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Howard: What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once!
Melinda: (Shocked) I wasn’t neither.
Howard: You was so! When the whole world was covered with water, there was nothin’ but worms and blobs of jelly. And you and your whole family was worms!
See Important Quotations Explained
Outside the courthouse in the small Southern town of Hillsboro, a boy named Howard carries a fishing pole and scours the ground for worms. A girl, Melinda, calls out to him. Howard holds up a worm, and Melinda expresses disgust, but Howard tells her she shouldn’t be scared because she herself was once a worm—in fact, her whole family was once worms or blobs of jelly. Melinda threatens to tell her father what Howard has said and warns him that he’ll get his mouth washed out with soap. Howard calls Melinda’s father a monkey, and Melinda runs away.
Rachel, the Hillsboro minister’s daughter, enters. She watches Howard hold up a worm and ask it what it wants to be when it grows up. Mr. Meeker, the bailiff, comes out of the courthouse and greets Rachel. Rachel asks Meeker not to tell her father that she visited the courthouse. She asks to see Bert Cates. Meeker comments that Cates, a schoolteacher, is a more dignified guest than most people usually held in the town jail. Meeker brings Cates up to the courthouse to talk to Rachel.
Cates reminds Rachel that he told her not to visit him. She gives him some clothes from his room at his boarding house. She pleads with him to tell the authorities that his alleged crime—teaching evolution in the local school—was meant as a joke and to promise them he’ll never break that law again. Cates changes the subject and speaks about Matthew Harrison Brady, a famous political figure who is due to arrive in Hillsboro to act as a prosecutor in Cates’s trial.
Rachel asks Cates why he can’t admit he was wrong. Cates says he merely taught his biology class straight from a textbook about Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Rachel points out that what Cates did was illegal and that everyone thinks he is wrong. Cates admits that he broke the law but says that his actions are more complicated than simple good and evil. Rachel scolds him for trying to stir things up and asks him why he can’t do the right thing. Cates asks whether she means she wants him to do things her father’s way. Upset, Rachel runs away. Cates catches up to her and they embrace. When Meeker enters, Rachel breaks the embrace and departs. Meeker marvels at Brady’s imminent arrival and asks Cates about his lawyer. Cates explains that a Baltimore newspaper is sending a lawyer to represent him. After joking for a bit, Meeker and Cates exit.
At the general store, the storekeeper opens up for business. He and a woman from town discuss the heat. Rachel’s father, the stern Reverend Brown, enters. Two workmen arrive to put up a banner welcoming Brady to town. Reverend Brown says that he wants Brady to know how faithful the community is as soon as he arrives. The workmen start to raise the banner. A local man rushes in and says that Brady’s train has arrived. The workmen unfurl the banner, which displays the words “Read Your Bible!” The crowd applauds.
E. K. Hornbeck, a journalist, enters. Townspeople approach him and try to sell him things, but he rebuffs them with sarcastic jokes. Elijah, an illiterate mountain man hawking Bibles, asks Hornbeck whether he is an evolutionist. Hornbeck identifies himself as a journalist from the Baltimore Herald. Hornbeck spots an organ-grinder carrying a monkey. In jest, he asks the monkey if it has come to town to act as a witness in the trial. Melinda hands the monkey a penny, and Hornbeck points out that the monkey’s greed is the best evidence yet that it is the ancestor of the human race.
A boy appears and announces Brady’s arrival. The townspeople sing a hymn and go off to welcome Brady. Hornbeck remains behind with the storekeeper and asks him his opinion on evolution. The storekeeper claims not to have opinions because they could pose a threat to his business. The townspeople cheer and return singing another hymn. They carry pro-Brady and anti-evolutionist banners.
The mayor asks Brady to deliver a speech. The tall, charismatic Brady thanks the townspeople and says he intends to prosecute the arrogant Cates in order to defend Hillsboro from the ideological aggression of Northern cities. The mayor starts to give a speech welcoming Brady, but a photographer and Mrs. Brady interrupt him. Brady asks the spiritual leader of the community to join them for a photograph, and Reverend Brown steps up. The mayor skips to the end of his speech and declares Brady an honorary colonel in the state militia.
The mayor reports that the local Ladies’ Aid club has prepared a brunch for the occasion. As Brady eats, Davenport, the district attorney, introduces himself and says he is eager to work on Brady’s team. Mrs. Brady reminds her husband not to overeat. Brady asks about the defendant, Cates. Rachel interjects that she knows Cates and says that he is not a criminal. Brady takes Rachel away from the crowd to talk privately. One man asks the mayor who the defense attorney will be. Hornbeck announces that the Baltimore Herald has sent the famous Henry Drummond of Chicago to defend Cates. Reverend Brown reviles Drummond as an agent of the devil.
Brady and Rachel return. Reverend Brown and the mayor try to think of ways to prevent Drummond from entering Hillsboro. Brady insists that instead they should welcome Drummond because the world will pay attention to a victory over someone of Drummond’s prominence. Brady explains that he’ll easily be able to convict Cates based on what Rachel has told him in private. Brady retires to his suite at the Mansion House. Everyone follows him away except Rachel and Hornbeck, who move to the courthouse.
