Two themes dominate James Hanley’s writings. The first concerns humans at sea in ships. Hanley explored, in each succeeding novel, the strange love-hate relationship that men and women have with the sea. The sea, with its violence and tranquillity, its many mysteries and its hypnotic powers over those who live and die by it, is orchestrated by him and becomes “the central experience of his novels.” Hanley views the sea from the sailors’ viewpoint, unlike Joseph Conrad, who sees the ship from the vantage point of an officer.
Hanley’s second theme—often interrelated with the first—concerns men and women imprisoned in the web of poverty from which they have no desire to escape. They have created a world of deprivation for themselves and are terrified to come out of their self-imprisonment; within this confinement, they revolve and eke out their livelihood. Their despair leads them to weave private dreams, and their reluctance to realize their dreams returns them to despair. His characters, for the most part, are marginal people, the remnants of society, the debris of human life: outcasts, hobos, loners, strangers, broken men, women, and children. Hanley is their compassionate chronicler as he conducts a complex investigation into their lives and discovers poetry and drama in their bleak existence. With deep social concern, Hanley reveals how very much these marginal people matter: “the more insignificant a person is in this whirlpool of...
(The entire section is 3030 words.)
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