Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Early in The Captain with the Whiskers, Captain Chesney presents Owen with a “conundrum” (whose source, it is alleged, is Doctor Grierson): “Is it better to be born and damned than not to be born at all?” It is a mark of Owen’s maturity that, toward the close of the novel, he is able to provide his own answer to this haunting, taunting riddle, and that the answer emerges in a sexual context. It is an expression of this novel’s deceptive range, however, that such a question denotes merely one aspect of its intricate design. Yet it is entirely typical of this novel, and of Benedict Kiely the novelist, that below the loving reconstruction of Irish provincial life, which is the book’s most immediate pleasure, is a network of deeper, bleaker issues.

Perhaps the most insidious of these issues is hinted at in the captain’s conundrum, which he asks not because he desires an answer or believes that an answer will be forthcoming but simply because he knows that it will disturb impressionable, pure-minded Owen. The issue in question concerns the possibility, and (as a corollary) the basis, for attaching value to life. The captain has chosen to rationalize the question away, rather than experience its implications, by forcing a regime of repression on his children. Owen’s father, often in the company of Doctor Grierson, has elected to let life pass by in a cavalcade of jollity and music-making. By these means, the question’s moral...

(The entire section is 473 words.)