Top Girls


Caryl Churchill

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Life Under the Patriarchy Theme Analysis

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Top Girls is an exploration of what it means to carve out a life within a patriarchal society. The dreamlike opening scene in which Marlene, a successful London businesswoman celebrating a recent promotion, hosts a dinner party whose guests include women from the Europe of the Middle Ages, nineteenth-century England, and thirteenth-century Japan, as well as women who are the subjects of famous paintings and stories composed by men, shows how patriarchy has affected—and often ruined—the lives of women throughout history. Caryl Churchill argues that patriarchal rule is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to imagine a life outside of it, even in twentieth-century London. In showing the insidious ways in which patriarchy controls women’s lives, Churchill suggests that women will never be truly liberated until they are freed from the confines of patriarchal society. 

The women in the dinner party scene share their experiences of lives lived in service of men, and their stories demonstrate the negative effects of such an existence. Lady Nijo, a concubine-turned-Buddhist-nun who lived in thirteenth-century Japan, knew from childhood that she was being raised for the Emperor’s service. Though the other women are horrified by how Nijo was treated in life—given to the Emperor willingly by her own father, subjected to physical and psychological abuse during her years at court, and eventually cast out with nowhere to go and nothing to do but become a nun—Nijo herself admits to having been brainwashed by her circumstances. She was conditioned to adhere to the whims of the men in her life, and saw no hope of escaping the bonds of patriarchy. Patient Griselda, a figure in a story from The Canterbury Tales, marries a man who wants to test her obedience to him. To do so, he takes away both of her children—presumably to have them killed—and then, after nearly two decades of marriage, divorces Griselda and sends her back to her parents’ peasant cottage. He shows up some time later to retrieve her—their now nearly-grown children at his side—and congratulates her on passing his tests of obedience. Pope Joan, a woman who, according to legend, passed herself off as a man in order to rule as Pope in the Middle Ages, tells of how, after years of living as a man and enjoying the power afforded to her as a result, she had essentially forgotten she was a woman at all. When she became pregnant, she “didn’t know what was happening”—she admits to not having spoken to another woman since the age of twelve. Joan wound up giving birth on the side of the road in the middle of a procession, and was then stoned to death by her cardinals for her deception. From Nijo, who was raised from birth to be a man’s plaything, to Griselda, who suffocated her own needs in order to prove her obedience to her husband, to Joan, who willfully repressed her own womanhood in order to enjoy the privileges reserved for men, these women’s stories demonstrate the claustrophobia of the patriarchy. Marlene could easily disregard their stories as irrelevant to her own experience—surely, as a modern businesswoman, Marlene would never be put in the positions these women have been forced to occupy. Marlene initially feels that due to her recent success she is exempt from the confines of the patriarchy—but hearing stories like Nijo’s, Joan’s, and Griselda’s over the course of the first act allows her to see how patriarchy is still very much a force in her own life. 

When Marlene returns to work at the Top Girls Employment Agency, she does not appear rattled by the events of the “dinner party”—but she soon learns that she is not exempt from the effects of the patriarchy either. The wife of a man at her firm comes into Marlene’s office to beg Marlene to forfeit her promotion so that the man, Howard Kidd, can have it. Mrs. Kidd says she has had to “bear the brunt” of Howard’s having been passed over. She has dedicated her life, she says, to putting him first “every inch of the way,” and does not want to see him passed over so that a woman can attain more power at the firm. Mrs. Kidd’s entreaty reveals a complicated psychology at work—Mrs. Kidd, whose life has been in service to her husband, feels that she should at least be able to reap the rewards of the success she has tried so hard to facilitate for him. In realizing that all her hard work and sacrifice has not paid off, she feels that she herself has failed. Rather than admit that her deference to patriarchal values has sidelined her life, she chooses to believe that other women’s success is the true enemy.

When Marlene refuses to give up the job, Mrs. Kidd berates her being for a “ballbreaker” and holding an “[un]natural” position in society. Mrs. Kidd has clearly internalized this language—and the thought processes behind it—as a result of her belief that going with the flow of patriarchy, rather than rising up against it, would allow her to live the most comfortable life. In this scene, Churchill demonstrates how Marlene herself is not immune to the willful complicity in the patriarchy she saw on display at her “dinner party.” Though she is separated in time from the other women, she still must contend with the struggles they faced, and as she realizes this, she sees that even succeeding in a man’s world is not enough to liberate her from the constraints of the patriarchy.

