Key scene - Maggie's breakdown

Act II, Scene two

This is a significant scene in Maggie’s journey towards independence, as in it she realises she cannot tolerate the status quo. It begins with Isa and Alec arguing, which establishes the theme of conflict.

When Maggie enters, her exhaustion is clear: she is dead beat and sinks into a chair. Having spent the day cleaning, she comes home to find the place like a midden and voices her frustration to John: ye could have tidied the place up afore ye went oot, but John declares he is a man and not a skivvy.

Later John takes Isa’s side and criticises Maggie for spoiling Alec. This hurts Maggie as she expects her husband tae stand up for his wife. Angrily she goes out: She seizes her coat and hauls it on, jams on her terrible old hat.

The verbs seizes, hauls, jams convey the force of her actions and hence her strength of feeling. She is also shocked by Alec’s theft of her money she can’t help making a small sound.

Maggie is let down by her husband and then her son and is realising where her selfless dedication to her family has led her. She looks at John coldly, portraying a new detachment from her husband.

The tension between John and Maggie builds to a climax at the end of the scene. Maggie returns with chips for dinner but is still stoney-eyed.

While she quietly moves to the kitchen and puts the kettle on, John turns his back on her, conveying the strain between them. Ernest is not used to his mother being like this. Hungry, he steals a chip without asking and his sister hits him.

As he lifts his foot to kick Edie, Maggie sees the scuffed toe-caps of his boots and any self-control she had gives way. This is the final straw because it is yet another example of her efforts and money being used up for little gain.

She screams and cries hysterically I hate ye! I hate the hale lot o ye! This is Maggie’s nadir. She cannot take the relentless graft any longer. She exits, leaving John to calm the children, a job that she has done so often before.

Interestingly John explains to them When women gets that tired they kind o loss their heids as if this is an attribute of the female sex.

Maggie re-enters calmly, apologising for her hysteria. John pats her accordingly, and we wonder whether she may resume her stoic status, but the Maggie we see at the end of Act III proves that she does not forget her breaking point, nor the constant heartburn she suffers as mother to seven children living in severe poverty.