The Children’s Hour Summary

Lillian Hellman

The Children’s Hour

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The Children’s Hour Summary

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The Children’s Hour is an American play written by Lillian Hellman in 1934. The play was first staged on Broadway, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in 1934, and was produced and directed by Herman Shumlin. It was also presented in Paris and at London’s Gate Theatre Studio in 1936. Noteworthy themes are good versus evil, fatherly love, time and space, and youth.

The story begins with two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, who have worked very hard on a refurbished farmhouse and turned it into a girls’ boarding school. They run and teach at the school, along with Martha’s aunt, the somewhat unpleasant Lily Mortar. One child in particular, Mary Tilford, is a mischievous, disobedient, and deceitful girl, who often leads the others into trouble. One day, Mary feigns sickness, and is brought to be examined by Dr. Joe Cardin. As well as being a doctor, Joe is also Mary’s cousin and Karen’s fiancé. Martha asks Lily if she would like to do some travelling, now that the school is doing well and they can afford it, but Lily becomes upset. Lily claims that Martha becomes irritable and jealous whenever Joe comes around, and takes her jealousy out on her. Two children, friends of Mary, are listening at the door and hear this argument.

Mary is told she is fine and sent back to her room. She squeezes the information out of the other girls, and Mary plans to ask her grandmother if she can leave the school, and not return. Mary’s grandmother, Amelia Tilford, indulges the girl, and also helped Martha and Karen quite a lot with setting up the school. Amelia refuses this request; so Mary twists what the girls overheard to constructs a well crafted lie, and convinces her grandmother that Karen and Martha are having a lesbian affair. When she hears about this, Amelia begins to contact parents of all Mary’s classmates. Soon, many of Mary’s friends are being pulled out of the school. Rosalie Wells, a student whose mother is abroad and cannot get her, stays with Mary.

Over time, Mary discovers that Rosalie is a very vulnerable girl, so she blackmails her, forcing her to confirm and support every claim that she makes henceforth. Then, Karen and Martha discover the rumour that has caused all of their students to leave. They decided to go to Mrs. Tilford’s residence and confront her and Mary. Amelia demands that Mary tell her story again, and while doing so, Karen points out an inconsistency. Mary pretends this is because she had covered for Rosalie, who agrees reluctantly for fear of being found out. Martha and Karen decided to take Amelia to court, and they leave.

It is seven months later, and Martha and Karen have lost their case. Everyone still believes that they are secret lovers. Lily returns from abroad one day to continue the care of her niece, and the other women are furious for her for leaving the country. She wasn’t able to testify to their innocence, which hampered their case. Joe, who has remained loyal throughout, has found another job in a distant location. He attempts to convince Karen and Martha to come with him, so they can start a new life. He further tries to convince Karen when Martha leaves to prepare dinner, but Karen now believes that she is responsible for ruining his life and destroying everything that she and Martha worked so hard to achieve.

Karen then insists that Joe become more critical, and he reluctantly asks her whether the two women had ever been lovers. Karen says they were not, and Joe hurries to assure her that he believes her, but Karen’s mind has been made up. She decides that she and Joe must split up. She asks him to leave and, while he initially refuses, he then agrees on the condition that Karen thinks things through before finalizing the separation. Martha returns, learns what has happened, and is consumed with guilt. She very cautiously begins to accept that she actually does have feelings for Karen, and this terrifies her even more. Karen tells Martha that she is going to relocate, and she would like Martha to come with her. Martha says it would be impossible for them to live comfortably together after this disaster, and eventually she admits her feelings for Karen. Karen dismisses her admission quickly, saying they have never felt that way; she declares that Martha is too tired to think and they can talk about it in the morning. Karen retires to her room, only to hear a shot go off. Martha has killed herself. Soon afterwards, Amelia arrives to beg for Karen’s forgiveness: Mary’s her lies have been uncovered, but it is too late. The lies of a child, as well as the community’s quick acceptance of these rumours as fact, have ruined three innocent lives.