Rising Nationalism

Pegeen represents Irish culture in its most hypocritical state. Her love for Christy turning to hatred the second he breaks an unwritten code of conduct is rather remniscient of the Irish peoples treatment of Charles Parnell pleaded with the Irisih people not to throw him to the English wolfs after he was involved in a scandal that would ruin his political career and allows his enemies in London to see the last one him. As Joyce famously said “they did not throw him to the English wolves: they tore him apart themselves.” To Joyce, Parnell’s fall was indicitive of an Irish cultural trope in which an individual is elevated to the point of near idolisation, then savagely brought low again because of some supposed offence. Pegeen is perfectly happy to fall in love with a killer and . Furthermore, she is rather complicit in the creation of his heroic persona, as she eggs him on: “”

Peegen can also be read as a criticism of the romanticised sense of nationalism. She loves Christy despite him being a murderer because she is removed from the act itself and therefore has a disconnected, idealised view of proceedings untarnished by the brutal reality.This is particularly apparent when she remarks “[quite kindly at last.] — I’m after going down and reading the
fearful crimes of Ireland for two weeks or three, and there wasn’t a word of
your murder.” It is incredibly bizzarre to see how her relenting to Christy coincides with the mention that no one has discovered the body of man that he murdered, his own father! There is clearly a link between the act of the murder and the affecttion that Pegeen feels towards him, yet the attributes she associates with the act are completely idealistic and disconnected from the brutality of the act itself, the murder of one’s family member with a loy is not normally the kind of thing one would associate with possessing “such bravery of heart” When Christy ‘kills’ his father the second time and the act is brought, both literally and figuratively, closer to home, Pegeen rejects him and the fantasy that she has created in favour of practical concerns. “but what’s a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.”

Similiarly, Irish nationalism had previously promoted the idea of the idealised south as a rural utopia of Irishness that the nation should return to, precisely because they were disconnected from it. To them it represented an idealic state but their ideas were totally removed from the reality of the situation.

The Widow Quinn is an equally intriguing character, although perhaps a more positive one as she can be seen as representing the desire for change and independance. The defining thing about her is that she has a large deal of financial and practical freedom. Unlike Pegeen, who is subjected to her father’s concerns and constantly embroiled with a man, Quinn is not dependant on anyone else in her life. She flaunts this infront of Pegeen whilst they compete to woo Christy, implying her independance through her ownership of “my little gardens” and “my little houseen, a perch off on the rising hill.”

That isn’t to say that she is in isolation, rather than she can choose whether or not to take a man rather than being compelled to be social and economic pressures. This resembles the hopes of a post devolution Ireland longing to be completely fee of English obtrusion, necessarily following the isolationist policy of Sein Fein but independant enough to exist without the aid of others.

How she acquires this freedom isn’t ever confirmed but its suggesed during the play that she killed her husband “destroyed her man” This initially seems to mark her as a treacherous backstabber who acquired her freedom illegitimately but in the context of seeing these characters as representations on a greater scale, it more likely symbolises the hopes of an independant Ireland, although the death would be the death of English power in England rather than England as a whole. The traditionally oppressed, lesser party has risen up through their guile and freed themselves from the shackles in which they were once bound.

A note of caution here: one must be very careful about overgeneralising any of Synge’s work as purely allegorical. Although this might be a valid reading if you consider the text in isolation, when Playboy of the Western World is read as one of his works, one has to question how deep does the additional meaning lie, do these two female characters really represent grander national themes. I would argue yes, but must stress that in the grand scheme of things, the importance of their physical actions is just as important as their abstract ramifications. The underlying, thematic implications are certainly there within a text but it would be folly to declare ay of Synge’s work to be purely, or even primarily composed of characters illustrating a point.

Despite being written decades apart, there are some definite similarities betweenthe Great Hunger and Playboy of the Western World. They both use women to embody views on nationality, they both use a pair of women to represent juxtaposing viewsand they are both harshly critical of previous Irish nationalist culture. However, Kavanagh’s representations, and their conflictions, are a lot more definite: when he contrasts the oppressive and brutal mother with the young woman and her allure of a better life there is little ambiguity for the reader who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’. Synge is much more nuanced than this and despite the fact that his portrayal probably favours Quinn, she –and therefore the ideal that she represents- is certainly not all good, just as Pegeen is not all bad. Kavanagh had the benefit of foresight when he wrote his poem and was able to judge the two sides after much of the conflict had resolved, which perhaps explains his more polarised views but despite the power of the pity Kavanagh evokes, it is Synge who has argubaly created the greater portrayal. His is one of nuance and subtlety, devoid of black and white he deals only in the murkier depths of grey and with complexity of his palette is perhaps a more accurate portrayal than Kavanagh’s monochrome.

April 18, 2018


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