Mother/Courage: Examining the Dialectic of Anna Fierling in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children

Banner for a production of Mother Courage.

Banner for a production of Mother Courage.

Bertolt Brecht, inspired by the German-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939, swiftly wrote the first iteration of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, known in English as Mother Courage and her children. Brecht in his journal relates, “the fact that the russo-german pact makes the air clearer. what we have is a war between imperialist states. we have germany as the aggressor and warmonger. we have aggressive capitalism against defensive capitalism. the central powers need the war for conquest, the western powers need it to defend their conquests. there is enough barbarism to maintain a barbaric situation.” Mother Courage follows Anna Fierling, a merchant known by the nick-name of Mother Courage, as she profiteers from war to support her two sons—Eilif and Swiss Cheese—and her daughter—Kattrin. And, although the play was inspired by the pact between Stalin and Hitler during WWII, the play itself takes place during the Thirty Years War—a war between the Catholics and the Protestants. The play was originally written in German, and since then, there has been several definitive translations into English, however, for this analysis, the 2006 translation by Tony Kushner will be used.

This paper examines the dialectical construction of the figure of Anna Fierling as both a Mother and a Courageous Capitalist. I argue that both Mother and Courage keep each other in balance in order to necessitate alienation in the reader/potential spectator. The sense of unsettlement is necessary if the spectator is to run off and take action.

The figure of Mother Courage is a walking, talking, contradiction—at times—but at other times she appears to be firmly rooted in reality. She is a remarkably three dimensional figure, despite being a tool of political allegory. Hungarian Communist activist, György Lukács, notes this by saying, “Where Brecht’s characters had once been spokesmen for political points of view, they are now multidimensional. They are living human beings, wrestling with conscience and the world around them…Alienation-effect ceases to be the instrument of an artificial, abstract didacticism…”  She exists on a plane of constant turmoil and upheaval, and well at the bottom of the social ladder. At one point her and her daughter are referred to as gypsies. This isn’t surprising, as they are constantly on the move seeking the next big payout by a disheveled tattered army seeking some warm food, drink, or dry stockings to comfort their swollen feet. But, despite the name that Brecht gives his character—Anna Fierling—he quickly usurps it for a digestible nickname—Mother Courage. However, the deeper one delves into the story, it is clear that Mother Courage is more than just a mere nickname, but a signaling of sorts into the depths of her figure. In fact, Mother/Courage, when closely explored, present a dialectic within her figure. On one side you have a Mother and on the other a Courageous Capitalist. This dialectic has further layers that are important to note as well—Family vs. War, Choice vs. Necessity, Profit vs. Loss, Good Businesswoman vs. Good Mother—all of the layers exist to balance the figure of Anna Fierling, while at the same time leaving the potential Spectator unsettled. This is important. In his book, Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society: Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature: Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Brecht, Douglass Robinson explains, “What [Brecht] hopes most to accomplish is the liberation through Schlegelian irony of the worker-spectator-producer’s intelligence from the ‘self-evident’ thinking of capitalist alienation, so that the worker-etc. him/herself will go off and do the important Marxist work of rethinking and reshaping the ‘established’ or ‘given’ reality of capitalism.” Throughout the journey, the duality (Mother/Courage) is explored and judged. Are they compatible? Can they exist harmoniously within her like a yin-yang? Or, will they constantly undercut each other and ultimately cause a retrogression leaving her worse off—emotional, physical or mental—in the end?


Anna Fierling the Mother

In order for the spectator to observe the dialectic of Mother/Courage, Brecht constructs a binary whereby the paternal force of war and the maternal force of family must cohabit the same space. This is done so that the spectator will see through Mother Courage and discover their own socio-economic situation—their own false consciousness—become self-critical and seek change. However, in order for the spectator to be able to do this they must not identify with Mother Courage, and this is done through dialectical binaries, particularly Family vs. War and Choice vs. Necessity. 

Fierling and her families survival within this world rests on her ability to navigate a primarily Male dominated and Male conceived world, as the wars are waged between kings. Nevertheless, Fierling must persevere lest her and her family would perish. Both of these constructs establish the binaries. The war exists, her family exists. She has the choice to pursue the business of war to provide for her family (no one is holding a gun to her—or her children’s—heads and making her be a merchant) however if she doesn’t her family will starve, thus it essentially becomes a necessity. When we first meet Fierling, in Scene 1, she is on the move with her two sons—Swiss Cheese and Eilif—and her mute daughter—Kattrin. They are following the nearest army, and although they are stopped by a Recruiter and a Sergeant who ask them where they are headed, immediately by her song we are given a glimpse of that motherly side. “To feed a war you have to pillage, but let your soldiers rest a bit: For what they need is Mother Courage, with woolen coats and boots that fit!” Fierling is advertising her product, and hoping to draw in a buyer. This is an example where the maternal/paternal instinct meet and contradict each other. On one side, the mother cares and wants to clothe the soldiers, and on the other side the bread winning father wants to line its coffer.

