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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Inherit the Wind!