Poverty dominates the Morrisons’ lives. We see it reflected in the setting, the stage directions and the dialogues between the characters.
The stage set with its doors, curtains and bed recess gives the impression of a confined space, as if the characters are limited by their circumstances. They even struggle to possess fundamental clothing. Edie
wears a miscellaneous collection of cast-off clothing and Lily realises later that she’s
no got a pair o knickers to her name.
Lily despairs at Maggie’s situation and tries to help, bringing medicine and food and also lending money to help Alec. The deprived setting exacerbates Bertie’s condition and he is not allowed home. Jenny notes in Act III:
It’s rotten, this hoose. Rotten. Damp. Ye ken yersel. It’s a midden looking oot on ither middens. It’s got rats, bugs.
The severity of the conditions is apparent here. While Maggie denies the
bugs, the rest of it cannot be repudiated.
The repetition of
rotten as well as placing it in a minor sentence followed by
damp works to convey the indisputable point that they are living in a slum.
The idea that they are one family in amongst a host of other people in the same position is implied by the expression
midden looking oot on ither middens, as if the only window out of their disintegrating flat looks onto the prospect of more poverty.
As well as damaging health, poverty also damages pride. We are told that Maggie stands outside Jenny’s work waiting to see if she can get any bruised fruit and vegetables.
Jenny is angered by this, partly because it is degrading – she says she is sick of her mother
afore the hale shop. The audience sympathises with Maggie here who apologetically tells her daughter she’s resorted to this because she is just desperate for money.
However, it is John whose pride is most affected by their deprivation. He believes he is the breadwinner and yet he can’t deliver.
dirty rotten buggers in Parliament have left him unable to provide for his family and he feels helpless. He voices the cruel predicament of those in poverty in in Act II, Scene 2, one of the longest speeches in the play:
If I could hae jist- jist done better by ye a. If I could hae…(Head in hands, eyes on floor) If! If! Every time I’ve had tae say ‘no’ tae yon an the weans it’s doubled me up like a kick in the stomach. (Lifting his head and crying out) Christ Almighty! A we’ve done wrong is tae be born intae poverty! Whit dae they think this kind o life dis tae a man? Whiles it turns ye intae a wild animal. Whiles ye’re a human question mark, aye askin why? Why? Why? There’s nae answer. Ye end up a bent back and a heid hanging in shame for whit ye canna help.
We can see from this that John feels almost beaten by poverty. With his
head in hands he says not being able to provide for his children feels like being punched in the stomach and he has
a bent back and a
heid hanging in shame.
The repeated use of the conditional
if – if only it wasn’t like this - implies that John feels he has not been given a chance in life.
Living with nothing has turned him into a
wild animal, which perhaps alludes to his primitive surroundings or the uninhibited sexual desire that has given him so many children (this is the one area he has left in which he has not been deemed impotent).
The overall impression here is of a man who is broken and is questioning the justice of his fate. We can empathise with him, as he does endure hardship, but it is interesting to compare his reaction to circumstances with that of the women in the play.
Finally in Act III, John, whose masculinity is threatened by Jenny’s plans, says he’d
an idea [he] wis the heid o this hoose.
He is trying to defend his status here, reminding his family that he is charge - however, he fails in this. The very expression he uses
an idea suggests that this power, this control is something that has never been concrete.
He adheres to the traditional male role only in theory because in practice he can’t deliver. Thus Maggie is able to usurp this flimsy authority.