The scene progresses and the Sergeant makes an aggressive comment towards her, “What I want is, your license to sell. You want my boot up your ass?” She snaps back with, “Excuse me but you may not discuss my ass in front of my children, that’s disgusting. And my Ass is not for you.” An unusual response when being asked for her license, nevertheless, Brecht gives his character strength (challenging an armed a sergeant over her papers in a time of war), this is undeniable. And as a Single mother—we soon find out—strength is important for her survival. Fierling chooses to chastise the soldier over an aggressive comment by essentially using her children as a shield and pretending the demand for her papers was a sexual advance. Her children aren’t children any more, yet in her mind to some extent they still are. This perception of her children is a strong symbolic characteristic of her motherhood. Furthermore, when her son, Eilif,  admits his desire to attack the Recruiter for insulting him and his brother she tells Eilif, “Can you stay where you are and keep quiet, please?” Fierling believes this encounter between her, the Mother and the Father and the Army Recruiter is her battle, not her children’s. This is yet another example of Family vs. War and Choice vs. Necessity—a binary whereby she brought her family in to the middle of danger of by seeking out war.

When soldiers finally are able to present what they want from Fierling—her able-bodied sons—but she will have none of it, “Drop it, Sergeant, my kids aren’t suited for war work.” Fierling believes her business will be a family business—little does she know that the decisions she made by profiteering off of war will battle her desire to be a good mother too. Between the examples of motherhood throughout the play (lying to protect her children, manipulation, and even drawing a knife and threatening physical harm to a soldier) and the  Family vs. War and Choice vs. Necessity binaries it is apparent that Fierling lives up to the epithet she embraces—Mother. 


Courageous Anna Fierling

Brecht continues his constructions of binaries that make up Courage as well, furthering to alienate the potential spectator. He draws up the binaries of Courage as  Profit vs. Loss, Good Businesswoman vs. Good Mother. Courage, in the eyes of Brecht, isn’t a compliment. Brecht famously explained his thoughts on Courage by saying, “Parachutists are dropped like bombs, and bombs do not need courage. the thing that would take courage would be to refuse to climb into the plane in the first place.” Brecht had no admiration of Courage, and Courage, as we understand in the play is represented mostly through trade. Famously, in the first scene when Anna Fierling is asked why she is nicknamed “Mother Courage” she explains by saying, “They call me Courage because I was scared of financial ruin, sergeant, so I drove my wagon straight through the cannon fire at Riga, with fifty loaves of bread turning mouldy — I didn’t see that I had a choice.” Courage is a symbol of striving for success—an attainment of capital (business and/or profit)—despite the all odds, and Brecht, throughout the play, intends to make this clear. This also is an example of the Mother binaries playing out in her consciousness—Choice vs. Necessity and War vs. Family—she didn’t see that she had a choice, to her it was necessary, to not act would be to harm her family, but to act would be to bring her family directly into harm’s way. The binary of Good Businesswoman vs. Good Mother and Profit vs. Loss also exist in this situation. She would not have been a good businesswoman if she let go an opportunity to do business (a loss of profit), nor would she be a good mother (not providing for her family). But, putting herself in danger also isn’t good motherly instinct, for if she were harmed, who would take care of her children. But, standing idly by and letting this business venture slip away would not be conducive to business, and would have been a loss of profit which would have also meant no bread to bring home to her family, and thus a poor motherly choice too. This is the crucial moment for Anna Fierling that established her as Mother Courage.  

