Top Girls

by

Caryl Churchill

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Top Girls can help.
Themes and Colors
Life Under the Patriarchy Theme Icon
Women’s Stories Theme Icon
Power, Success, and Individualism Theme Icon
Motherhood Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Top Girls, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Motherhood Theme Icon

Top Girls features many different types of mothers, but Marlene is one of the only characters who sees motherhood as an insufferable burden. The journeys to and through motherhood that Churchill explores are vastly different, and yet the story of Marlene—who asked her sister Joyce to raise her daughter, Angie, for her so that she could pursue a career—specifically suggests that in a world shaped by patriarchy, motherhood is most often framed as a burden that only holds women back. The women in the play have been so traumatized by patriarchal society that they are disconnected from motherhood as a joy or a privilege. As a result, their complicated relationships to motherhood often result in them shirking their roles as mothers or avoiding those roles altogether, often at a painful cost.

In the middle of the play, the audience is introduced to Angie—a strange, hateful sixteen-year-old who has come to realize that her Aunt Marlene is truly her mother, and now expresses a desire to kill the woman who has raised her from birth, her adoptive mother, Joyce. Angie’s palpable sense of rejection—and otherworldly intuition—is thrust up against Marlene’s desire to forget or ignore her role in Angie’s life. Marlene’s secret role as a mother informs some of the play’s most dramatic moments and cements Churchill’s argument that even modern women who are told they can “have it all” see motherhood as a burden best avoided. In Angie’s first scene, she complains to her friend Kit about how greatly she dislikes her mother Joyce, but also reveals that she knows that Joyce is not her true mother—her “Aunty” Marlene is. Angie expresses her desire to kill her mother, but it is unclear which mother she wants to dispatch. In the second act, Angie travels to London on her own to visit Marlene, whom she hasn’t seen in over a year. When Marlene shares the news that she’s just been promoted within her office at the Top Girls Employment Agency, Angie reveals that she “knew [Marlene would] be in charge of everything”—when Marlene protests that she’s not yet in charge of everything, Angie predicts that one day, she will be. Marlene offers Angie a place to stay, but when Angie picks up on Marlene’s hesitation to shelter her indefinitely, Angie asks Marlene if she “want[s]” her. The day they spent together last year, Angie says, was the best day of Angie’s whole life. This scene shows Angie—who, having figured out the truth of her parentage, feels abandoned and unwanted—struggling to understand the choices her true mother has made. On the one hand, she seems to admire Marlene, and has hopes that Marlene will continue to advance in the world she’s chosen to devote herself to; on the other hand, Angie clearly has concerns about being “wanted” by Marlene, and wants to get her “aunt” to profess love and devotion to her. When Marlene is called away to take care of some work, Angie says that rather than going out sightseeing around London, she’d prefer to stay in the office—it is “where [she] most want[s] to be in the world.” Though the office is “boring” according to Marlene, it is the only place Angie wants to be. This could be due to a combination of Angie’s desire to emulate her biological mother and familiarize herself with the corporate world, or simply her need to be in proximity to Marlene, asserting her right to be recognized as Marlene’s own daughter. After Angie falls asleep in the office, Marlene talks with her coworkers, Nell and Win, about the sleeping girl. Win tells Marlene that Angie has confessed she wants to work at Top Girls one day, but Marlene thinks Angie could only ever work a low-level job, such as packing groceries in a store. Marlene darkly predicts that Angie is “not going to make it.” Marlene is assessing Angie not as a child—not even as her child—but in terms of how viable her corporate success is. Marlene, like Pope Joan from the dinner party, has distanced herself from the traditional responsibilities of femininity and motherhood—empathy, care, and devotion—and can now only see motherhood, and all of the duties accompanying it, as a burden. 

In the play’s final scene, Angie has summoned Marlene home without Joyce’s knowledge or permission. Angie is delighted to see Marlene, whom she loves and misses, but Joyce is less than happy to see her sister. After Angie leaves the room, the two women begin fighting over the arrangement that has so deeply impacted each of their lives: the fact that Marlene, who wanted no part of motherhood as she felt it would bind her to an unremarkable, working-class life, had Joyce raise Angie as her own. Marlene can’t understand how her sister has allowed herself to remain trapped in a poor town and a loveless marriage, while Joyce sees Marlene’s desire for upward mobility as selfish and disgusting. As their class issues come to a head, it becomes apparent that the crux of their disagreement stems from their attitudes towards motherhood. When Joyce laments having had a miscarriage, Marlene practically brags about the two abortions she has had in the years since moving to London. Marlene sees any pain over lost children as “boring.” This is no doubt a casualty of her desire for power and success at any cost, and the internalized misogyny that is the result of years spent attempting to navigate and succeed in a male-dominated world—a world in which motherhood was only ever presented as a hindrance to “real” success.

