The Trout

by John Francis Whelan

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Themes and Meanings

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A mere four pages in length, “The Trout” has deeper meanings beyond the slight anecdote that appears on the surface. On one level, it may be read as a metaphor for the Irish of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, trapped in a small country too poor in resources to hold their burgeoning population. Seán O’Faoláin is a chronicler of Irish life and ways, and Ireland has historically been a resource-poor country with a high birth rate. The history of Ireland since the potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century has been marked by periods of massive emigration. During O’Faoláin’s lifetime, much of Ireland’s young, well-educated population left the rural areas for the cities and suburbs, or left the country for England, the Continent, or the United States—wherever they could find greater economic opportunities.

On a more spiritual level, “The Trout” can be read as a story of a young girl’s desire for mystery and her hope to continue seeing the world with wonderment, in conflict with her maturing realization that in the real world, doing nothing has its consequences. After Julia and Stephen return to the house to inform the grown-ups of their discovery of the trout, the adults begin searching for logical explanations of how it could have gotten there—such as being caught as a fingerling by a bird that then dropped it. Julia has no interest in such realistic explanations, but when her mother tries to spin a fairy tale incorporating a moral at the end, she protests and will not accept that either. She wants her trout to remain an enchanted creature that she can visit and ponder at will. Realism wins out, however, when she hears someone getting a fishing reel ready for a sure catch the next day.

By releasing the trout from the death it certainly faces, either from depleting the meager resources of its tiny well or from being caught and cooked, Julia in effect becomes the trout’s fairy godmother. In doing so, she has taken a step in the direction of a self-actualizing adult, able to seize control of and change the course of a situation. She has taken a step, perhaps her first, away from being a child who believes that others—such as fairy godmothers—will save the day, and toward becoming a self-actualizing adult responsible for herself and those around her.

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