In the Shadow of the Glen

by J. M. Synge

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Themes and Meanings

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In the Shadow of the Glen, a one-act play based on a folktale John Millington Synge collected on his first trip to the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland, is deceptively simple; actually, it is complex enough to contain most of the themes the playwright would explore for the rest of his dramatic career. The most obvious is the tension between the basic human need for security and the equally basic urge for freedom. The play pits Nora’s secure domestic existence against the tramp’s freewheeling life. Nora’s marriage to Burke for his farm, livestock, and sock of money was her bid for security, but it has caused her only unhappiness and loneliness. That she leaves with the tramp rather than reconciling with her old husband or accepting his young counterpart, Micheal Dara, makes freedom the clear winner in the play.

This rejection of security makes In the Shadow of the Glen a very unusual comedy. Classically, comedy is the dramatic mode that substantiates society’s bonds and celebrates human connection, especially marriage and birth. Synge’s play, however, depicts—and even applauds—Nora’s rejection of a constricting bond and her joyful embrace of a free, if insecure, life. Thus, an issue related to the general freedom-versus-security question in the play is marriage and women’s role in it. Freedom’s conflict with security is a universal problem; other Synge plays give it to male characters (notably Christie Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World [pr., pb. 1907]), but here the problem is Nora’s, and Nora is not only a person but also a wife. Like Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), Synge’s play is a direct attack, not on all marriage, but on the convention of marriage as an arrangement by which a woman may live securely, provided she is willing to relinquish her freedom and her self.

In the Shadow of the Glen is unquestionably a feminist work. However, it is no lifeless tract. The feminist theme of the play is embedded in the character of Nora Burke herself. She is its most developed and attractive character; she is feisty, tough, and fearless. The satirical portraits of the old cuckold faking death to catch his wife cheating and the dull young shepherd who cannot even control his herd provide quite a contrast to her. Moreover, the tramp, supposedly her equal, is hardly developed dramatically at all. Like the Nora in Ibsen’s play, her character unfolds so that, by the end, she is believable when she makes the hard choice of leaving her secure nest. She even usurps the dramatic climax of the play by turning her husband’s decision to throw her out into her own decision to leave.

A final theme to be noted is loneliness. Although it is not strongly stressed in In the Shadow of the Glen, it is present, and it is clearly connected to the freedom/security question. The equation the play reverses is this: Freedom equals being alone; being alone equals loneliness. In her marriage, Nora has learned that one can be with someone and still be very much alone; she learns from the tramp, however, that one can be alone and not be lonely. The crux of the difference is independence. Loneliness is a perceived effect only; it is overcome by the self-confidence freedom brings.

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