Hester is abandoned by her mother when she is seven years old. She spends her whole life waiting for her mother to return. Everyone is trying to make her leave the Bog of Cats, but she refuses to do so because she wants to stay there until her mother comes back. Carthage Kilbride abandons their relationship after Hester murders her brother, and goes to marry another woman. After leaving her, Carthage tries to pay Hester off to get her to abandon her home on the Bog of Cats.
Neglect and abandonment are central themes in the play. Many characters lose loved ones, but Hester loses the most throughout the play. Her initial traumatic maternal abandonment gets repeated in the play, as she is abandoned by her lover, and must choose whether or not to abandon the only place she has ever known. In the end, when faced with the potential abandonment of her daughter, Josie, she kills her to make sure that she can control their bond. The play looks at the tragic repercussions of abandonment, and the ways that it can hurt people throughout their lives.
Carthage betrays Hester by leaving her after she has given him money to buy a farm. She feels that he used her and once he had what he wanted, he left her to acquire more money and land by marrying Caroline Cassidy. Hester also feels betrayed by Caroline, because she used to babysit the girl after her mother died. She feels a connection to her and cannot believe that she is marrying Carthage when she knows he has a history with Hester.
Additionally, Joseph Swane is betrayed by Hester when she kills him as an 18-year-old, jealous of his connection to their mother. Real and imagined betrayals occur throughout the play, and contribute to the tragedy of the plot, particularly the tragedies Hester faces.
The people in the community believe that Carthage is only marrying Caroline Cassidy because of her land and money. The two do not seem to have any interests in common, and Caroline questions why Carthage wants to marry her. He does not refute that it is only for monetary gain.
Mrs. Kilbride likes to talk about how much money she has saved. She has her son and new daughter-in-law guess how much her new shoes cost. She gets great enjoyment out of telling them how expensive they are. Mrs. Kilbride also takes money from her granddaughter. Carthage discovers that his mother took Josie’s communion money, but she denies it. Money is more important to her than relationships with her family.
By contrast, Hester is far less concerned with material wealth. In fact, she is irreverent towards the trappings of wealth, turning down the payments that Carthage tries to give her to leave him alone.
Prejudice & Class
Mrs. Kilbride feels that she is better than the others in the community. She looks down upon Hester because she is of the "tinker class." Additionally, she calls her granddaughter a bastard and does not want her to use the Kilbride name. She feels that the name is diminished by association with a Swane. Her son, Carthage, does not like the way his mother treats his daughter and reprimands her when he hears her comments.
Additionally, Xavier Cassidy looks down upon Hester and her mother. Cassidy ran Hester’s mother out of the bogs and tries to get Hester to leave too, seeing them both as loose, lazy women who will amount to nothing. His prejudicial views are mixed with his sexual desire and his desire to objectify and subjugate these women. Thus Marina Carr examines the ways that prejudice and snobbery are also mechanisms of desire, and in particular, a desire for control.
The play starts with Hester carrying the body of a dead swan to bury it. When the Ghost Fancier appears by mistake to Hester Swane, it foreshadows that Hester will die at the end of the day. These are not the only deaths that touch Hester’s life. The ghost of Joseph, Hester’s brother, also makes an appearance to Hester. Hester killed Joseph in a fit of jealousy when she thought of how her mother had another life with Joseph and her father and she was excluded from it. He was only eighteen and does not want to be dead.
Hester is not the only character who is affected by death. James Cassidy was killed by a tragic accident according to his father. According to Hester, Xavier is to blame because the boy died after digging up his dog, which his father poisoned with strychnine. Xavier says he never thinks of his son and calls his wife weak for dying. He says she died out of spite against him, which could mean that she knew of his responsibility for her son’s death and could not accept it.
Hester takes the life of her daughter and then her own life at the end of the play. Her daughter does not want to be separated from her mother, and Hester cannot leave her daughter to have the life of longing for someone who will not return. She sees these deaths as inevitable.
Nature & Magic
The play's eponymous setting, the Bog of Cats, is a unique environment, inhabited by ghosts, supernatural human beings, and animals of all kinds. Hester feels a great pull to the Bog of Cats because of its natural beauty, and is proud to live there. In the opening moments of the play, we see her dragging a dead swan—one to which she was particularly connected—through the snow, leaving blood in its trail. While it is not a central issue or explicit theme within the play, the natural world of the bog acts as a backdrop to the action of the play. It is also connected to the supernatural events of the play. The characters' connection to nature is also what connects them to supernatural acts of magic. The Catwoman is both woman and cat, and her strange connection to the Bog of Cats gives her insight into the future and to the more mystical world of the surrounding area.
Hester's main hangup stems from the fact that her mother abandoned her when she was only seven years old. While she has felt angry at her mother, she mostly just misses her, and spends much of the play entertaining the delusion that her mother will return soon. She romanticizes her mother even though she also knows that her mother was negligent and not a good woman. Additionally, she has a close bond with her own daughter, Josie, and wants to maintain her relationship with her at all costs.
The theme of motherhood also comes up when Caroline and Hester discuss the fact that Caroline lost her mother young and took comfort from spending time with Hester. The two women, in spite of having competing interests, can connect about their feelings towards their mothers, as women.
By the Bog of Cats Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for By the Bog of Cats is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.