Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

Gerald Griffin was a dramatist and poet as well as a novelist, but his chief claim to fame is THE COLLEGIANS, which was extremely popular in the years immediately after its publication. The story is more familiar to Americans in drama form, having been dramatized by Dion Boucicault under the title of THE COLLEEN BAWN, a play that capitalized upon the melodramatic qualities of the novel. Griffin attempted to do for the Irish and Ireland what Sir Walter Scott had done in portraying Scotland and the Scottish people, and like Scott, Griffin was intensely interested in the folk traditions, customs, and personalities of the people about whom he wrote. The pages of THE COLLEGIANS are filled with items of Irish folklore and more than a little attention has been paid to capturing the language of the peasants.

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Padraic Colum has called THE COLLEGIANS the best of the Irish Romantic novels. THE COLLEGIANS possesses a unique charm and vitality. It is definitely a young author’s book, and it is no surprise to learn that Griffin was only twenty-five years old when it was written. A novel of love and murder, it is also a book rich with native humor and filled with delightful characterizations of the Irish folk. The book treads dangerously close to preciousness but fortunately misses that fatal flaw.

The superstitions of the common people are used like embroidery to fill out the picture of Irish life. A wonderful example is when Lowry Looby meets the redhaired woman on his way to get his new job, turns back because it is unlucky to meet a redheaded woman on a journey, and thus loses the job. A certain morbid quality, however, is also discernible in many of the characters; shadings of light and dark in their personalities give them a unique vividness.

It seems that the higher an individual’s station in life, the more serious and rational he or she is portrayed. The lower classes and servants tend to be filled with comic chatter and droll observations and to perform comic routines that hold up the narrative. Eily O’Connor and her ropemaker father are the exceptions to the rule that the poor folk must be humorous, and they are soon established as living below their proper station. This is particularly true of Eily, for her beauty and learning set her apart from the other village girls; this is the beginning of her tragedy. Eily is described repeatedly as too elegant for a peasant girl but too modest to claim the rank of gentlewoman. In this world, it is necessary that no individual challenge class distinctions; lose sight of one’s proper place and one will have an unfortunate end.

By the same token, Hardress should have known better than to stoop to marry a peasant; by betraying his class, he could only bring disaster to all concerned. His arrogance, however, is such that he believes he can get away with anything and can force people to do what he desires. Eily and Hardress upset the social balance and must pay the consequences. The world in which they live is a hard one and allows for no escape from its rules.

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