Inherit the Wind Themes
The danger of a limited perspectiveThe town of Hillsboro is extremely homogenous. The citizens attend the same church, hold the same beliefs, and join together to condemn Bert Cates, a man who dared express an opinion different from theirs. In that sense, a limited perspective is dangerous to others, for anyone who the town deems different or an outsider is at risk for their very freedom. But limited perspective can also hurt oneself. On the witness stand, Brady refuses to give consideration to any of Drummond's questions about the inconsistencies in the Bible, finally saying "I do not think about things...that I do not think about." Brady's inability to consider different perspectives, to simply accept Christianity as it has been presented to him, makes him look ridiculous and results in his humiliation in the trial. It takes outsiders, like Drummond and Hornbeck, who hold different perspectives, to bring to light some of the unconsidered assumptions of the townspeople. The people of Hillsboro, with their limited perspective, are trapped in a world in which others' opinions are paramount. This is why Rachel urges Bert to confess, because the other townspeople all believe him to be wrong. Only when she searches outside of herself, looking for a perspective different from her previous assumptions, does she gain self-confidence and freedom.
The clash between North and South, between urban and ruralThough the script of the play describes Hillsboro only as "a small town," it is without question a small Southern town. The original Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, and the dialects of the characters in the play support a reading of the town as Southern. In this Southern farming town, Drummond from Chicago and Hornbeck from Baltimore are very much outsiders, both as Northerners and city people. Hornbeck's desire to return to the city and Davenport's references to Drummond as "the gentleman from Chicago" indicate the great divide which exists between ways of life in the North and the South, between city and country. Brady, on the other hand, is originally from Nebraska and has preserved his small town roots, despite his government roles. The clash of the big-city Northerners intruding upon the small town and the Southerners desirous to solve their own problems without outsiders is symptomatic of the changing relationship between the country's regions in the twentieth-century. From Esterbrook's radio and the reporters, it is clear that new media will do much to erase the dividing lines between places and prevent the provincialist justice the Hillsboro court seeks.
Intellectualism vs. fundamentalismBrady and the people of Hillsboro are fundamentalists in the religious sense they take the Bible literally, or as Brady says, "everything in the Bible should be accepted, exactly as it's given there." For Brady, then, fundamentalism means not only literal interpretation but also complete acceptance. Questioning the Bible or seeking new interpretations of it, for him, is unthinkable. In that sense, then, fundamentalism is at odds with intellectualism. Brady's fundamentalism means shutting down his mind, forcing himself not to undergo the natural human process of wondering at that which does not make sense. In choosing to interpret or accept the Bible as he does, he chooses not to think. Drummond, on the other hand, promotes intellectualism, finding the human mind sacred and arguing as the freedom of thought as a basic right. His intellectualism does not eschew spirituality by saying Brady looks for God too far away, he admits there may be a God somewhere else, closer by but rather eschews a religious tradition that does not celebrate thinking and questioning. Whereas a fundamentalist system condemns Cates' questions about God as blasphemous, Drummond's intellectual system sees his questioning as part of an ongoing process. This intellectualism, unlike Hornbeck's harsh cynicism, celebrates though for the possibilities it creates for understanding and for life in the world, even at the cost of the safety one feels with an unquestioned faith. It does not condemn religious per se but only the fundamentalist system of thought which does not admit to any perspectives beyond itself.
What is holy?For Brady and for the residents of Hillsboro, including Rev. Brown, the answer is simple and orthodox. That which the Bible says is holy is holy the prophets, the recounted miracles, the book itself. Brady's recitation of the books of the Old Testament at the conclusion of his testimony is an obstinate example of this dogmatic approach to religion. To him, what is holy is a finite body of words and stories. For Drummond, however, the capacity for human thought is holy, more holy than any cathedral or shouted Hosannah's. He sees miracles in the progress of human knowledge, while Brady looks for them too far away and long ago. Drummond's conception of holiness is more of a spirituality than a religion, a belief in the sanctity of human thought rather than canonic writings assembled long ago. When Brady asks Drummond if anything is holy to him, his conception of "holy" means "off-limits," "beyond reproach," "unquestionable." For Drummond, holiness, however, is magnificence. That which is holy should be continually examined rather than locked away from human eyes.
