Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The two main characters in “Childybawn” live a life that is uncommon in modern Western urban society but one that was not terribly unusual in rural Ireland even in the twentieth century. Although the synergistic relationship between the middle-aged bachelor and his lonely mother appears exaggerated, it illustrates several themes: the interdependence underlying even dysfunctional relationships, the secret vices of apparently upstanding citizens, the consequences of lack of communication in relationships, and the ways in which a change in one person in a relationship forces a change in the other until balance is restored.

Although Mrs. Spillane is appalled by Benjy’s secret relationship with Angela, she is equally dishonest with her son, waiting for him to leave the house in the evenings before she has her shot of brandy, “or if the poor heart was weak, or overexcited, maybe two.” Both Benjy and his mother manage to maintain a comfortable domestic situation, while preserving a secret wild side. Mrs. Spillane’s approach to confrontation with her son is no more direct than the communications of the anonymous letter writer who sets the plot in motion; rather than question him directly about his relationship with Angela, she resorts to sighing, then putting pictures of Saint Monica and Saint Augustine in his room, and finally going behind his back to the bank manager demanding that the young woman in question be fired. When Benjy finds the evidence of his mother’s secret drinking and betting, he is convinced that his own behavior has driven her to such pursuits. Rather than discuss it with her directly, he unexpectedly begins to encourage her habits. She accedes but feigns reluctance, while continuing with her indulgences on an even larger scale when Benjy is out.