Churchill’s argument that motherhood within a patriarchal world can only ever be a burden is a bleak one, and yet she does not shy away from using her characters to demonstrate just how cruelly the world has historically treated mothers. Angie’s desire for vengeance against the two mothers who have seen her, in their own ways, as a burden is symbolic of Churchill’s own despair over the fact that, in light of Thatcherism and patriarchal values, motherhood is often seen as something contemptible and burdensome rather than an expression of strength, devotion, and care.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Motherhood ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Motherhood appears in each act of Top Girls. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
act length:
Get the entire Top Girls LitChart as a printable PDF.
Top Girls PDF

Motherhood Quotes in Top Girls

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

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 One, Scene Three Quotes

ANGIE: I’m going to London. To see my aunt.

KIT: And what?

ANGIE: That’s it.

KIT: I see my aunt all the time.

ANGIE: I don’t see my aunt.

KIT: What’s so special?

ANGIE: It is special. She’s special.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: She is.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: She is.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: My mother hates her.

KIT: Why?

ANGIE: Because she does.

KIT: Perhaps she’s not very nice.

ANGIE: She is nice.

KIT: How do you know?

ANGIE: Because I know her.

KIT: You said you never see her.

ANGIE: I saw her last year. You saw her.

KIT: Did I?

ANGIE: Never mind.

KIT: I remember her. That aunt. What’s so special?

ANGIE: She gets people jobs.

KIT: What’s so special?

ANGIE: I think I’m my aunt’s child. I think my mother’s really my aunt.

Related Characters: Angie (speaker), Kit (speaker), Marlene, Joyce
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene One Quotes

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:

MARLENE: Don’t you have to go home?

ANGIE: No.

MARLENE: Why not?

ANGIE: It’s all right.

MARLENE: Is it all right?

ANGIE: Yes, don’t worry about it.

MARLENE: Does Joyce know where you are?

ANGIE: Yes of course she does.

MARLENE: Well does she?

ANGIE: Don’t worry about it.

MARLENE: How long are you planning to stay with me then?

ANGIE: You know when you came to see us last year?

MARLENE: Yes, that was nice wasn’t it.

ANGIE: That was the best day of my whole life.

MARLENE: So how long are you planning to stay?

ANGIE: Don’t you want me?

MARLENE: Yes yes, I just wondered.

ANGIE: I won’t stay if you don’t want me.

MARLENE: No, of course you can stay.

ANGIE: I’ll sleep on the floor. I won’t be any bother.

MARLENE: Don’t get upset.

ANGIE: I’m not, I’m not. Don’t worry about it.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Angie (speaker), Joyce
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

MARLENE: Is she asleep?

WIN: She wants to work here.

MARLENE: Packer in Tesco more like.

WIN: She’s a nice kid. Isn’t she?

MARLENE: She’s a bit thick. She’s a bit funny.

WIN: She thinks you’re wonderful.

MARLENE: She’s not going to make it.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Win (speaker), Angie
Related Symbols: Top Girls Employment Agency
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene Two Quotes

JOYCE: [Kit’s] a little girl Angie sometimes plays with because she’s the only child lives really close. She’s like a little sister to her really. Angie’s good with little children.

MARLENE: Do you want to work with children, Angie? Be a teacher or nursery nurse?

JOYCE: I don’t think she’s ever thought of it.

MARLENE: What do you want to do?

JOYCE: She hasn’t got an idea in her head what she wants to do. Lucky to get anything.

JOYCE: True enough.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Joyce (speaker), Angie, Kit
Page Number: 82-83
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

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.

(silence)

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:

ANGIE: Mum?

MARLENE: Angie? What’s the matter?

ANGIE: Mum?

MARLENE: No, she’s gone to bed. It’s Aunty Marlene.

ANGIE: Frightening.

MARLENE: Did you have a bad dream? What happened in it? Well you’re awake now, aren’t you, pet?

ANGIE: Frightening.

Related Characters: Marlene (speaker), Angie (speaker), Joyce
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis: