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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Hypocrisy of "Respectable" Irish Society

Lavin uses "The Will" as a platform to expose what she perceived as the fundamental hypocrisy of rural Irish society that demands people live their lives in specific ways to honor their family and maintain the appearance of respectability. In the story, Lally's three siblings present themselves as caring and dutiful to their sister, for they collectively decided to contribute some of the money to their mother to support her family. However, they do so not out of kindness but to keep up appearances—to seem generous in the eyes of their fellow townspeople and to elevate a sister whose social standing brings them shame by association.

Moreover, though their actions are generous intrinsically, it nonetheless constitutes a betrayal of their mother's wishes and consequently a violation of one of the most cherished rules in rural Irish society: namely, that the wishes of the deceased should be honored. Lally acts as a foil to her three siblings; she cares little for the perception of others, and she insists that the family honor her mother's wishes, even to her detriment. Indeed, the siblings most concerned with social expectations are the ones most willing to disrupt them, so long as it makes them look better to their fellow villagers. 

The Material Trappings of Religion

More than once, this story strays into satire regarding the traditional interpretations of Catholicism.  Lavin is careful to portray the trappings of religious ceremony—the dignity of the Catholic funeral, for example—as they intersect with the messy and chaotic realities of human relationships.  One of the story's principal conflicts is the disagreement over whether Lally should get the train home on the same day as the funeral or not, a suggestion that her siblings find distasteful and disrespectful. When it is clear that she cannot stay another night in the interests of her children and the demands of her daily life, it highlights how arbitrary religious conventions can sometimes be impractical or even harmful to people's everyday lives.

Even still, Lally appears to have a strong religious inclination, for she downplays the significance of her mother having left money to pay for Masses and upholds the importance of prayer and remembrance by others. Therefore, her character champions a more liberal and individualistic interpretation of religion (which Lavin herself upheld), Irish values, and independent choice.

The Prison of Convention 

Lally's three siblings are imprisoned by their slavish commitment to appearances—even when this commitment runs contrary to material realities. When Nonny expresses her disbelief that Lally could have married someone if it meant lowering herself to keep lodgers, she demonstrates an inability to conceive of any emotion or feeling that supersedes the need for social respectability.

Lavin's use of a narrative shift—from the focus on all of the siblings in the first half to the sole focus on Lally in the second—grants the reader access to Lally's thoughts, which reinforces the contrast between her freedom and her siblings’ lack of freedom. Because the reader never learns what Kate, Matthew, or Nonny are thinking, they come off as simplistic (even robotic) products of the appearances they are endeavoring to uphold.

Contrarily, Lally is portrayed empathetically as dynamic, passionate, and fiercely independent. Her siblings, on the other hand, are static; they rarely set foot outside their family home or village. Their hometown—and the strict, judgmental expectations that pervade it—has become both a physical and a metaphorical prison.

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