through many laborious stages—to prove the “truth.” The financial costs involved have serious implications for the rest of the family. Arthur can no longer afford to send Ronnie's brother, Dickie, to Oxford University. Grace grows increasingly distressed as she powerlessly witnesses the dismantling of the Winslows’ comfortable family life. Meanwhile, Catherine, gives up her potential marriage John Watherstone. And Sir Robert Morton, the respected lawyer who agrees to take the case, gives up the chance to take up the most prestigious role in the British legal system, Lord Chief Justice.
Arthur, Catherine, and Sir Robert are steadfast in their commitment to the case, even when Ronnie, once he’s over the initial fear of telling his father about the accusation, doesn’t seem that bothered about what happens. Public detractors of the case, meanwhile, assert that it’s a trivial distraction from more pressing political matters at a time of mounting global tension (indeed, the play takes place shortly before the start of World War I). That the play positions Arthur, Catherine, and Sir Robert as defenders of their principles, for which they are willing to risk everything, therefore asks the audience to think about what it is that they’re actually defending—whether truth is even an objective value that can be defended, and how the legal system reflects or inhibits the “truth.”
Further, though these characters are brought together by their commitment to their principles, a closer look reveals that those principles, while certainly complimentary, are not identical. Arthur’s fighting spirit comes largely from a desire to protect his son and uphold what he genuinely believes to be true—that Ronnie didn’t do it. But he’s also a proud and stubborn man, and the reader should remember that clearing Ronnie’s name equates to clearing his name too—the Winslow name.
For Catherine, it’s much wider than that. She doesn’t believe that the system has been fair to Ronnie in expelling him without first discussing the matter with his parents and presenting evidence to prove Ronnie’s guilt: “It’s cold, calculated inhumanity,” she says, and is ultimately fighting for fairness, specifically the universal right to a fair trial. Because she’s a feminist, Ronnie’s case becomes a kind of proxy in which she sees her own cause reflected—by upholding the values of fairness, she is making it more possible for the Women’s Suffrage movement to win their argument by appealing to those very same values.
For his part, Sir Robert sees an important difference between doing “justice” and doing “Right.” He implies that the legal system can easily uphold the law as it is (“justice”) but that it’s more difficult to do “right”—that is, to uphold the more universal values of humanity. “Justice” is the law as it is, whereas “right” is what it should be. Sir Robert fights with great vigor and commitment to win Ronnie’s case, when career-wise he’d more comfortable if avoided it altogether, because he, like Catherine, sees its broader moral implications.
Through these various motivations, Rattigan shows that behind a single court judgment are fundamental questions about truth, justice, and the way society governs itself; the play also suggests that the immense public interest in the trial is in fact motivated by the public’s sense of the deeper principles underlying this seemingly simple case. In that sense, each character’s sacrifice and determination to win seem to be worth the cost. Rattigan further supports this conclusion by suggesting that progress in society depends on traits represented by all three of them—Arthur’s stubbornness to see justice done; Catherine’s appeal to universal human rights; and Sir Robert’s view that the law does not automatically equal morality.
Nevertheless, Rattigan doesn’t end the play on an especially victorious note. Neither Catherine nor Arthur are in court when the judgment is handed down and are instead left with a single flimsy piece of paper declaring Ronnie’s innocence. In reasserting the smallness of the court case itself, this anticlimactic finale again calls into question the value of their sacrifices. What’s more, the final exchange of the play, between Catherine and Sir Robert, suggests that despite the triumph of the trial, deeper societal issues of injustice remain unresolved. Sir Robert wants Catherine to come and see him again at parliament; she says she will see him there, but as a participant in democracy, not a spectator to its proceedings. Not even Sir Robert, the principled defender of “right,” can imagine a woman occupying that role, showing that much of the work that needs doing to bring about greater “right” depends on changing entrenched attitudes as much as it does in reforming the legal system.
Principles and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Principles and Sacrifice Quotes in The Winslow Boy
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.
CATHERINE: Not a verbal protest. Something far more spectacular and dramatic. He’d had his feet on the Treasury table and his hat over his eyes during most of the First Lord’s speech – and he suddenly got up very deliberately, glared at the First Lord, threw a whole bundle of notes on the floor, and stalked out of the House. It made a magnificent effect. If I hadn’t known I could have sworn he was genuinely indignant –
ARTHUR: Of course he was genuinely indignant. So would any man of feeling be –
CATHERINE: Sir Robert, Father dear, is not a man of feeling. I don’t think any emotion at all can stir that fishy heart –
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.
SIR ROBERT: Goodbye, Miss Winslow. Shall I see you in the House then, one day?
CATHERINE: (With a smile.) Yes, Sir Robert. One day. But not in the Gallery. Across the floor.
SIR ROBERT: (With a faint smile.) Perhaps, Goodbye.