The discrepancy between Thady’s tone and the historical and social significance of the material that he is addressing places Castle Rackrent squarely in one of the most enduring traditions of Irish writing. This tradition is satire, and it was initiated in Anglophone Irish writing by Jonathan Swift, though its existence in Irish-language writing is far more ancient. Rather than attacking head-on the social conditions of which she strongly disapproves, Edgeworth allows them effectively to condemn themselves through Thady’s untenable account of them. On one level, the overall effect of the gap between the steward and his stewardship is that of a broad comedy of manners, a genre that Edgeworth’s most important subsequent writing refines. At another level, however, it is possible to see Thady’s narrative as more of an indictment than a comedy. This view underlines the originality with which Edgeworth invokes and deploys race, class, and gender as structuring elements in Thady’s tale. The racial element is emphasized primarily in the language Thady uses. Its convolutions, contradictions, and self-deceptions are an accurate reflection of life on the Rackrent estates. His language is an expression of the quality of consciousness that such a life evinces from those who are trapped within it. Edgeworth’s emphasis is on the degree to which Thady’s consciousness manifests entrapment. His loyalty may be perceived as a perhaps crude but nevertheless telling prototype of the effects of colonization.
Regarded from the point of view of class, Thady attempts to keep the Rackrent household in good order and to maintain a decent profile for the family. Yet there is a sense in which such a state of affairs is, in the author’s view, a clear expression of the irresponsibility of the ruling class. The landed gentry’s lack of leadership in both civil and domestic matters is what obliges Thady to sustain his ludicrous and pathetic holding operation. Not only are his efforts inadequate in their own right, but also they permit the eclipse of the Rackrents by a rather more able but much less socially acceptable class, personified by Jason Quirk.
The revealing, and frequently overlooked, immediate cause for the Rackrent family’s decline is their treatment of women. Once again, Thady’s memoir of Sir Condy supplies most of the evidence for this claim, although Sir Kit’s grotesque treatment of his Jewish bride condenses in particularly pathological form the manner in which gender issues not only are central in themselves but also animate issues of race and class. The clash of similar personalities into which Rackrent marriages seem to degenerate is an underdeveloped but potentially devastating critique of the ways in which the world is allowed to undermine the Rackrents’ integrity. As Thady’s narrative makes clear, this pursuit of undermining social commitments is reproduced at every level of Rackrent life, so that ultimately no one is immune from the impoverishing effects. Though gender roles are the least fully articulated element in Castle Rackrent, such roles and the manner in which they are created and sustained make a crucial contribution to the novel’s overall integrity.