The importance of free thoughtAccording to Drummond, what is on trial in Hillsboro is a man's right to think. In their law against the teaching of evolution, the people of Hillsboro have not only dismissed a scientific theory but have in effect stated that they don't want to even consider and dismiss it for themselves. The judge's refusal to allow any expert testimony about evolution from the defense makes this clear; the people of Hillsboro do not want to even think about evolution. They are afraid of thinking about it, afraid of thinking. Rachel is a prime example of this fear of thought. At the beginning of the play, she does not want to worry about whether Bert's actions were right or wrong; she simply wants him to do what the rest of the town thinks is right. Only by the end, when she reads Darwin and makes the decision on her own to leave her father's house, does she realize the power of thinking. Neither she nor Howard is sure they accept Darwin they need to think more about it thus disproving the town's fear of hearing the unfamiliar and thus being forced to think about it. Only by thinking for herself can Rachel escape the control of her father and create a life for herself. From her, it is clear that free thought is not only important from an intellectual standpoint or because of the First Amendment but because it is necessary and valuable in human life. Without it, as Drummond says, no progress would ever be made not only in technology but emotionally as well.
The inevitability of and need for progressWhen Brady asks his former friend Drummond how he has moved so far away from him, so that they stand apart on an issue of great importance, Drummond replies, "Perhaps it is you who have moved by standing still." Certainly, Brady with his enormous voice and great oratory is suited to an era past, speaking in town squares rather than on the new technology of the radio. Brady's inability to adapt to the radio in the courtroom so much that Esterbrook has to push him bodily in the right direction metaphorically reveals him to be ill-equipped for life in this new era. Drummond, in contrast, recognizes the benefits the increased audience of radio will bring to those like Cates who are ideological "outsiders" in small homogenous towns. But progress here also means progress of thought. Whereas Brady has learned the Bible and accepted it, for Cates thought and understanding of the complex world around is an ongoing process. Drummond makes clear the value of minds like Cates', without which all manner of progress, form the telephone to women's suffrage, has been accomplished. To hold to one position without ever reconsidering or moving forward, as Brady does, is defeatist.
The relationship between self-conception and self-worthIn many ways, and certainly in the way it was publicized, Inherit the Wind is a clash of personalities, of individuals with strong conceptions of themselves and how they are perceived by others. Brady, for example, depends on his role as a "great man" and famous American, organizing photo ops with the mayor and minister as soon as he gets off the train and with a speech prepared for every occasion. Hornbeck, however, relishes his role as a cynic, even when his sympathetic writing about Cates reveals to Rachel that his cynicism is very much an assumed role. Drummond, too, relishes his role as defender of right, taking a case not for the money but for the issues and ideals at stake. In contrast to them is someone like Rachel, who has little conception of her self beyond what others, like her father, tell her, and even Cates, who needs to be reassured that he is doing something good by standing up for what he has taught. Only when she begins to think on her own, arriving at an understanding of herself, can Rachel gain enough self-worth to act autonomously. When the need to accord self-conception with self-worth is unsuccessful, however, the results can be bad. Brady's half-conscious recitation of his never-used Inaugural Address reveals the effect being an also-ran, in effect a perpetual electoral loser, has had on his self-worth. When his conception of himself as the most powerful man in the room begins to crumble when the crowd talks and radio man leaves during his speech Brady's fears about his self-worth are revealed.
The value of multiple perspectivesAt the end of the play, Hornbeck condemns the now-dead Brady for his bigotry and closed-mindedness. Drummond, however, is less quick to dismiss Brady's values and opinions. He alone realizes that the ideal for which he has been fighting free speech and thought requires that all be allowed to express their opinions, however much one might disagree with them. Hornbeck's liberal certainty is in effect as bigoted as Brady's fundamentalist railings. Any person or community that entertains only a single possibility risks discriminating against anyone who disagrees with them. Certainly, the people of Hillsboro's refusal to hear any perspectives on evolution beyond their own is destructive to Cates. But, in a larger sense, Drummond makes clear that all innovation and realization from Copernicus to the telephone comes from someone who has considered different perspectives.
Inherit the Wind Essays and Related Content
- Inherit the Wind: Major Themes
- Inherit the Wind: Questions
- Inherit the Wind: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Jerome Lawrence: Biography
- Robert Lee: Biography
- Inherit the Wind Summary
- About Inherit the Wind
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Act One, Scene I
- Summary and Analysis of Act One, Scene II
- Summary and Analysis of Act Two, Scene I
- Summary and Analysis of Act Two, Scene II
- Summary and Analysis of Act Three, Scene I
- Related Links on Inherit the Wind
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources