Symbolism in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House

Heartbreak House is one of the plays that departs from many theatrical conventions of drama. A very thin plot, long-rich dialogue, and dream-like, or even nightmare moods, are the prominent features of Shaw’s play. While many of the plays of this type seem to be random and meaningless on the surface, an underlying structure and symbolic meanings are usually found in the midst of the chaos.

The play is set in a country house “full of surprises” owned and ruled by the aged Shotover, the Captain of the ship. He is a drunken man who is responsible figuratively of running the whole ship; the thing that requires him “the seventh degree of concentration”. The house and its attendants are best described in Lady Utterword’s words:

the luggage lying on the steps, the servants spoilt and impossible, nobody at home to receive anybody, no regular meals, nobody ever hungry because they are always gnawing bread and butter or munching apples, and, what is worse, the same disorder in ideas, in talk, in feeling.(I. 43)

So this muddling situation, lack of arrangement, and disorder of thoughts in the house is an attempt to portray the entire society of England at Shaw’s time. The attendants of the house stand for what Shaw states in his preface, “cultured, leisured Europe before the war”. He sets the play not in the plutocrats and government ministers, but among “more advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people.” Such world of “very charming people” denotes the world of corrupted or useless politicians and people in charge. The vivid description of the setting and its inhabitants proves that the Heartbreak House is in fact exists.

The plot of the play is very simple as there is none at all. The actions of the play are “tied together as much by common associations as by a string f plot, and they seem to develop more by accretion than by logic”(Berst 255) The play starts and ends symbolically with Ellie. Ellie admits her love for Hector to reject it later, and then she announces her marriage to the capitalist Mangan, and rejects that too. She gives up the prospect of romance and money in the long run. So in one point, Ellie discovers that all the beliefs on which she builds her principles, and the ways she understands the world should be altered or at least modified. She needs to take an action, to stop more loses. This continuous development in Ellie’s apprehension of the world denotes continual quest for better chances of living. The World War changed almost everything, and Shaw never waves in his beliefs that the world can and should change.

As actions are reduced to a minimal level, the majority of space is given to characters’ discussions. Throughout the play, many solutions are given to solve the mass around, for instance, the ideal solution for England’s problem according to Lady Utterword is to:

Get rid of your ridiculous sham democracy; and give Hastings

the necessary powers, and a good supply of bamboo to bring the British

native to his senses: he will save the country with the greatest ease.(III.120)

Her opinion is to be negated by Captain Shotover stating: “Any fool can govern with a stick in his hand. I could govern that way. It is not God’s way”. And the discussion goes on between suggestions and rejections till they agree on “navigation” as the sole means to keep the house and its people. Their long discussions symbolize their quest for a form of power. Interestingly, every word in the play concerning the art of seamanship denotes the art of political management as the pun in most of the characters’ names. All the characters are joined in useless discussions till they wake up with the opening of the war and it becomes clear that it is too late to find the right navigator. The danger of war is referred to throughout the play as the shipwreck. This is one of the symbols insistent from the opening of the play. Heartbreak House becomes ultimately a dangerous place to live in since the ultimate scene of action goes like this:

The captain is in his bunk, drinking bottled ditch-water; and the

crew is gambling in the forecastle. She will strike and sink

and split. (III.129-30)

In this complex situation, comes the marriage of Ellie as a new sign of hope in one hand. In the final act of the play, Ellie announces her spiritual marriage to the Captain; a marriage that is described as: “a combination of youth and wisdom”. Such a marriage, in such situation symbolizes in different ways as a new world coming with new set of values. Yet, doesn’t that marriage exist “in heaven, where all true marriages are made”? This is the fact that shatters the possibility of achieving such a dream of a new world in earth. Therefore, this marriage can be perceived in two very different ways: a fruitful union or a sterile one.

Towards the end of the play, the images of light and darkness are employed in intensive way to add a symbolic significance and vividness to the events depicted. In one moonless night, the characters witness the bombing of the Church, this very incident overshadows the coming breakdown, chaos, and darkness. Besides, in the scene of the burglar’s intrusion, the darkness becomes more obvious since it is a factual action. Shaw comments on that in his preface saying:

The burglar in Heartbreak House, who makes his living by robbing people, and then threatening to put them to the expensive and discomfort of attending his trail…is not a joke: he is a comic dramatization of a process that is going every day” (Smith 427)

This scene many consider it as a farcical one, but Shaw’s words show the dark side of the story. Yet, this darkness is replaced with light for Ellie is capable of ‘radiating’ even in the darkest places with her overflowing ambitions and will to change. She symbolizes the new generation with her overflowing ambitions and eagerness to change and to dim the light. Shotover expresses that literally:

I see you, the younger generation, turning from their

romance and sentiment and snobbery to money and comfort

and hard common sense (II.106)

She ends “greater than happiness”, and therefore she represents the new world, and the fresh start that everyone aims at. At the same time, the two deaths at the end of the play symbolizes the final explosion of the false values. Still, if the reader or the spectator remembers that he leaves just when the war starts, that would arouse bunch of questions in mind: What would we expect at last? A triumph or a defeat? If they win, is this a hope? And if they are defeated, is it really a loose? Is there a hope of winning or is it merely a hopeless play?


Berst, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1973.

Smith, Warren S. Ed. Bernard Shaw’s Plays. London: Norton Co, 1983.

Shaw, Bernard. Heartbreak House. London: Penguin Books, 1976.

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