Illustration of Christopher Mahon with a noose around his neck and a woman standing in front of him

The Playboy of the Western World

by J. M. Synge

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What is the theme of patricide in J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World?

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The theme of patricide in J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World is largely symbolic. Christy Mahon's tale of supposedly killing his father gains him respect and confidence, symbolizing his rebellion against an oppressive past and his journey toward independence and self-identity. Although Christy does not actually commit patricide, the story highlights themes of identity, rebellion, and the need to break free from tradition.

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J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World revolves around Christy Mahon's "murder" of his overbearing father. Though Christy fails to actually kill his father (although he does succeed in bludgeoning him with a spade), his tale of supposed patricide catapults him into celebrity status in the play's small town setting. However, once Christy's father inconveniently appears outside the pub the young man is staying in, the villagers roundly condemn Christy, and so he is forced to attack his father once again and then leave the village.

So, as you can see, the play rests upon the powers of a story about patricide but does not actually include any patricide in the literal sense of the word. As such, the theme of patricide can be seen as largely symbolic. Christy must symbolically kill his father in order to establish himself as an independent adult, and it is this rebellion that enables him to transcend his past and become an independent agent. Additionally, we can view Christy's "patricide" as a symbolic refutation of tradition and established order, as Christy's father represents a tyrannical past that seeks to control younger generations with an iron fist. All in all, though there is no actual patricide in the play, the symbolic suggestion of it becomes an important theme touching on ideas regarding identity, rebellion, and independence.   

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The patricide theme in J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World is based on the plot incident in which Christy Mahon thinks he has killed his father. On a plot level, it is this belief that he has killed his father that gives Christy the self-confidence coupled with respect from people in the village, that enables him to become the `playboy`of the title. On a symbolic level, this can be read from a Freudian perspective, as playing out the Oedipal drama in which a boy needs to symbolically kill his father in order to acheive independence and manhood.

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What is the central theme of the Playboy of the Western World by Synge? Is it patricide or development of main character or something else?

There are indeed a number of important themes in The Playboy Of The Western World, but I’d like to suggest an over-arching theme, one that unifies all the lesser themes into a coherent whole. That theme is the overriding need of oppressed communities for heroes.

In setting forward this thesis, it’s important to understand the historical context in which Playboy is set. By the time the play was written, in the early twentieth century, Ireland had been a part of what eventually became the British Empire for the better part of 800 years. During this period in their history, the Irish people were subjected to systematic cultural, religious and economic oppression by their British masters. Numerous sporadic outbreaks of rebellion and insurrectionary violence took place intermittently but did little to change the colonial power structure.

Christy’s attempted acts of patricide in The Playboy Of The Western World should be seen against this wider historical background. Although patricide is a long-established theme in world literature, in this specific case it can be seen to symbolise the successive failed attempts by the Irish to throw off the British imperial yoke.

The good folk of County Mayo are in desperate need of a hero; indeed they are so desperate that they gladly latch onto the romantic myth of the heroic Irish rebel, even when the particular rebel turns out to be a (would-be) patricide.

This helps to explain why the locals are so angry on discovering that Christy’s attempt to kill his father actually failed. They have invested so much of themselves in this heroic myth that their disappointment is all the more crushing when the true extent of Christy’s incompetence is revealed. He’s no hero, after all; the spell has been broken, and his subsequent botched attempt to kill his father again does nothing to bring the myth back to life.

The need of oppressed communities for heroes and their willingness to tolerate ‘heroic’ acts of violence also serve to underline how rebellion can upend accepted social norms and hierarchies. The villagers in the play are prepared to challenge their community’s most cherished values so long as they are able to transcend the daily humiliation of colonial oppression and rise to a new level of mythical consciousness, one that provides a tantalising glimpse of a new and better world.

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What is the central theme of the Playboy of the Western World by Synge? Is it patricide or development of main character or something else?

Numerous ideas are raised and treated in Synge's The Playboy of the Western World.  In complex literature, there often isn't one theme that dominates over others. That's probably the case here.

The enotes Study Guide points out two themes:  Social Conventions and Rebellion.  I'll let you read about those in the Study Guide.  In short, the villagers first make Christy a hero for his act of rebellion against social convention, then condemn him when faced with the reality of a son attacking a father.  The villagers also, for the most part, are trapped in social conventions themselves, though they at first praise Christy for rebelling against them.  Only Pegeen is truly a nonconformist.

In addition, the play deals with the creation of myth as well as violence in Ireland, or more specifically, the love of or at least the fascination with violence.   

The Irish people, some would say, are not presented in a positive light by Synge.  They make out Christy to be a hero for having comitted a hideous act (how myths are started? is this what Irish heroes are actually like?).  They are fascinated with the "heroism" and "bravery" of a son who kills his father.  When the myth crashes and Christy is revealed to be a baffoon, the villagers, too, react with violence, almost hanging Christy.  The Irish, it would seem, are prone to violence.

If you must choose, study these themes and choose for yourself.  One doesn't really stand out above the others, although the idea of myth making is probably a little less present.  You could make a case for any of the other three.

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