Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The general theme is evident: A woman’s capacity for finding joy and pleasure is destroyed at an early age by an environment in which all relationships are colored by the fear of punishment. This feminist theme takes on a local significance, however, in the Irish peasant setting with its closely knit family and community ties through which the intimidation of dogma and physical violence is transmitted.

The fathers in the story live close to the land, and the grim regime of hard physical work for long hours makes life a matter of joyless endurance. Their closeness to the animals that breed and are bought and sold influences their ways of thinking about sexual relationships and marriage. Taciturn and abusive, the men seem to control relationships by provoking fear and repression. Mothers cater to them, and daughters too, and the prominence of Catholic teaching seems to extend the power of the father into the social arena; the father’s authority seems to have social and divine sanction. What the girls fear most, discovery, is connected with public disgrace and with a fear of final damnation. Sin and guilt are associated with disobedience, and so the girls are led to doubt their own feelings and impulses. Their pleasures and their innocent play are a self-defeating mixture of escape and submission and prayer. When the narrator is held down so that Eily’s sister can pretend to be the doctor about to remove her female parts, the hopelessness and...

(The entire section is 475 words.)