Critical Essays A Note on Proverbs


A proverb is a short, concise statement that presents a moral or a truth about human behavior. Proverbs are most often based on experience, common sense, or observation. Proverbs rely on figurative language such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, or rhyme. Consider the following examples:

  • Metaphor: "Don't wash your dirty linen in public."
  • Simile: "Experience is the mother of wisdom."
  • Alliteration: "Rob Peter to pay Paul."
  • Rhyme: "Red sky in morning, sailors take warning."

Proverbs are often written down and can be found in literature. Benjamin Franklin wrote many proverbs and used proverbs from other sources in his Poor Richard's Almanac, and Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote includes proverbs. Probably the most well known written proverbs are found in the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of moral and philosophical sayings. Previously thought to be written entirely by King Solomon, son of David, scholars have determined that the material comes from different periods in the history of ancient Israel.

The Proverbs are teachings, practical guidance for daily living intended to benefit individuals and communities. Because they are meant to be repeated, they are short and easily remembered. They are written as parallelisms, a pattern common in Hebrew poetry, and are usually couplets (two lines), although in some instances, the parallelism can extend to three or more lines. The meaning of the first line may be reinforced or restated by the second line:

How much better to get wisdom than gold,
To choose understanding rather than silver!

Proverbs 16:16

In another pattern, the second line states the opposite of the first line:

He who walks with the wise grows wise,
but a companion of fools suffers harm.

Proverbs 13:20

In a third pattern, the second line completes the thought of the first:

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding
but delights in airing his own opinions.

Proverbs 18:2

The title of Inherit the Wind is taken from Proverbs 11:29:

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:
and the fool shall be servant to the wise in heart.

As such, the title of the play is foreboding. When people create problems within their family, community, or country, they ultimately suffer the consequences of their actions. Through this title, the playwrights alert the audience to the coming conflict.

Lawrence and Lee used Proverb 11:29 in two other instances in the play. In Act II, Scene 1, Reverend Brown gives a fire-and-brimstone sermon at a prayer meeting held on the courthouse lawn. He becomes overzealous in condemning Cates, and when his daughter asks him to stop, he asks for retribution for her also. Brady intervenes because he is concerned he will lose the support of the townspeople. The advice he gives to Reverend Brown is the wisdom of Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, "He that troubleth his own house . . . shall inherit the wind." Brown has caused trouble in his own house by condemning his daughter and will, ultimately, "inherit the wind," when Rachel leaves him.

The second time Lawrence and Lee use Proverb 11:29 is in Act III. Hornbeck comments that when Brady recited Proverb 11:29 to Reverend Brown, he was in fact " . . . delivering his own obituary." Brady "inherited the wind": He died as a result of his actions. He made a mistake believing he was infallible.

The community members cause trouble for themselves because they create a circus-like atmosphere during the trial and in so doing, draw worldwide attention to their narrow-minded views. They "inherited the wind" because, like the townspeople of Dayton after the Scopes trial, their reputation remained that of the stereotypical "ignorant Southern town."