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Childybawn Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mrs. Spillane has received an anonymous letter telling her that her middle-aged bachelor son has been romantically involved for years with a young woman at the bank where he works. Horrified, she broods for a few weeks before questioning Benjy indirectly, by suggesting that a gossipy friend has implied that he is planning to marry someone. When he scoffs at her suggestion, she is placated and relieved. After Benjy’s spring vacation in France, however, his mother receives another anonymous letter, informing her that the young lady at the bank, Angela, went to France with him. Unwilling to confront Benjy directly, she begins steaming open his letters until she finally finds one from Angela that confirms her worst fears.

Mrs. Spillane turns to a priest for guidance but is miffed when he only suggests that she pray for Benjy’s early marriage. Certain that that idea would appeal no more to Benjy than it does to her, she takes another tack, attempting to involve Benjy in her devotion to Saint Monica, mother of the profligate-turned-saint, Augustine. Benjy, however, is more interested in the sinful chapters of Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) than its redemptive sections. After an argument with his mother, he takes his dog for a walk, which quickly ends at the neighborhood pub. With Benjy out of the house, the sanctimonious Mrs. Spillane enjoys the interests that she hides so as not to trouble him: brandy and betting on the ponies.

Still unwilling to confront Benjy about Angela, Mrs. Spillane resorts to deep sighs, sad smiles, and thoughtfully heating his pants in the mornings and removing his galoshes when he gets home. After three months of enduring his mother’s unexplained martyred air, Benjy is more than ready for his summer holiday. Convinced that Angela will accompany Benjy, Mrs. Spillane decides to report her son’s indiscretions to the bank manager. The manager gives her no comfort, however. After telling her that his employees’ personal lives are not his to control, he informs her that Benjy’s future advancement at the bank is more likely to be impeded if he remains unmarried. Furious, Mrs. Spillane snarls that she would rather “see him in his pools of blood at my feet than see him married to that Jezebel!” The day after Benjy returns from his holiday, he collapses at his mother’s feet in a puddle of blood from a burst ulcer and is rushed to the hospital.

Benjy barely survives physically; emotionally, he is a changed man. Now his evenings are spent quietly at home with his mother or doing charitable works for the church. Liquor and betting are exorcised from his life. His mother, however, continues to indulge in her bad habits, but now they are driven further underground. One night Benjy discovers evidence of his mother’s other side: empty brandy bottles, old betting slips, grocery bills, and the anonymous letters. Convinced that his own dour behavior has driven her into secretly drinking and gambling, he begins encouraging her to have tiny drinks at night, and he insists on placing small bets for her. Later he is shocked to discover that her grocery and butcher bills are far in arrears and concludes that his vacations with Angela have prevented his mother from keeping up with the bills—until, that is, he learns that she also owes the betting office more than _125. After he returns to his office that afternoon to find Angela flirting with a teller, he can barely get through the rest of the day.

After dinner, he announces to his mother that he is considering marrying a woman from the bank. To his astonishment, she says that she wishes he had married a long time ago because his new piety is making her miserable. After pondering his situation, Benjy breaks the tension with a laughing riposte at his mother, and they begin planning his wedding over stiff shots of brandy. All that remains is for Benjy to convince Angela to take him back—which she agrees to after several hours of unspecified activities in her landlady’s parlor.

Benjy and Angela finally marry five years later—after Mrs. Spillane’s death.