In 1939, playwright Lillian Hellman wrote The Little Foxes, named after a verse in the Song of Solomon from the Bible. It reads, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes" (Song of Solomon 2:15). Foxes, clever little animals, can cause a lot of damage if unsupervised. Hellman compares the main characters in her classic American Drama to devious little foxes who cause irreparable damage. Through an analysis of the literary devices in The Little Foxes, it's clear that the play explores themes of greed, revenge, and capitalism.
Author of The Little Foxes
Lilian Hellman (1905-1984) was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and began writing in the 1930s. She initially wrote novel summaries and collected literature for screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her job there opened many doors to a literary and artistic world. In 1934, Hellman wrote her first drama, The Children's Hour (1934), and quickly gained success. In 1939, Hellman's The Little Foxes premiered on Broadway and became commercially successful and critically acclaimed.
Fig. 1 - In 1939, The Little Foxes debuted on Broadway.
Hellman often wrote plays that tied into the sociopolitical issues of her time. Her dramas were geared towards attacking institutions that promoted the exploitation of lower classes and minority groups, as well as calling out injustices. The Little Foxes in particular calls out capitalism.
In 1941, The Little Foxes was adapted into a screenplay directed by William Wyler and an opera titled Regina in 1949.
Characters in The Little Foxes
To make the summary easier to follow, the characters in The Little Foxes are explained below.
|Regina Hubbard Giddens
|The play's protagonist. Her greatest desire is to be wealthy. She is manipulative and has no problem stabbing her family in the back.
|Regina's brother. He is also greedy.
|Regina's other brother. In addition to being greedy, he is also manipulative.
|Regina's husband. He doesn't share Regina's greedy demeanor. He has a bad heart and is in a wheelchair.
|A businessman from Chicago.
|Oscar's son. He is a bank teller who steals Horace's railroad bonds.
|The Giddens family's Black housekeeper.
Plot Summary of The Little Foxes
William Marshall, a businessman, has just arrived in Alabama from Chicago to make a deal with Horace Giddens. William wants to become a partner with Horace by investing in a cotton mill together. Horace's wife, Regina Giddens, and her two brothers, Benjamin and Oscar, believe the deal should go through as it will mean millions of dollars in profit. Regina's brothers own shares in the cotton mill that Horace currently controls. Regina is also particularly interested in the deal, as she has not been able to inherit any fortune from her father—unlike her two brothers. Instead, Regina has had to make do with Horace's salary.
Horace, however, does not wish to go through with the deal, preferring to keep things as they are. He's also old and weak, so he doesn't feel the need to invest in something he won't live to see the fortune of. Further, Horace feels overwhelmed by Regina and her family, who he sees as scheming and greedy.
Fig. 2 - Regina and her brothers believe the Chicago investment will get them millions of dollars.
Benjamin and Oscar are annoyed at Horace's apprehension to fund the business deal. To solve this problem, Oscar pressures his son Leo to steal Horace's railroad bonds from the bank he works at to fund the cotton mill. Horace finds out about the theft and becomes extremely angry. To punish Regina for her family's scheme rather than tell the authorities, he tells Regina he's changing her inheritance and is leaving her with only $88,000 in the form of bonds in his will.
Regina does not like this and grows even colder than usual toward Horace. During a conversation between the two about Horace's bonds and will, Horace has a heart attack and begs Regina to grab his medicine. Regina merely watches and refuses to help. Horace attempts to grab the medicine himself but falls out of his wheelchair and collapses. After laying Horace in bed, Regina speaks to her brother.
Regina informs her brother she knows about their plot to steal the bonds. She warns him that she is ready and capable of blackmailing them into giving her 75% of the investment profits from the mill if Horace should die. All the brothers would have to do is give her back the bonds. It is not long before Alexandra, daughter of Regina and Horace, comes to tell her mother that Horace is dead. She sees her mother for who she is, greedy and heartless, and abandons her.
Regina is ready and seeks a judge to take her brothers to court over the bonds. The two brothers have a dishonorable reputation, so it would be hard for them to escape the theft accusations. Benjamin eventually folds and decides to return the bonds to Regina.
