Themes and Meanings
Although this story has a limited number of characters and a limited time frame, its plotting, characterization, and dialogue are as elaborate as in a novella. Its themes are developed through many scenes, and Seán O’Faoláin presents a complex truth of the overlapping and conflicting elements within his Irish situation. This is a story of individual and social passions that are more destructive than creative, more anarchic than harmonizing.
The background conflict is the opposition between two cultural traditions that has given rise to political and military hostility; this hostility will continue and intensify after the time span of the central actions. The narrator has grown up with his family’s critical attitude toward Henn’s caste and toward his individualistic and hedonistic lifestyle. John’s passionate belief in his political stance, however, is undermined by the skeptical social analysis of Henn and by the sordid violence of the incendiaries. Turning from the conflicts in the social and political context, the picture of individual and interpersonal life is remarkable for its contradictions. The young woman is paired off with the old man; romantic dream and visceral impulse, logic and prejudice, hatred and love exist side by side. Underlying this tangle of personal and political desires is a sense of the impurity of human actions. All the central characters are described in animal images, and the instinctive impulses as well as the graceless decline into old age are emphasized.
The title recalls the anarchy of desire and the harmony of love in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), but the element of realism in O’Faoláin’s story makes the Shakespearean echo an ironic one. Certainly, there are dreams, and the story’s fast-paced action has elements of nightmare, but the marriage of Henn and Gypsy is overshadowed by John’s melancholic awareness of the lasting incongruities of life’s fabric. Life itself goes on until death, and the behavior of people more often resembles the blind impulses of animals than the beatific visions of romantic comedy.