Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Luck of Ginger Coffey is less a story of the immigrant experience in Canada than it is an examination of the personal revelations that experience forces on one individual. The novel’s principal theme is the difficulty inherent in reconciling one’s personal dreams with the realities of life. For Ginger Coffey, achieving this compromise nearly costs him his family and his self-respect. Ginger’s self-image is closely tied to his belief that his talent and abilities will eventually win for him recognition and success. His emigration to Canada has been largely a result of his conviction that his disappointments in Ireland were the fault of the country itself and that his new home promises opportunities that his native land did not.

The truth which Ginger gradually comes to accept, however, is that his practical experience suits him for very little that he deems suitable for a man of his ambitions. His wife’s desertion forces him to accept two jobs that he feels are beneath his dignity, yet he continues to cling to the hope that he will soon be made a reporter (which the reader realizes immediately is highly unlikely). His shame at his failure to succeed in Canada is so great that he habitually lies to Veronica and Paulie, exaggerating his salary and his position to them rather than acknowledging his increasingly desperate circumstances. With the indignity of his arrest and Veronica’s unexpected return, Ginger at last comes face-to-face with the uncomfortable truth about his life. As he asks himself in the book’s final pages, “Didn’t most men try and fail, weren’t most men losers? Didn’t damn nearly everyone have to face up some day to the fact that their ship would never come in?”

These are bleak realizations indeed, but the book’s conclusion offers a glimmer of hope in the form of Ginger’s new understanding of the true meaning of love and life. Reflecting on his marriage to Veronica, he now tells himself, “Love isn’t an act, it’s a whole life. It’s staying with her now because she needs you.” His own sense of failure is lessened by this new conviction: “Life was the victory, wasn’t it? Going on was the victory.” It is a sobering, mature moment of insight from a man who has finally learned to take reality as he finds it.