Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Although the trial in Inherit the Wind concerns the battle between creationism and evolutionism, a deeper conflict exists beneath the surface. Drummond points to this more basic issue when he asks his young witness Howard whether he believes in Darwin. When the boy responds that he hasn’t made up his mind, Drummond insists that the boy’s freedom to think—to make up his own mind—is what is actually on trial.
The creationists in the play, who adhere to rigid, fundamental Christian doctrines, are a conservative force that has prescribed for Hillsboro society how their minds should be made up. Their conservatism is rooted in fear. The most adamant creationists, Brady and Reverend Brown, occupy positions of authority at the top of the social order, and their primary motivation is to maintain this control over that social order. Like Darwinism, which questions the religious foundation of that social order, new, progressive ideas present a threat to the creationists’ status as leaders.
Drummond, Hornbeck, and Cates, though they maintain respectable positions within society—attorney, journalist, and teacher, respectively—are more interested in the truth than in maintaining their own social status. Their willingness to stand by their own judgments even as they call those judgments to question indicates their self-reliance—a trait that is notably absent in Brown and Brady, who lean instead on the legitimacy gained by their status as religious leaders. Brown, for instance, uses fire-and-brimstone sermons to root out dissent in the Hillsboro community and within his own family. The obedience he demands of the community is the opposite of freedom. In contrast, the questioning that Cates practices—and encourages—promotes free thinking, which opens new paths to progress.
In the early twentieth century, rapid urbanization, immigration, and technological improvements exposed American city dwellers to a wide range of new ideas. Although advances in transportation and communication enabled these ideas to spread throughout the United States, many rural areas were slow to accept these new ways of thinking.
In Inherit the Wind, Hillsboro and its residents exemplify this conservative, rural mindset. Hillsboro’s largely static townspeople are seldom exposed to new faces, let alone new ideas. Many are illiterate or have received education solely from a single, conservative perspective—fundamentalist Christianity. Within the small confines of their town, Reverend Brown’s parishioners are content and complacent because their day-to-day environment never presents them with any new or contrary ideas.
When the trial starts, Drummond, Hornbeck, the radio announcer, and several prestigious scientists arrive in Hillsboro from the nation’s big cities, hoping to teach the locals a lesson in progress and free thought. Brady and Brown, meanwhile, cast Drummond as the devil, an agnostic crawling from the city gutters to defile the purity of Hillsboro’s citizens. The gruff manners of Drummond and Hornbeck do little to endear them to their new small-town acquaintances. In contrast, Brady, though a figure of national prominence, showboats his humble Nebraska origins in order to win the locals’ support.
When Rachel Brown reads Hornbeck’s column about Cates, she is stunned to hear her outcast friend described as a hero. Public outcry, which Rachel’s father stirs up, casts Cates as a villain. The town’s conservative politics allows neither for debate nor doubt. Throughout the play, Cates and Drummond encourage Rachel to keep her mind open, while Brown and Brady coax her to abide by their views as they vilify her friend. At the end of the play, Rachel overcomes her fear and recognizes the possibilities of Cates’s and Drummond’s free thought. She takes her newfound self-reliance with her to the train station, to the city.
In Inherit the Wind, Cates challenges the law and, with it, the norms of Hillsboro society. Facing disfavor from the townspeople, he nonetheless decides to persevere in his cause. Describing his feelings of isolation, Cates explains to Drummond, “People look at me as if I was a murderer. Worse than a murderer!” Drummond, who has learned from his years as a criminal-defense attorney, along with his own struggles as an agnostic and an advocate for unpopular causes, empathizes with Cates. As Drummond says, “It’s the loneliest feeling in the world—to find yourself standing up when everybody else is sitting down.”
Both Cates and Drummond experience a struggle against mainstream society. The older and more experienced Drummond comforts Cates with his knowledge that individuals make progress for all of society when they courageously pursue the truth regardless of others’ opinions. At the end of the play, when the court announces the verdict, Drummond says to Cates, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow it’ll be something else—and another fella will have to stand up. And you’ve helped give him the guts to do it!” As Drummond implies, individuals throughout history have challenged societal norms by forcing society to rethink its assumptions. Historical movements appropriate the energy of these individuals to revolutionize society.
Although Brady and Reverend Brown are charismatic public figures, they fail to present themselves as individuals. Rather, they hide behind the Bible and hold themselves up as symbols of society itself. Their efforts to staunch free thought and repress new ideas are anti-individualistic. They maintain order in Hillsboro by scaring people out of having their own opinions and ideas. As the storeowner admits, such individual attitudes are “bad for business.” Ultimately, however, Brady’s and Brown’s fear tactics come up short. Although they technically win the case against Cates, the defense clearly achieves its goal—opening the minds of Hillsboro’s townspeople.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The romance between Rachel and Cates complicates Rachel’s personal development and frames the main conflict of the play—fundamentalism versus freedom of thought—in a personal light. The playwrights portray Reverend Brown, Rachel’s father and the community’s religious leader, as cruel and heartless. The preacher not only frightens Rachel from a young age but also publicly damns her soul for supporting Cates. Meanwhile, Cates, who teaches evolution to his students and has doubts about religion, stands in bold opposition to Rachel’s father and his views. These two characters test Rachel’s loyalties throughout the play. Rachel’s separation from her father and allegiance with Cates at the end of the trial shows how she resolves this conflict on a personal level, making a story about the politics of ideas a love story as well.
The playwrights draw on a traditional dramatic device, the chorus, to underscore the main themes of Inherit the Wind. The chorus, which has its origins in ancient Greek theater, is a group of characters who deliver lines—typically sung in verse—that comment on the action of the play and predict the future. In Inherit the Wind, the playwrights consolidate this traditional chorus into a single chorus character, the Baltimore Herald reporter E. K. Hornbeck. Hornbeck’s lines appear in poetic form, and his musings, which originally seem extreme, eventually prove accurate and insightful. His presence also highlights the differences between North and South as well as between urban and rural environments. Hornbeck stands in for the real-life Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken, one of the most popular journalists in American history, whose coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial electrified the nation.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Golden Dancer, a rocking horse Drummond received from his parents as a child, represents the deceptiveness of external beauty. Despite its bright shine and color, the horse broke the first time Drummond rode it. Drummond uses this symbol to convey to Cates the importance of the search for truth and the exposure of people and ideas for what they truly are. As Drummond instructs Cates, “Bert, whenever you see something bright, shining, perfect-seeming—all gold, with purple spots—look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!” Cates, whose classroom microscope reveals physical realities that the naked eye cannot see, is already familiar with this principle. Drummond’s words, however, help Cates to realize that his defeat in court may actually be a victory for his cause.
When the radio man enters the courtroom to record the trial, the recording marks the first time a trial is broadcast nationally in the United States. In fact, the Scopes trial, the inspiration for Inherit the Wind, marked that occasion in real life. The radio symbolizes the rapid technological advancement of early twentieth-century America and the consequences of that technology for traditional rural life. The radio also recalls the modern technological devices that Drummond challenges Brady and his witnesses to conceive of in biblical terms—a key element of his argument that ultimately wins over the courtroom audience.