Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

At Swim-Two-Birds is a celebration of the powers of the imagination, a critique of the limitations of realism and moral earnestness, and an expression of the tension between flesh and spirit in human nature. Its structural complexities and varieties of style are delightfully inventive while at the same time they are controlled and pointed so as to invite readers to make connections between the characters and actions at the many levels in the work. From the first few pages, with their three beginnings, readers are continuously reminded that they are reading an elaborate artifice. Much of the narrative sounds like an elaborate oral yarn, while much else reads like a pedantic, legalistic, or translated text. Most of the characters are “hired” from other works, or created new according to the theory of “aestho-autogamy.”

By the same token, O’Brien mercilessly satirizes the dullness, pretension, and sentimentality of ordinary life. These are Ireland’s apparent inheritance from the romantic promise held forth by the movements for cultural and political independence earlier in the century.

Yet for all of its brilliant artificiality and cruel satire, the novel is wound around a serious and humane theme which is best represented by the figure of the mad, suffering Sweeny perched in the treetops sweetly praising the beauties of the countryside to the heavens above him.