The myriad tales Churchill presents in the play’s opening scene demonstrate just how mind-numbing—and mind-warping—a life lived under the patriarchy can be. As Marlene brings the knowledge she has gleaned from this dreamlike assembly back into the “real” world, she finds that for all her “success,” she has been playing a losing game all along. Though Marlene never fully reckons with the fact that her triumph in the corporate world cannot erase the fact of her womanhood—or the fact that she lives in a fundamentally patriarchal world—Churchill displays the insidious, creeping feeling of dread, fear, and insufficiency that such an existence creates, and argues that moving successfully within the patriarchy does not mean one has escaped its confines.

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Life Under the Patriarchy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Life Under the Patriarchy appears in each act of Top Girls. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Life Under the Patriarchy Quotes in Top Girls

Below you will find the important quotes in Top Girls related to the theme of Life Under the Patriarchy.
Act One, Scene One Quotes

MARLENE: Magnificent all of you. We need some more wine, please, two bottles I think, Griselda isn’t even here yet, and I want to drink a toast to you all.

ISABELLA: To yourself surely, we’re here to celebrate your success.

NIJO: Yes, Marlene.

JOAN: Yes, what is it exactly, Marlene?

MARLENE: Well it’s not Pope but it is managing director.

JOAN: And you find work for people.

MARLENE: Yes, an employment agency.

NIJO: Over all the women you work with. And the men.

ISABELLA: And very well deserved too. I’m sure it’s just the beginning of something extraordinary.

MARLENE: Well it’s worth a party.

ISABELLA: To Marlene.

MARLENE: And all of us.

JOAN: Marlene.

NIJO: Marlene.

GRET: Marlene.

MARLENE: We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements. (They laugh and drink a toast.)

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Isabella Bird (speaker), Lady Nijo (speaker), Dull Gret (speaker), Pope Joan (speaker), Patient Griselda
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

JOAN: But I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was getting fatter, but then I was eating more and sitting about, the life of a Pope is quite luxurious. I don’t think I’d spoken to a woman since I was twelve. [My lover] the chamberlain was the one who realized.

MARLENE: And by then it was too late.

JOAN: Oh I didn’t want to pay attention. It was easier to do nothing. […] I never knew what month it was. […] I wasn’t used to having a woman’s body.

JOAN: I didn’t know of course that it was near the time. It was Rogation Day, there was always a procession. I was on the horse dressed in my robes and a cross was carried in front of me, and all the cardinals were following, and all the clergy of Rome, and a huge crowd of people. […] I had felt a slight pain earlier, I thought it was something I’d eaten, and then it came back, and came back more often. I thought when this is over I’ll go to bed. There were still long gaps when I felt perfectly all right and I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and spoil the ceremony. Then I suddenly realized what it must be. I had to last out till I could get home and hide. Then something changed, my breath started to catch, I couldn’t plan things properly any more. […] I just had to get off the horse and sit down for a minute. […] And the baby just slid out on to the road.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Pope Joan (speaker)
Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:

GRET: We come to hell through a big mouth. Hell’s black and red. It’s […] like the village where I come from. There’s a river and a bridge and houses. There’s places on fire like when the soldiers come. There’s a big devil sat on a roof with a big hole in his arse and he’s scooping stuff out of it with a big ladle and it’s falling down on us, and it’s money, so a lot of the women stop and get some. But most of us is fighting the devils. There’s lots of little devils, our size, and we get them down all right and give them a beating. […] Well we’d had worse, you see, we’d had the Spanish. We’d all had family killed. My big son die on a wheel. Birds eat him. My baby, a soldier run her through with a sword. I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out of my front door that morning and shot till my neighbours come out and I said, “Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out.” And they all come out just as they was from baking or […] washing in their aprons, and we push down the street and the ground opens up and we go through a big mouth into a street just like ours but in hell. […] You just keep running on and fighting, you didn’t stop for thing. Oh we give them devils such a beating.

Related Characters: Dull Gret (speaker)
Page Number: 39-40
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene One Quotes

NELL: Howard thinks because he’s a fella the job was his as of right. Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that.

WIN: Poor little bugger.

NELL: He’ll live.

WIN: He’ll move on.

NELL: I wouldn’t mind a change of air myself.

WIN: Serious?

NELL: I’ve never been a staying-put lady. Pastures new.

WIN: So who’s the pirate?

NELL: There’s nothing definite.

WIN: Inquiries?

NELL: There’s always inquiries. I’d think I’d got bad breath if there stopped being inquiries. Most of them can’t afford me. Or you.

WIN: I’m all right for the time being. Unless I go to Australia.

NELL: There’s not a lot of room upward.

WIN: Marlene’s filled it up.