Throughout the first scene, examples of her courage can be found in many places.  When she is asked what she is doing in Sweden she responds, “There’s no war in Bamberg is there? Was I supposed to wait?” Even at times when she appears to be acting motherly and just trying to protect her children, the ulterior motive—to keep her unpaid labor force (her children) to her self—shines through. For example, when the Recruiter really starts to put the pressure on her to give up one of her sons to the war effort, she responds, “He is [chicken]. Look at him cross-eyed, he’ll faint.” And then, “He’s mine not yours,” this blurring of lines between love and capitalism. It is hard to tell where the love of capital begins and the love of her family (maternal love) ends.  This is the world in which the figure of Mother/Courage exists. Does she love her family, or does she love capital more? At first, the latter over the former, but as the play progresses this becomes less and less clear. By the end of scene one, Fierling becomes distracted by sales of belt buckles and does not realize her son Eilif is being tempted away by the Recruiter, and when she finally comes to realize this it is too late—the first of her children to go. The play progresses and eventually both of her sons are drawn into the war effort, but she drudges forward. Even by the end of the play when all of her children are dead, she continues on, now in a sort of extreme retrogression, “Hopefully I’ll manage to pull the wagon alone. I bet I can do it, not much in it anymore. I have to get back in business.”  


Mother/Courage Dialectic

There are two distinct agendas vying for power within Anna Fierling “Mother” (being composed of the binaries: Choice vs. Necessity and War vs. Family) and “Courage” (Being composed of the binaries: Good Businesswoman vs. Good Mother and Profit vs. Loss) , thus adequately prompting the nickname “Mother Courage.” But are they compatible? Can they survive within her? Evidently, yes, and at times even the binaries shift between the sides of the dialectic, but the price, as the play unfolds, is steep. Ultimately Mother Courage, for trying to be both a Mother and a Courageous Capitalist looses all of her children. Is it worth engaging in war for merely capital gain? Perhaps, but if in the end everything she loved is lost is it still worth it? To Mother Courage in the end, her social and economic class tragedy is that although she may recognize her role as a cog in the capitalistic machine, she knows nothing else, is incapable of escaping it, and is doomed to drudge onward. 

Mother Courage exists within a very powerful dilemma. On one hand, she feels the need to take care of her children. One being slow (Swiss Cheese) and the other being mute (Katrin). However the fathers are not in the picture, and therefore, no bread winner, so Courage must step up and cover both the traditionally Feminine duties of the family (nurture, maintain the shelter, etc.)  as well as traditionally masculine duties too (Provide shelter, provide food, protect, etc.). Perhaps, if she sought out a less dangerous job, her children might be alive by the end of the play, but they equally might not either. Her children might have very well been enlisted to fight in the war. Kattrin was sexualy assaulted despite Courages job. “The only History I know, is today is the day they hit my daughter in the eye,” explains Courage to the Chaplin in Scene Six, “…she’s mute because of the war, that too, when she was little a soldier stuffed something in her mouth.”  Nevertheless, Courages courageous spirit to seek out capital as a byproduct of war—while utilizing her children as an unpaid labor force, is the other half of the dilemma. Certainly, the two benefit each other—capital is needed to raise a family, and a family can help raise capital—but in its application within Mother Courages reality is devastating. And by the end of the play Mother Courage’s audacity has all but evaporated leaving her bear her own burden—the harness of the wagon—until she finally joins her children in the afterlife.


Final Thoughts

Mother Courage is a complex, strong and powerful character, but also a “picture of the world” (an innovation of Epic Theatre as described by Brecht). One wrought in capitalism, greed and selfishness. Her desire to pursue capital came at the expense of her children's lives. Brecht is allegorically trying to warn the viewer to be weary of seeking out conflict as pursuit of capital, and the inherent dangers that come with it. But, ultimately, the incredibly powerful portrait of Anna Fierling as Mother Courage, and the dialectic she embodies forces the spectator to reckon with the challenging experiences she endures. By the end of the play, the balance of the dialectic—Mother/Courage—is unresolved, thus leaving the reader/potential spectator unsettled. Neither side wins. She looses her family, and her position in economic lot in life is no better off than it was in the beginning. Arguably, she is worse off than she was in the beginning with no unpaid labor to assist her. In some ways Mother Courage is a warning sign, but in others it is an elaborate painting of the pain and suffering that the working classes experience vying to provide for their kindred within a topsy turvy world of battling Bourgeoise. 




  • Mother Courage and Her Children, was commissioned by Public Theatre, New York (Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director), and first presented in 21 August 2006 at Public’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. It was directed by George C. Wolfe, with a score by Jeanine Tesori. It stared Meryl Streep as Mother Courage, and was Translated from its original German by Tony Kushner.

  • Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism

  • Robbins, Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society: Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature: Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Brecht

  • Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre”

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This essay was originally written for Dr. Hana Worthen's Brecht Seminar at Columbia University in the Barnard Theatre Department Fall 2016.