Once the money is left to Regina, who is now a very wealthy woman, she realizes she is very much alone. Her husband is dead, her daughter is disgusted by her mother's greed, and she has now made an enemy of her brothers. The play ends with Regina all alone.
Analysis of The Little Foxes
The Little Foxes garnered critical acclaim for its writing style. A closer look at The Little Foxes will help readers better understand the text.
The Little Foxes is a drama that belongs to the genre of Social Realism.
Social Realism: a genre of literature that focuses on the sociopolitical context of the working and lower classes living in poor conditions and analyzes the power structures that create these conditions.
The Hubbards represent capitalistic greed during the industrialization of the Southern states. After the Civil War, many wealthy white families were in financial decline—including the Giddens and the Hubbards. This was because, before the Civil War, these families relied on enslaved labor to produce their economically viable crops. The exploitation and cruelty towards Black people allowed wealthy white families to become and remain rich.
However, not much changed after the Civil War. Slavery was illegal, but families like the Hubbards exploited and severely underpaid poor Black Southerners to work in their cotton mill. Hellman's play reveals through the genre of Social Realism the harsh reality many people faced during this period.
Setting and Tone
The Little Foxes is set in post-Civil War Alabama around the year 1900. The Hubbards and the Giddens had been wealthy families before the Civil War. During and after the Reconstruction Era, the two families struggle to maintain their wealth now that they could not rely on slave labor to produce cotton.
The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) was a time of great social and economic change in Southern states after the American Civil War. New questions about citizenship and rights were brought into question as nearly 4 million enslaved people were freed. Other problems cropped up, such as how to integrate the Southern states into the Union and rebuild the economy. Many white upper-class families saw a decline in their wealth and status, while many poor Black Southerners struggled to find work with fair pay while facing cruel injustices and racism.
The Post-Reconstruction Era was when the economy began to stabilize, and new economic ventures were sought after by previously wealthy families. This was also a time in which segregation laws went into place.
The desperation of the families to maintain their wealth and status as the upper class lends itself to the dramatic, serious tone of the play. Dramatic plot points, such as Horace collapsing as he desperately tries to reach his medicine while Regina stands by, enhance the sense that the play is full of emotional intensity. Furthermore, the characters have an air of cold and calculating greed which sheds any sense of human empathy.
Literary Devices and Techniques
There are many literary devices and techniques throughout The Little Foxes. Hellman used literary devices and techniques such as foreshadowing, allusions, and imagery.
Foreshadowing frequently appears in The Little Foxes.
Foreshadowing: a literary technique in which an author provides the reader with hints about events and plot points that will take place later in the story.
Hellman uses foreshadowing to create suspense and dramatic tension, which not only engages the reader but also enhances the play's tone.
An example of foreshadowing from the play can be found in the scene in which Horace has a heart attack but does not die. Hints are given to the reader that Horace won't survive as he struggles to get his medicine and becomes extremely weak. Horace's foreshadowed death is further emphasized by Regina immediately preparing to blackmail her brothers to return the bonds they stole so that Regina's inheritance is restored.
While going through the text, try to find other examples of foreshadowing. Look carefully at the dialogue and moments of increased tension which may indicate the author is leaving a hint about a future plot point.
Endless amounts of allusions to the Bible are found in The Little Foxes. In fact, the title itself is an allusion.
Allusion: a reference to another literary work, a historical event, person, place, symbol, or idea.
Although allusions are found throughout the play, Hellman masterfully uses the play's characters to allude to Biblical figures.
Regina Giddens is an allusion to the biblical character of Queen Jezebel. In the Book of Kings in the Bible, Queen Jezebel is the wife of King Ahab of Israel. Queen Jezebel is characterized as a scheming and manipulative person who convinces many to stray from monotheism in favor of worshiping other gods like Baal and Asherah. Her scheming nature matches Regina.
When Hellman alludes to Biblical characters, she often points out the key characteristic of that character's personality. In the case of Regina, the allusion to Queen Jezebel emphasizes her cold and calculating ways, such as when Regina immediately has plans to blackmail her two brothers for her benefit.
Hellman also uses imagery to emphasize the more dramatic aspects of the play.
Imagery: the use of vivid depictions and figurative language to create an image in the reader's mind.
