Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Ginger Man is based on the fable of the Gingerbread Man who escapes all of his pursuers only to be eaten by a fox that he foolishly trusts. Sebastian Dangerfield intends to suffer no such fate. He is not so much pursuing life as fleeing death; he is unwilling to commit himself irrevocably to anyone or anything for fear of being devoured. He lovingly recalls past experiences because of their distance from ever-approaching death.

Sebastian’s antisocial behavior reflects his association of conventional standards of conduct with a living death. His sins are excusable to him since they are signs of living, of the fight against death: “I never know when they’re going to get me . . . when I risk getting my arse caught on a spike, get chased and beaten up, I’ve got to do the best I can. . . . I’m not a bad person.” His life will continue to be one fresh start after another because without such beginnings “I’ll die with a case of death.” Sebastian is so obsessed by death that he even worries about what will happen afterward, about the possibility of becoming a medical-school cadaver. His preferred aftermath is a type of limited immortality on his own terms: “I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin. I wonder would they know it was me?”

Sebastian sees death as “an obstacle to overcome till the good ripe years of lust, gluttony and sloth.” Death has to be battled during...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

The Ginger Man Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the picaresque tradition, this novel projects an anarchic view of the world. Sebastian sees Ireland from the outside and shows no understanding of or sympathy for the values which give Irish life its meaning. His response to this nihilistic perception is withdrawal into cynical, uncompromising selfishness, and maniacal laughter and sadism. Yet the dash and imaginative frenzy of the protagonist and the sheer exuberance of the narrative style buoy up an essentially dismal view of the human condition.

Sebastian takes nothing seriously. He is a man of impulse, ready to seize on any immediate opportunity. Like him, the plot is made up of occasions for quick, cynical, superior laughs at the expense of the dull, earnest natives. The conclusion of the plot, with Dangerfield’s undeserved inheritance, is similarly arbitrary. In a world without meaning, things can turn out for the best just as easily as the opposite.

Beneath all the high jinks, evasion, and good fortune, however, lie a number of dark-veined motifs: Dangerfield is constantly haunted by fears of madness and death. While he flails at the pious hopes of his Irish acquaintances with bawdy and blasphemous invocations, he is constantly pursued by feelings that he is himself sinking into a hopeless chaos. His only positive response comes in flashes of wit or verse, his poor attempt to emulate the aristocrat, whose position he feels is his rightful inheritance, one which would insulate him from the discomforts and obligations of ordinary life.

The Ginger Man Themes

Although The Ginger Man ultimately subverts its intention to satirize bourgeois values and aspirations, it creates a compelling...

(The entire section is 744 words.)