Related Characters: Nell (speaker), Win (speaker), Marlene, Howard Kidd
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

WIN: So I take it the job itself no longer satisfies you. Is it the money?

LOUISE: It’s partly the money. It’s not so much the money.


WIN: So why are you making a change?

LOUISE: Other people make changes.

WIN: But why are you, now, after spending most of your life in the one place?

LOUISE: There you are, I’ve lived for that company, I’ve given my life really you could say because I haven’t had a great deal of social life, I’ve worked in the evenings. […] I had management status from the age of twenty-seven and you’ll appreciate what that means. I’ve built up a department. And there it is I, it works extremely well, and I feel I’m stuck there. I’ve spent twenty years in middle management. I’ve seen young men who I trained go on, in my own company or elsewhere, to higher things. Nobody notices me, I don’t expect it, I don’t attract attention by making mistakes, everybody takes it for granted that my work is perfect. They will notice me when I go, they will be sorry I think to lose me, they will offer me more money of course, I will refuse. They will see when I’ve gone what I was doing for them.

Related Characters: Win (speaker), Louise (speaker)
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

ANGIE: This is where you work is it?

MARLENE: It’s where I have been working the last two years but I’m going to move into another office.

ANGIE: It’s lovely.

MARLENE: My new office is nicer than this. There’s just the one big desk in it for me.

ANGIE: Can I see it?

MARLENE: Not now, no, there’s someone else in it now. But he’s leaving at the end of next week and I’m going to do his job.

ANGIE: This is where you work is it?

MARLENE: It’s where I have been working the last two years but I’m going to move into another office.

ANGIE: It’s lovely.

MARLENE: My new office is nicer than this. There’s just the one big desk in it for me.

ANGIE: Can I see it?

MARLENE: Not now, no, there’s someone else in it now. But he’s leaving at the end of next week and I’m going to do his job.

ANGIE: Is that good?

MARLENE: Yes, it’s very good.

ANGIE: Are you going to be in charge?

MARLENE: Yes I am.

ANGIE: I knew you would be.

MARLENE: How did you know?

ANGIE: I knew you’d be in charge of everything.

MARLENE: Not quite everything.

ANGIE: You will be.

MARLENE: Well we’ll see.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker)
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 66-67
Explanation and Analysis:

MRS. KIDD: Howard’s not in today.

MARLENE: Isn’t he?

MRS KIDD: He’s feeling poorly.

MARLENE: I didn’t know. I’m sorry to hear that.

MRS KIDD: The fact is he’s in a state of shock. About what’s happened.

MARLENE: What has happened?

MRS KIDD: You should know if anyone. I’m referring to you been appointed managing director instead of Howard. He hasn’t been at all well all weekend. He hasn’t slept for three nights. I haven’t slept.

MARLENE: I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Kidd. Has he thought of taking sleeping pills?

MRS KIDD: It’s very hard when someone has worked all these years.

MARLENE: Business life is full of little setbacks. I’m sure Howard knows that. He’ll bounce back in a day or two. We all bounce back.

MRS KIDD: If you could see him you’d know what I’m talking about. What’s it going to do to him working for a woman? I think if it was a man he’d get over it as something normal.

MARLENE: I think he’s going to have to get over it.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Mrs. Kidd (speaker), Howard Kidd
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE: Are you suggesting I give up the job to him then?

MRS KIDD: It had crossed my mind if you were unavailable for some reason, he would be the natural second choice I think, don’t you? I’m not asking.


MRS KIDD: You mustn’t tell him I came. He’s very proud.

MARLENE: If she doesn’t like what’s happening here he can go and work somewhere else.

MRS KIDD: Is that a threat?

MARLENE: I’m sorry but I do have some work to do.

MRS KIDD: It’s not easy, a man of Howard’s age. You don’t care. I thought he was going too far but he’s right. You’re one of those ball breakers, that’s what you

MARLENE: I’m sorry but I do have some work to do.

MRS KIDD: are. You’ll end up miserable and lonely. You’re not natural.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Mrs. Kidd (speaker), Howard Kidd
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

NELL: You find it easy to get the initial interest do you?

SHONA: Oh yeh, I get plenty of initial interest.

NELL: And what about closing?

SHONA: I close, don’t I?

NELL: Because that’s what an employer is going to have doubts about with a lady as I needn’t tell you, whether she’s got the guts to push through to a closing situation. They think we’re too nice. They think we listen to the buyer’s doubts. They think we consider his needs and feelings.

SHONA: I never consider people’s feelings.