Imagery is found in the descriptions of the setting and surroundings in The Little Foxes, but it's also used to depict specific aspects of the setting as it relates to the themes.
The staircase in the home of Horace and Regina is an essential image of ascension and downfall. Horace collapses on the stairs while he has a heart attack, and it's also where Regina climbs after winning her wealth. However, whether someone is going up or down the stairs, the baseline emotion attached to the stairs is tragedy. In the case of Horace, it was pain and panic, and in the case of Regina, it was isolation and solitude.
The play is also visual in nature, as it was initially performed in front of an audience. Therefore, written descriptions of the scene may not have as much impact on the reader as they would on an audience member viewing the play in a dimly lit theater.
Themes in The Little Foxes
There are a variety of themes contained within The Little Foxes. The three main themes, which are all interconnected, are familial betrayal, greed, and the aftermath of the Civil War. Money is the main element that motivates each theme in the text. Rather than love and support each other as a family usually does, members of the Hubbard family betray one another to keep a financial opportunity alive. This is directly related to each family member's greed, as they do anything for money.
Throughout the text, there are many examples of familial betrayal, most notably Regina refusing to help Horace when he has a heart attack. Similarly, Regina would rather lose her ties to her brothers and become wealthy when she blackmails them into returning the bonds.
This is directly related to the aftermath of the Civil War, which Hellman points out throughout the text. The pre-War American South relied heavily on the exploitation and cruelties of enslaved labor to create economically beneficial crop markets.
Before the war, the Hubbards had a prosperous cotton mill. After the Civil War, slavery became illegal. The Hubbards, with their inherent greed and drive for money, hired poor Black Southerners to work in their cotton mill. They then cheated them of their pay, finding a loophole to continue their exploitation. The family's corruption is rooted in their drive for more money, leading to betrayal within their family and the cruel exploitation of Black Southerners in need of work.
Quotes in The Little Foxes
The Little Foxes is a complex play that focuses on the historical significance of post-Civil War greed and the corruption of previously prosperous families.
You know what I've always said when people told me we were rich? I said I think you should either be a nigger or a millionaire. In between, like us, what for?" (Act 1)
In this quote, we see the truly distorted mindset of Regina. Regina believes there are only two possibilities in life: one should be rich or poor, with no in-between. Regina was originally one of the lucky ones born into a wealthy family, but that fell short as she was not allowed to inherit her family's money as a woman.
Regina does not realize that wealth will not satisfy her as she grows older. At the end of the play, Regina is given all she ever wanted in terms of wealth — but she is alone. Therefore, the greed that once gave her pleasure isolates her and leads her into misery.
In addition to themes of greed, this quote shows how prevalent racism was at the time. Regina equates being poor with being Black. She does not hesitate to use a derogatory term to describe who is at the other end of the wealthy spectrum. By casually using this racist term, she shows that her family has no problem stepping on anyone to gain wealth.
Yeah, they got mighty well off cheating niggers. Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. (Softly) Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them do it." (Act 3)
In this quote by Addie, Regina and Horace's housekeeper, she alludes to the Bible to emphasize the idea of a social hierarchy. The Hubbards and the Giddens see themselves as superior as they descend from the wealth that originated from exploiting Black workers. Everyone else, such as poor Black Southerners, must do all they can to survive.
The Hubbards and Giddens see themselves as those with the luxury of watching people "eat the earth" while everyone else must do whatever they can to survive. However, from the audience's perspective, the greed of the Hubbards and Giddens references the Biblical locusts that devoured all the crops meant to be eaten by people. It is a symbol of greed.
The Little Foxes - Key Takeaways
- The Little Foxes is a play by the American playwright Lillian Hellman and premiered in 1939.
- The Little Foxes focuses on the greed and ambition of Regina Giddens, who will do all she can to gain as much wealth and power as she can, including blackmailing her brothers.
- The Little Foxes contains many interconnected themes, such as familial betrayal, greed, and the aftermath of the Civil War.
- The Little Foxes is set in Alabama around the year 1900 and examines the social realities of the South after the Civil War.
- Literary devices and techniques such as foreshadowing, allusions, and imagery emphasize the dramatic and serious tone of the play, which ends in personal tragedy.