Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101
A major issue for critical readers of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley is determining if the novel belongs to the tradition of realism, as some critics have stated, or of romance, as others believe. In fact, the novel is the rare combination of the two. This nostalgic and sentimental novel honors the traditions of the past, but the romance is overlaid with a fineness of detail that conjures the particular feeling of life in a Welsh coal-mining town.
How Green Was My Valley belongs to the tradition of the Adamic myth, in which a character falls from his blissful innocence into uncertainty. The setting of the novel, identified only as “the Valley,” lends credibility to this analysis. A reader will be hard put to identify the exact setting. The events occur in a Welsh coal-mining community, but historical events of the world outside the Valley never intrude on the lives of the characters. The story seems to take place in a gauzy, timeless era when life was less complicated and better. Only scant references to Winston Churchill, the home secretary of Great Britain, and a slight allusion to the Boer Wars identify the time of the novel as the beginning of the twentieth century. The Valley is a world unto itself, and all that one needs to live a good and proper life can be found there.
The narrator, Huw Morgan, tells the story of his growing up, and his story, moving from innocence to experience, corresponds to the history of the Valley. It, too, is moving from a past grounded in tradition to an uncertain future. While Huw is as much a product of the Valley as his coal-mining neighbors, he is detached somewhat in his role of observer. His education, first obtained as a bookish child confined to a bed for a long period and later augmented at a National School outside the Valley, sets him apart from rustic folk of the Valley.
Huw declines to take the examination for entrance to the university and decides to become a miner like his brothers. Huw’s entrance into the mine marks the point between boyhood and manhood. It is no accident that Huw fails as a coal miner and instead becomes a skilled carpenter, a trade he learns at the side of Mr. Gruffydd, the minister. This trade is appropriate for “Christlike” Huw, a human of great kindness. Huw’s compassionate point of view serves as a striking foil to the dominating patriarchal culture of the Valley. One scene that particularly illustrates this tension occurs in church when Huw publicly questions the deacons’ decision to banish an unwed pregnant woman from the congregation.
While Huw may stand for New Testament values, the traditional patriarchal culture of the Valley has more in common with Old Testament values, and those who violate those values will be outcast. Mr. Gruffydd, at the beginning of the novel, represents Old Testament values. He approves of training Huw to fight in order to teach wrongdoers a lesson. Mr. Gruffydd also approves the execution, without a trial, of the alleged murderer of a little girl. Justice in the novel is always quick and forceful. Huw’s father Gwilym, the living embodiment of patriarchy, declines to involve police when Elias steals his turkeys. The law of the Valley sanctions his taking matters into his own hands, although it could lead to violence. Even Huw is quick with his fists to protect the Valley’s law, which advocates personal integrity, kindness to others, and loyalty to family and community.
The patriarchy of the Valley dictates that men and women play distinctly separate roles. Men are to work, provide needed income for the family, serve the community, and honor their women. Women are to marry, have children, and provide food and clothing for the family. Despite relegating women to the domestic sphere, Llewellyn creates two strong female characters: Huw’s mother, Beth, and his sister-in-law, Bronwen. These women correspond to the archetypes of mother and wife. Beth’s devotion to her family is admirable, as shown when she makes a public speech to the union men who, she suspects, are plotting to attack her husband for not supporting their efforts. Beth has no interest in the union dealings, however; she speaks out only in her husband’s defense. Bronwen is not outwardly as strong, yet she survives the early death in the mine of her husband with grace and composure. She is the embodiment of feminine sensuality, beauty, patience, kindness, and long-suffering.
Bronwen exhibits these traditional positive traits in contrast to Huw’s sister, Angharad. Bronwen marries Ivor for love; Angharad disregards her love for Mr. Gruffydd and instead marries the son of a mine owner. Bronwen lives in relative poverty, working hard and sacrificing quietly for her children. On the other hand, Angharad, although she lives in relative comfort, is estranged from her husband, has no joy from children, and has a look of starvation in her eyes.
Mr. Gruffydd, who feels his pittance of a salary make him unworthy to marry Angharad, suffers also from unrequited love. Mr. Gruffydd’s aging and growing sense of ennui correspond to the waning traditional culture of the Valley. In his youth, Mr. Gruffydd, a spirited, powerful preacher who motivates the miners to stand up for themselves and God, is a strong supporter and vital member of the community. As he ages, especially without the love of Angharad, he is diminished, losing his spiritual efficacy and his prominence in the community. Ultimately, he is banished from the Valley by the deacons for breaking the conventions of the Valley’s patriarchy: He has become too intimate with Angharad, a married woman estranged from her husband.
Throughout the novel, the struggle between the union men and the mine owners provides a background to the more detailed brush strokes that depict the daily events of the Morgan family. The rioting incited by the coming of the unions, ironically aided by several of the Morgan brothers, brings events to a close. Finally and dramatically, the death of Gwilym Morgan and the breakup of his family signal the radical changes coming to the Valley. His sons, barred from working the mines because of their involvement with the unions, scatter from the Valley. Those who do stay suffer diminution, as does Mr. Gruffydd, or death, as does Gwilym. The sixty-year-old Huw is the last to leave, long after all the others have gone. The novel ends sadly where it began, with Huw reflecting on the dramatic changes that turned his “Eden” into a slag heap.
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