Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

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The Green Fool may be seen as a record of a vanished way of life in rural Ireland, similar to the Gaelic autobiographies which emerged in the 1930’s, most notably Tomas o Crohan’s An t-Oileanach (1929; The Islandman, 1934). More generally, The Green Fool belongs in the tradition of rural writing—from Robert Burns in Scotland to Henry Thoreau in the United States—in which the loving observation of natural detail and ritualized social life penetrates to the elemental mythic perception. Kavanagh writes with the awareness that his experience has yielded to him a specialized knowledge of life which is rare in the cosmopolitan world of writing, but he is also wary of being subverted by the demands of the role of naif, of “exploiting” himself.

This work is also continuous with and antagonistic to the work of Yeats, and other observers of folk life, which was an essential part of Irish writing from the end of the nineteenth century. Yeats’s celebration of the peasants’ belief in the supernatural, the fairy folk, in a collection of stories such as The Celtic Twilight (1893), is a literary ancestor, but Kavanagh’s closeness to the peasants allows him to see what Yeats never saw: They are not a purely spiritual people. Kavanagh presents a more rounded picture of the country people because he writes from the inside, sharing their experiences of frustration and poverty. He knows too their mockery of the poet and his commitment to his imagination. It may be that the bitterness and irony which are elements of this book reflect Kavanagh’s antagonism toward the myth of the Irish peasant, which Yeats consolidated. His remark about exploiting himself before others do so may have its origin here in that Kavanagh knew that he was expected to write a certain kind of book to conform to that myth. Perhaps the dramatist John Millington Synge, a more realistic writer of life in the countryside, is a closer presence because of his ability to depict cruelty and perversion alongside celebration and joy.

As a story of a young man’s coming of age or as a portrait of the artist, The Green Fool lacks the mature style and comic tone of Kavanagh’s autobiographical novel Tarry Flynn (1948). The Green Fool may have served as a quarry for the later novel and for the long poem The Great Hunger, but in its own right the book’s spontaneous form reveals more of Kavanagh’s struggle to gain his own voice. The dislocations of form and tone reflect his struggle to define a role both within and against the Irish tradition of writing about peasant life. What is impressive about the book, finally, is its confessional and unapologetic assertion of independence and its record of the emergence and survival of creative talent.