Rachel calls out for Meeker and then for Cates, asking what she’s supposed to do. Hornbeck jokingly offers her his counsel at cut rates. Rachel asks Hornbeck why he is in the courtroom. He shows her a copy of the Baltimore Herald in which he wrote an article comparing Cates to Dreyfus, Socrates, and Romeo. Rachel, surprised that Hornbeck has taken Cates’s side, expresses frustration that the Hillsboro townspeople would never read articles that portray Cates as a hero.
Hornbeck and Rachel discuss teaching. Rachel says she has no reason to teach material outside the superintendent’s guidelines. Hornbeck raises questions about human existence, which Rachel says the Bible answers. Rachel asks how Cates could be innocent if a popular hero like Brady is against him. Hornbeck retorts that Brady ceased to be a spokesman for ordinary Americans when they learned to think for themselves. Rachel and Hornbeck exit.
Back at the storefront, Hornbeck strolls and the storekeeper closes up. The organ-grinder comes onstage with the monkey, and Melinda gives the monkey a penny. Henry Drummond, a thick, slouching man, enters. Seeing Drummond in front of the bright red of the setting sun, Melinda exclaims, “It’s the Devil!” Hornbeck greets Drummond, saying “Hello, Devil. Welcome to Hell.”
The introductory note that precedes Act One establishes that Inherit the Wind does not adhere strictly to the factual details of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which frees the playwrights to deliver universally applicable lessons about humankind in the modern age. In twentieth-century America, the advancement of technology and ideas often outpaced the general population’s ability to digest and understand them. The reconciliation of science and religion remains an issue to this day, and perspectives restricted by religion, politics, or nationality often impede individual freedom of thought and expression. This tension manifested itself in the debate over evolution in the 1920s, just as the debate over the ethical implications of human cloning stirs similar controversy today.
The playwrights hint at one of Inherit the Wind’s major themes—the conflict between urban and rural attitudes—in their description of the setting of the opening scene. They stress that Hillsboro should appear a “sleepy, obscure country town about to be vigorously awakened.” The natural state of Hillsboro is static—a condition that is disrupted by the arrival of prominent strangers from cities in the first scene.
The opening lines of the play introduce the central conflict: that of creationism versus evolutionism. As befits a play about the meaning of education, the first characters onstage are children. Howard and Melinda enact the conflict troubling the town in miniature. Howard accuses Melinda’s father of being a monkey, while she, in turn, accuses Howard of “sinful talk.” Melinda’s reaction mirrors the outrage of Hillsboro’s authorities and adults about Cates’s teaching of evolution theory in public school. Howard, meanwhile, attempts to convey Cates’s ideas about evolution but betrays a distorted understanding of these new ideas. Evolution does not equate men with monkeys, but rather posits that the two species share common ancestors. When Howard asks a worm what he wants to be when he grows up, what he really means to ask is what the worm wants its species to become when it evolves. Howard’s misunderstanding humorously illustrates the ways in which young minds can internalize and distort new ideas.
The Hillsboro townspeople, aside from Cates, Rachel, and Reverend Brown, form a composite character, and function as a barometer for atmosphere surrounding the trial. Their sense of festivity in welcoming Brady to Hillsboro demonstrates the town’s unquestioning embrace of Christian fundamentalism and the significance of this trial in such a quiet, rural town. The playwrights convey the townspeople’s lack of sophistication through their dialect and the content of their words. The mountain man Elijah’s illiteracy emphasizes Hillsboro’s lack of progress. The fact that an illiterate man sells Bibles adds a layer of irony, for Elijah believes in and profits from a book he can’t even read himself. Indeed, a significant portion of Hillsboro’s townspeople are illiterate, so Reverend Brown’s authority as an interpreter of Scripture carries extra weight.
Brady, who arrives in a flurry of gluttony and arrogance, betrays the ignorance and fear at the root of his religious fundamentalism. Although Brady professes his disgust at the idea of evolution, he knows next to nothing about Charles Darwin’s work. One of Inherit the Wind’s recurring arguments, which Drummond later makes explicit in his defense of Cates, is that it is unjust to reject ideas without examining them. When Brady hears that Drummond will oppose him in the trial, he and the mayor discuss banning Drummond from Hillsboro as a public health hazard. Though absurd, this suggestion is not all that different from the Hillsboro legislature’s law against instruction in evolution—both show how figures of authority can use their power to spread fear of the unknown among those they govern.
E. K. Hornbeck provides crucial commentary throughout Inherit the Wind. The playwrights use him to transmit their opinions to the audience—a logical choice, for Hornbeck stands in for the real-life journalist and critic H. L. Mencken, whose reporting on the Scopes trial served as a critical source for the playwrights. Hornbeck’s quips also provide comic relief in an otherwise weighty work. Although it often appears, especially early in the play, that Hornbeck’s comments are addressed to no one but himself, he serves as a chorus character for the playwrights’ attitudes toward religion and the events of the trial. Echoing the choruses of ancient Greek drama, Hornbeck’s lines appear in verse form, and his predictions, which initially seem extreme, eventually prove true as the play progresses. His presence accentuates the differences between urban and rural attitudes as he editorializes that the rural South lags behind the rest of the nation in coming to terms with the changing times.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Inherit the Wind!