Despite the fact that the audience is angered by John’s chauvinistic mentality, we still empathise with his character to an extent.
Living in poverty, unable to find work, John cannot provide for his family and has an awareness of his responsibility in the hardship the whole family must suffer.
John does love Maggie, and there are poignant scenes when he gives her a plate of beans and buys her a hat at Christmas. However, he is still unprepared to deviate from what he considers to be the male role and at several points he disappoints as result.
We are also concerned by his softness towards a character like Isa and the fact he does not accompany Maggie to the hospital with Bertie– the one place that she is fearful of.
At the end of the play, he suffers a threefold humiliation:
Unlike Maggie, John is not strong enough to actively confront his true self and we leave him slumped and speechless at the close of Act III.
When John first enters in Act 1, Scene 1, the stage directions tell us about him and his relationship with his wife.
John comes in carrying books under his arm. He is a big, handsome man.
He puts down his books, gives Maggie a pat: they exchange warm smiles.
carrying books, which implies an attempt at self-improvement, but this may be something he simply
carries, totes around, like hollow good intentions.
Stewart notes his attractive appearance – unlike what Lily tells us about Maggie, John has not lost his looks, making him still sexually appealing to women like Isa.
gives Maggie a pat which connotes the warmth in their relationship while at the same time implying a certain assumed superiority in his manner. Shortly after his entrance, he criticises women for having
muddle in which they live would be ordered and structured
if it wis (his) job... but thankfully for John,
it’s no (his) job and he cannot see beyond this, even when his wife is exhausted and struggling to keep going:
I’m no turnin masel intae a bloomin skivvy! I’m a man! It is his pride at stake here, and we see this again when he refuses to accept Jenny’s money in Act III:
We’re wantin nane o yer whore’s winnins here.
John’s anger is because he realises he has failed in the role he is so set on maintaining. He has identified himself as the man, the
heid of this hoose, but has done nothing to fulfil this role.
Ironically, after this assertion, he becomes a passive spectator with his face in his hands. We wonder whether he is indeed
weeping (as he
should be) at the realisation of his ineffectiveness while the women take charge.