Mother Courage: The Hole in the Cheese

Joe Masters

Mother Courage contains a quote that pulls the entire play together so innocuously; it's hard to believe that Brecht originally intended it to be so symbolic. Yet, there it is, in scene six, the chaplain rhetorically asks, "What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?" This line operates on the three essential layers of the play: the level of the character, of the playwright (plot), and of the audience.

On "face" value, this line is said about peace. The chaplain believes that the image of peace as the norm and war as an abnormal event is backward. He sees war as the standard occurrence (the cheese) and peace as merely an interim incidence (the holes in the cheese). Thus peace is nothing without a backdrop of war upon it; a hole is only a hole - it contains nothing. The substance of life is war.

But the chaplain's line wouldn't be as significant if it didn't have a more global meaning. In the light of the plot, "What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?" is a question that Mother Courage should ask and apply to herself. Clearly the cheese is Swiss Cheese specifically, and more generally all of her children. Mother Courage only thinks about a certain part of her children - their use to her in her business. She has an odd sort of motherly care for her children; abstractly, she has affection for them, but it's only abstract. The only concrete feelings she expresses toward her children is that they should listen and depend on her; as long as they stay and work with her, she will keep them safe. But she can't understand that their identities are so crucially different than the tiny roles she has given them in her life. She only sees the hole, but her children are real people with real ambitions. Swiss Cheese has such a desire to be honest and useful, but she only sees a simpleton. Kattrin can't voice her feelings, but it's clear that she's a strong woman like her mother, and yet Mother Courage slams her (unintentionally) in every interaction they have. Kattrin is treated like an unwanted wage slave. Mother Courage cannot see the substance of her children, and when it is lost, cannot find what she thought they were because her reality was a hole. Their use to her was a hole framed in substance, and when the substance is lost, the hole is exposed to never have existed. Mother Courage can't understand the deaths of her children (and doesn't accept the death of Eilif) because she never understood her children in the first place.

But finally, this slice of Swiss cheese can be seen as a representation of the eponymous characters: Mother Courage and her children. Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin are all parts of the cheese itself. They each represent parts of emotional humanity. They desire for themselves; they strive to live up to expectations of the people they admire (Eilif: soldiers, Swiss Cheese: his captain, Kattrin: the ideal of her mother's strength). Yet Mother Courage is the hole. She only seems to exist for her children. She can't leave with the Cook because of Kattrin, and is constantly obsessed with her children. This is not to say she's a good mother in this respect - quite the opposite. But it is what holds her character together, this odd caring of her children. Yet when the cheese - the children - are gone, she is nothing, and the play is over. Mother Courage has lost what supports her, and the story vanishes into thin air. We no longer care about Mother Courage, because what supported her personality so fully was her children.

And so the Chaplain provides us with insight into increasingly more complicated layers of the drama that is unfolding. His narrow view of peace in war instead of war in peace; the wider view of Mother Courage's focus, and finally the complete overview of the characters in the play and what motivates and ends the action. What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone? It disappears.