Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

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The general theme is evident: A woman’s capacity for finding joy and pleasure is destroyed at an early age by an environment in which all relationships are colored by the fear of punishment. This feminist theme takes on a local significance, however, in the Irish peasant setting with its closely knit family and community ties through which the intimidation of dogma and physical violence is transmitted.

The fathers in the story live close to the land, and the grim regime of hard physical work for long hours makes life a matter of joyless endurance. Their closeness to the animals that breed and are bought and sold influences their ways of thinking about sexual relationships and marriage. Taciturn and abusive, the men seem to control relationships by provoking fear and repression. Mothers cater to them, and daughters too, and the prominence of Catholic teaching seems to extend the power of the father into the social arena; the father’s authority seems to have social and divine sanction. What the girls fear most, discovery, is connected with public disgrace and with a fear of final damnation. Sin and guilt are associated with disobedience, and so the girls are led to doubt their own feelings and impulses. Their pleasures and their innocent play are a self-defeating mixture of escape and submission and prayer. When the narrator is held down so that Eily’s sister can pretend to be the doctor about to remove her female parts, the hopelessness and humiliation surface in the bewildered comment, “For some reason I always looked upward and backward.” It is not surprising that Eily’s craving for romantic adventure leads her to an indifferent exploiter who fits well into her father’s code of behavior, even when he is being bullied into marriage.

The girls are trapped in another way: by their religious and literary education. Eily believes that “the god Cupid is on our side,” and the narrator dramatizes herself as a Shakespearean heroine. Their favorite perfume, “Mischief,” creates an atmosphere “of mystery and sanctity,” and the sacred and the profane are again confused when the chapel is “better than the theatre,” the “rosary beads . . . were as dazzling as necklaces,” and the mission priest is imagined as a lover. The overactive imaginations of the girls veil the reality of their circumstances from them, even as imagination is their means of transcending the impoverishment of their environment.

It is only at the end of the story that the narrator acknowledges the prosaic tragedy that has overtaken Eily: Her youthful revolt has embedded her even more deeply in this environment that kills individual feeling and joy. The narrator wants the little luxury of re-creating in memory “the good old days,” but Eily tells her that “they’re all much of a muchness.” Repression has flattened her affective life, killing even her memories.