NELL: I was selling for six years, I can sell anything, I’ve sold in three continents, and I’m jolly as they come but I’m not very nice.

SHONA: I’m not very nice.

Related Characters: Nell (speaker), Shona (speaker)
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene Two Quotes

JOYCE: You couldn’t get out of here fast enough.

MARLENE: Of course I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. What was I going to do? Marry a dairyman who’d come home pissed? Don’t you fucking this

JOYCE: Christ.

MARLENE: fucking that fucking bitch fucking tell me what to fucking do fucking.

JOYCE: I don’t know how you could leave your own child.

MARLENE: You were quick enough to take her.

JOYCE: What does that mean?

MARLENE: You were quick enough to take her?

JOYCE: Or what? Have her put in a home? Have some stranger take her would you rather?

MARLENE: You couldn’t have one so you took mine.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie
Page Number: 89-90
Explanation and Analysis:

JOYCE: Listen when Angie was six months I did get pregnant and I lost it because I was so tired looking after your fucking baby because she cried so

MARLENE: You never told me.

JOYCE much—yes I did tell you—and the doctor

MARLENE: Well I forgot.

JOYCE: said if I’d sat down all day with my feet up I’d’ve kept it and that’s the only chance I ever had because after that—

MARLENE: I’ve had two abortions, are you interested? Shall I tell you about them? Well I won’t, it’s boring, it wasn’t a problem. I don’t like messy talk about blood and what a bad time we all had. I

JOYCE: If I hadn’t had your baby. The doctor said.

MARLENE: don’t want a baby. I don’t want to talk about gynaecology.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

JOYCE: You can always find yourself work then?

MARLENE: That’s right.

JOYCE: And men?

MARLENE: Oh there’s always men.

JOYCE: No-one special?

MARENE: There’s fellas who like to be seen with a high-flying lady. Shows they’ve got something really good in their pants. But they can’t take the day to day. They’re waiting for me to turn into the little woman.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE. I think the eighties are going to be stupendous.

JOYCE: Who for?

MARLENE: For me. I think I’m going up up up.

JOYCE: Oh for you. Yes, I’m sure they will.

MARLENE: And for the country, come to that. Get the economy back on its feet and whoosh. She’s a tough lady, Maggie. I’d give her a job. She just needs to hang

JOYCE: You voted for them, did you?

MARLENE: in there. This country needs to stop whining. Monetarism is not

JOYCE: Drink your tea and shut up, pet.

MARLENE: stupid. It takes time, determination. No more slop. And

JOYCE: Well I think they’re filthy bastards.

MARLENE: who’s got to drive it on? First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on. You must admit. Certainly gets my vote.

JOYCE: What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you’d have liked Hitler if he was a woman. […] Great adventures.

MARLENE: Bosses still walking on the worker’s faces? Still dada’s little parrot? Haven’t you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.

JOYCE: I am looking at you.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker)
Page Number: 94-95
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE: I hate the working class which is what

JOYCE: Yes you do.

MARLENE: you’re going to go on about now, it doesn’t exist any more, it means lazy and stupid. I don’t

JOYCE: Come on, now we’re getting it.

MARLENE: like the way they talk. I don’t like beer guts and football vomit and saucy tits and brothers and sisters—

JOYCE: I spit when I see a Rolls Royce, scratch it with my ring Mercedes it was.

MARLENE: Oh very mature—

JOYCE: I hate the cows I work for and their dirty dishes with blanquette of fucking veau.

MARLENE: and I will not be pulled down to their level by a flying picket and I won’t be sent to Siberia or a loony bin just because I’m original. And I support

JOYCE: No, you’ll be on a yacht, you’ll be head of Coca Cola and you wait, the eighties is going to be stupendous all right because we’ll get you lot off our backs—

MARLENE: Reagan even if he is a lousy movie star because the reds are swarming up his map and I want to be free in a free world—

JOYCE: What? What?

MARLENE: I know what I mean by that—not shut up here.

JOYCE: So don’t be round here when it happens because if someone’s kicking you I’ll just laugh.


MARLENE: I don’t mean anything personal. I don’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.

JOYCE: And if they haven’t?

MARLENE: If they’re stupid or lazy or frightened, I’m not going to help them get a job, why should I?

JOYCE: What about Angie?

MARLENE: What about Angie?

JOYCE: She’s stupid, lazy and frightened, so what about her?

MARLENE: You run her down too much. She’ll be all right.

JOYCE: I don’t expect so, no. I expect her children will say what a wasted life she had. If she has children. Because nothing’s changed and it won’t with them in.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis: