Rumours, Gossip and Lies: Social Anxiety and the Evil Child in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour


JOURNAL OF LITERARY STUDIES, vol.28, no.3, pp.32-54, 2012 (ESCI) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 28 Issue: 3
  • Publication Date: 2012
  • Doi Number: 10.1080/02564718.2012.677988
  • Journal Indexes: Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI), Scopus
  • Page Numbers: pp.32-54
  • Hacettepe University Affiliated: Yes


Most readings of American playwright Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934) focus on the psycho-social power of adolescent-driven gossip, rumours and slander, and the frightening outcomes that can emerge when people lose their ability to reason, question, analyse and criticise the world around them. This article argues that the drama also serves as a cultural and political commentary on the social anxieties of a changing America seeking a "return to normalcy" after war in the 1910s, cultural upheaval in the 1920s, and financial collapse in the 1930s. Mary's "evil" behaviour suggests that she is caught in a net of shifting social values concerning sexuality and gender roles and uses wickedness as a strategy to order and control her chaotic world. As an orphan, an outcast, and a young woman grappling with her own developmental issues, Mary desires to gain status within Lancet, Massachusetts, by exposing and attempting to eliminate cultural anxieties about gender and sexuality, as well as changes in social mores and challenges to the family unit. Populated by narrow-minded, heterosexist and self-righteous matrons, oblivious and self-serving adults, and spoiled children who seem unscathed by the Great Depression devouring the nation, the conservative denizens of Lancet succumb to Mary's "big lie" (i.e., that her teachers are lesbians) because it allows them to label and purge the "problematic" and independent women. Thus, Lancet willingly surrenders to the hysteria created by a group of children who, led by Mary Tilford, derive vicarious pleasure and status from the fall of Karen Wright and Martha Dobie - two promising, self-sufficient, educated women who challenge its rigid definitions of womanhood.