Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The interest in matters mystical, and in their relation to destruction, derangement, or apocalypse is a strong element in William Butler Yeats’s poetry, early and late. Owen Aherne, protagonist of “The Tables of the Law,” is an important speaker in poems central to the Yeats canon, as well as playing a prominent part in A Vision (1925, 1937), the poet’s prose summary of his own mystical divinations. The story’s emphasis falls on the protagonist’s daring, longing, loneliness, and ultimate desolation. The elapse of ten years between the close of the first part of the story and the opening of the second underlines a preoccupation with initiation and aftermath, with longing and its consequences. It also suggests that Aherne’s experience will forever remain a mystery. It necessarily remains beyond the realm of collective and typical experience. The remoteness of Aherne’s spiritual adventures is accentuated by the obvious psychological distance between him and the narrator during their second encounter. Reappearing in the second half of the story as a haunted, and haunting, travesty of his original ambitions, Aherne is less a neo-Mosaic legislator than an alarming caution against spiritual overreaching.

The quest for and desire to codify a new spiritual dispensation is a lofty goal, appropriately reserved for Aherne, “the supreme type of our race.” However, for all of his learning, intensity, and commitment, he cannot escape his human limitations. His shockingly misguided but strangely exultant efforts to do so leave him the prisoner of an unending tragic dream, a hell of his own making.

The sense of ardent pursuit, the conception of an extreme, the possibility of swift, temporary uplift followed rapidly by a...

(The entire section is 719 words.)