Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is in the light of Brendan as at once the least assured and most courageous of the novel’s characters that his voyages are to be perceived. They are presented not as remarkable feats of navigation but as practical manifestations of the mystery of faith. On his first voyage, Brendan deems it as reasonable to be guided by the seabirds as to take commonsensical navigational decisions. His second voyage in search of the Other World is even more obviously a test of faith. More important, however, it is a provocative resolution of the test, offering a sense of reward that it is impossible to translate back into the struggle of the mortal lot.

The spectacular validation of Brendan’s commitment that the discovery of Tír-na-Nog provides comes in forms that parody the solemnity that matters of holiness usually generate. Brendan reaches an eschatological epiphany—only to find it to be a combination of a zoo, a circus, and a paradise along the lines depicted by Paul Gauguin in his paintings of Tahiti. This discovery is not something Brendan can understand. The reader sees what Brendan himself finds difficult: that it is the journey and not the arrival that matters. The extent to which Brendan remains blind to this truism suggests that part of the author’s intention is to portray his protagonist as a version of that traditional archetype of unworldliness, the Holy Fool.

Brendan’s lack of conceptual awareness of the questing spirit within him...

(The entire section is 511 words.)