Themes and Meanings
Seán O’Faoláin alertly prevents “The Man Who Invented Sin” from being merely a critique of the stunting of Irish cultural life. Interesting as this theme may be, and vocal as O’Faoláin has been on its behalf elsewhere, the richness of this particular story is attributable at least as much to its pastoral conventions as to its ideological analysis.
By setting the action deep in the heart of rural Ireland, O’Faoláin emphasizes the characters’ idealistic return to a source of cultural well-being. (Inasmuch as it does this, the story is an important exemplar of a subgenre of Irish short fiction in the 1930’s, the pilgrimage story.) In addition, however, O’Faoláin also creates an unspoiled environment—in effect, a prelapsarian world. “The Serpent had come into the garden” is how Lispeen’s interference is described. The effect of his crude and unharmonious interruptions is to make the nuns and monks self-conscious.
Until Lispeen’s intrusions, the “four saints” are free to express themselves, as the unlikely discovery of Sister Chrysostom’s sweet singing voice confirms. Despite the curate’s overshadowing presence, the religious foursome continue to behave as though they were free spirits. O’Faoláin subtly contrasts the natural and religious connotations of spirit. Lispeen, in effect, sees to it that the former sense must be suppressed in the interests of the latter. The narrator, on the other hand, facilitates the idea that both senses may coexist.
By doing so, the narrator unobtrusively reveals the story’s ideological and political implications. The final encounters in the city show the narrator’s desire to honor the naïve but spirited romanticism of youth. He alone remains faithful to the spirit of renewal and naturalness. He alone embodies the possibility of an actively critical perspective on events. However, perhaps he, too, has been eclipsed by the Prince of Darkness, Lispeen, his critical potential internalized, an agent of irony rather than a caster-out of demons. His intellectual emasculation is a bitter testimony to Lispeen’s potency, as is his ultimate isolation, so strikingly at odds with the story’s earlier sense of community. The story’s concluding notes of loss, timidity, and dispersal cry out for a means of putting Lispeen where he belongs.