Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Tables of the Law” is much more obviously sustained by the sonorities of its style than it is by the accessibility of its ideas or the cogency of its plot. The story’s rather elaborate prose is as inimitably part of Yeats’s schooling by the leading stylists of the day, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, as anything else in this typical period piece. Yeats’s protracted sentences, the rhetorical flair of Aherne’s monologues, the pervasive sense of distracted brooding—all are the fruits of the fundamentally overripe, dandified prose of the author’s stylistic mentors.

However, style in the story is not merely a matter of language: The language’s florid effects also influence other aspects of the material’s presentation. Gesture, large and small, and invariably mannered, is a case in point. Aherne is a character of large gestures (all of them expressing repudiation and the usurpation of tradition), intended for dramatic effect and, ultimately, to influence public events. His presence, and particularly his conversation, has a theatrical aura—understandably, perhaps, given Yeats’s growing interest in the theater and in its techniques of narration, which date roughly from the story’s year of publication. Additional theatrical features are especially prominent in the first part of “The Tables of the Law”—the ritualized meal, the ceremonious initiation of the narrator into the secret history of Joachim, Aherne’s declaration of heretical faith.

The story cunningly and critically contrasts this careful (perhaps too careful) orchestration of gestural effects in the opening section with the at once fugitive and overblown effects of part 2. Here, none of the evidently stabilizing factors of a familiar civilization (located by Yeats, typically, in the Aherne family home) is at work. On the contrary, the reader witnesses the ruins of thought’s edifice, an apocalypse rendered primarily in fastidious and exalted prose. The witnessing, however, consists of monitoring the story’s emotional atmosphere and registering the seismic shocks of Aherne’s spiritual experiences. These attain imaginative plausibility as a result of the story’s style and technique, its language and use of image and symbol.