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Feminine and the Primitive: J.M. Synges Treatment of Aran Women in The Aran Islands

Lambert, Casey Ann
When reading John Synge's The Aran Islands, I almost immediately noticed that Synge focuses on Aran women as the primary subject of his ethnographic inquiry, which is what he intended The Aran Islands to be. I also noted that the women are always portrayed as strong, connected to nature, and uninhibited, while the Irish men are mainly relegated to the role of weaker sex. Additionally, I observed how often Synge snubs English ways in the piece, and I was curious to know his motivation behind depicting the Aran Islanders as having a natural nobility while portraying more modern Europeans as unrespectable. Some of my beginning questions were 1.) Why did Synge travel to Aran? What was his inspiration to go there?, 2.) Why does Synge provide the portraiture of Aran women that runs throughout the text?, 3.) Why does Synge portray the Aran men in a less flattering light?, 4.) What was Synge's idea of the primitive?, and 5.) Why does Synge constantly bring up how superior the Aran Islanders are to the people of England? Synge's desire to visit Aran largely stemmed from his reading of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold, both of whom wrote on the"Celtic/Irish feminine." Renan and Arnold argue that the primitive Irish are not capable of self-governance as a result of their Celtic natures, and The Aran Islands does not suggest this at all. Synge depicts the primitive Aran Islanders, and the women in particular, as respectable and ideal beings. I also determined that Synge had expressed some pro-Home Rule sympathies at that point in his life. In the paper, I argue that Synge portrays the Aran Islanders as having a natural nobility, mainly through his positive depictions of the Aran women as strong, intelligent, and capable primitives who know how to survive in the natural world (which is far better than the artificial world of more modern European places, according to Synge.) While questioning the "Celtic feminine" model that Renan and Arnold transposed on the Irish, Synge is also implicitly arguing for Irish Home Rule.