Despite the reader’s comparatively brief acquaintance with the captain, he overshadows all other characters in this novel. Unlike those other characters, his power derives from a concerted application of his will. His children—and Owen notes how deliberately the captain uses the possessive pronoun when speaking of Maeve and her siblings—are literally regimented into submissive obedience. The captain drills and disciplines them with a tyrannical style usually reserved for raw military recruits. His rather obsessive need to behave in this manner is only in part a result of his own military background. In addition, he espouses an unexamined admiration for German methods and attitudes. More important, perhaps, the remarkable consistency of his malevolence is an expression of a philosophical despair which deems moot the value of life itself.
At the other end of the novel’s moral spectrum is the whiskey priest, Doc tor Grierson. His intellectual sophistication and gentle ways have condemned him to the rural backwater of the novel’s principal action. Here he is unable and perhaps unwilling to assert himself. Such passivity, the result, it seems, of his being a victim of an oppressive system (namely, the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church), is not to be judged adversely in the context of this novel’s overall vision. It provides the doctor with a love of nature and of what is natural in man. It enables him to dabble in things of the mind, without...
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