O’Neill, the master playwright, portrays strong, interesting characters with equally strong emotions in his plays. His play, ‘Before Breakfast’, deals with an exasperated woman confronting her husband’s joblessness and infidelity.
This is a short play in the form of a monologue by the woman, Mrs. Rowland. Mrs. Rowland jabbers all through the play expressing desperation, anger, agony, and sheer disgust at her husband, Alfred’s penniless nature. Her full-throttled criticisation of Alfred’s ways leads to the denouement of the play—Alfred’s suicide. Character analysis of Mrs.
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Rowland The description of Mrs. Rowland’s small house in the beginning of the play portrays poverty. Mrs. Rowland wakes up tired and bitter. Her irritation is so intense that she goes to the extent of damning her apron whose strings refuse to oblige her in knotting up. In fact, the very first word that Mrs. Rowland speaks in the novel is “Damn”. It is from here that her character builds up. It was a fine day, “It is about eight-thirty in the morning of a fine, sunshiny day in the early fall,” but ironically did not seem to have any effect on Mrs. Rowland’s temper.
Her demeanor is not at all pleasing, her hair is stuck up in a “drab colored mass”, her “shapeless stoutness accentuated by her formless blue dress” which is also “shabby and worn” speak volumes about her. This is hardly expected of a young woman in her early twenties. Even as her ranting of Alfred begins, we understand that she is definitely not the timid type of woman. She rebukes him in the most unrestrained manner. She had been working not just for one, but for both the people in the family. She had been contributing to the family in whatever small means she can.
While he had been whiling away his time in poetry and in ‘playing the gentleman and loafing around barrooms with that good-for-nothing lot of artists from the Square’, she had been working very hard. Even as Mrs. Rowland does regular household work like sweeping and cleaning, she doesn’t fail to rebuke him for dropping cigarette butts and ashes all over the floor. Her attitude borders on feminism advocating her opinion on the ground of equality of sexes. Why she only borders on feminism is because she does the job and doesn’t necessarily hand him over the broom to sweep the floor.
This point is further accentuated when she tells him that she was making coffee for both. Yet to show her protest in some manner, she tells him that she wasn’t going to wait for him. Mrs. Rowland’s frustration towards his lackadaisical manner is so severe that she complains loudly of everything he does. Is she taking advantage of Alfred’s silence? She only seems capable of complaining, without having any effect on Alfred’s attitude or manner. Mrs. Rowland had developed a profound hatred towards her husband. She suspects him of infidelity and hence stealthily searches his pockets for some kind of evidence.
She pockets the letter from one ‘Helen’ addressed to her husband to later on pick a quarrel with him on that. She vociferously defends this act of hers by telling Alfred that she was his wife and hence had every right to read his letters. While she constantly voices her rights as an equal, the lines, “How about Helen? (She starts back from the doorway, half frightened)” show that she isn’t such a bold woman as she projects herself to be. Mrs. Rowland shows utmost contempt for her husband. She calls him a fool to have pawned the watch, calls him lazy to stay in bed all the time, and calls him incapable of getting a job for himself.
She tells him that all he does is write “silly” poetries and short stories all day which “no one will buy”. She is quite proud of her capabilities when she says that, “I notice I can always get a position, such as it is; and it's only that which keeps us from starving to death. ” Well, well, is this what is ‘woman power’? It makes us wonder if Alfred were to respond to any of her remarks or if he were to shout back at her for being so loud, will she have continued in this manner? She would have, since she refers to the fight that they have had the previous night where Alfred made a “beast” of himself.
She simply cannot forgive him for pawning things for survival. The last precious thing that they had was the watch, which too seems to have been pawned for a drink. Mrs. Rowland’s bitterness and disappointment is sometimes justified since Mr. Rowland was actually “the millionaire Rowland's only son, the Harvard graduate, the poet, the catch of the town”. Her position as his wife should actually had been an enviable one. By being an alcoholic and by possessing an unwilling attitude to work, he became a penniless wastrel. He had impregnated and married her before their child was stillborn.
Added on to her feeling of betrayal is his infidelity. Mrs. Rowland is unperturbed by her husband’s stern and severe looks. She carries on and tells him that he cannot bully her with his “superior airs”. She reminds him that but for her he would be going without breakfast in the morning. She tries to win his pity when she speaks of her headache and the deplorable condition in which has to sew to earn their bread. She tries all possible means to provoke his pity and to make him seek a job. The rent for the house was due and there was nothing left for lunch.
She doesn’t mince words in asking him to look out for a job: “Are you going to look for a job today or aren't you? ” Despite all her bickering, when she sees blood in Mr. Rowland’s face the first time, she asks him to wipe the blood off his face and tells him to go to a barber’s shop for a shave since she found his hands shaking heavily. This shows her concern for Alfred. She even warns him that one of these days he was going to cut himself seriously. But she is too preoccupied with her own taunts that she doesn’t catch the seriousness of the situation that ends in such a great tragedy.
All through the play Alfred never makes an appearance. It is only through the eyes of Mrs. Rowland that we get to know the person. The plot, the action, the conflict all revolve around her. The plot brings out the strong conflict which Mrs. Rowland is confronted with. Though she complains a lot and beseeches Mr. Rowland to be more responsible, she takes things in her stride and carries on with her daily chores. The play strongly evokes emotions of pity and horror. All her calls of Alfred contributing to the family in some manner or the other seem to fall in deaf ears.
In referring to Mr. Rowland’s affair with Helen, Mrs. Rowland threatens him telling that she would never divorce him. She gets vindictive for all the injuries that he inflicted on her. She understands her rights as a woman very well. She knows that unless she agrees to the divorce, it can never happen. And, unless they divorce, he can never dream of marrying another woman. Conclusion Alfred is a sensitive man who commits suicide on being discovered by his wife about his extramarital affair. Comparatively Mrs. Rowland bears it all with much forbearing.
Life had been much more difficult on her. She was the daughter of a mere grocer, she had become pregnant even before she could be married, despite marrying a man with some wealth to name she had to put up with poverty. In a way, it can be said that her strength of forbearance comes from her simple background. On the other hand, Mr. Rowland had been the only son of a millionaire father. Yet, when his father died, he should have been mortified to find that all that he was left with was a large amount of debt to be repaid. His faith should have been shaken with this.
He had been personally proud of his position in society. As Mrs. Rowland once comments, “You were ashamed of me with your fine friends because my father's only a grocer, that's what you were. ” Yet he had to marry her because of the slight he committed on her before their marriage. Mrs. Rowland never hesitates to fight for her rights. Within the portals of family life and considering her limitations, she voices her opinions and demands. This gives her the identity of a feminist. Her feminism raised its head mainly due to Mr. Rowland’s inability to provide her with the ba
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