Synges Romantic Vision of the Aran Islands
When John Millington Synge made his way to the western most islands of Ireland he was in search of inspiration for his writing. The fruit of his journey was the fame-winning book entitled The Aran Islands. Synge had many purposes for this book, but one of the most compelling was his desire to write an anthropologically geared account of the people and lifestyle of what many believed to be the last bastion of true Irishness. However, Synges anthropological work could not avoid the strong Romantic tendencies that influenced his writing. In my opinion it is Synges Romanticism that makes his account more believable. The tenants of Romanticism call for the writer to be at once awed with nature and somewhat set apart from the noble savages that he is writing about. Synges awe of nature is necessary for the anthropological nature of the book because the environment of the Aran Islands is instrumental in the understanding the psyches of the people, and his Romanticism produces the vivid imagery needed for the reader to understand the landscape. The fact that Synge sees the people of the Aran Islands as a different race from himself, in my opinion, provides him with more perspective and thus allows him to relate the events and personalities of the people with a more accurate and essentially unbiased voice.
One of the most important aspects of anthropology is the understanding of how a culture relates to their environment. Thus, Synges imagery of the islands is instrumental in the readers grasp of the people and the culture which Synge is trying to describe. Synge develops the landscape in two different ways. He reproduces the landscape alone and also the peoples connection with their environment.
When Synge discusses the landscape of the Aran Islands he paints the picture of a wild and hard environment. In Part One of the book he begins by relating the image of the Aranmor countryside as he walks through it for the first time. He states:
I was wandering out along the one good roadway
of the island, looking over low walls on either
side into small flat fields of naked rock. I
have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of
water were sweeping everywhere upon the
limestone, making at times a wild torrent of
the road Whenever the cloud lifted I could see
the edge of the sea below me on the right, and
the naked ridge of the island above me on the
The most vivid aspect of this passage is the diction, which Synge uses to describe the islands environment. More than once Synge uses the word naked to refer to the rock. He also builds further that image by calling the land desolate and wild. Synge also makes an important play of the colors of the Aran Islands. He uses the images of grey and black quite often throughout the book. At one point he states that everywhere he turns he finds, the same grey obsession twining and wreathing itself among the narrow fields (Synge 46). By describing the island thus he helps the reader build the image of the Aran Islands as something quite distinct from the lushness of the Irish mainland. The contrast between the environment of the islands and the mainland is important for Synge to establish, as the readers understanding of the landscape is essential in any type of anthropological study.
Synge explores at length the incredibly intertwined relationship between the people of the Aran Islands and their surrounding environment. When Synge views the relationship between the inhabitants and nature as both primitive and knowledgeable. Synge comes to understand the primitive nature of the Aran Islanders when he comes to realize that time on the island is determined by the wind and not clocks, as they do not exist in the Aran Islands.
Synge goes on in a different passage to bring to light one of the differences between the unadulterated habits of the islanders and those of the people on the mainland who have been influenced by the other cultures of Europe. He writes:
The absence of the heavy boot of Europe
has preserved to these people the agile
walk of the wild animal, while the general
simplicity of their lives has given them
many other points of physical perfection.
Their way of life has never been acted
on by anything much more artificial than
the nests and burrows of the creatures
Synges Romantic tendencies influence him to see the primitive aspects of the islanders as noble. Even though he refers to them in the above passage as having qualities of wild animals, he does so with respect for the way that they have adapted to their environment. Also in that passage, Synge touches on the innocence of the people because of their close connection to the land. Like many other Romantic writers, Synge believed that modern society corrupted man from nature and thus connected knowledge of the land with innocence of culture. That the people live always in conjunction with the islands natural world fascinated Synge. At one point in the text Synge even comments that the mood of the people seems to echo the mood of the landscape. It is Synges Romantic ideals that make this primitive relationship so intriguing to him. It is this fascination which prompts Synge to delve into this complex relationship. Through his exploration of this, the reader is able to better grasp the anthropological nature of the Aran Islands.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Synges anthropological study is his perception and writing about the culture of the people of the Aran Islands. It is in this aspect of Synges writing that his Romantic style most compliments his desire to write an anthropological account of the people. As a Romantic, Synge respects the people of the island for their skills. He still, however, views them in many ways as noble savages. Due to this perception of the people, Synge always remains apart from them. He is unable to truly become a member of their community or culture. That separateness is essential in Synges endeavor to write in an anthropological nature, because without this detachment Synge feels, he would be unable to reproduce an unbiased account of life on the islands. An example of this can be seen in the text when Synge attends the funeral of an old woman that died. With an almost cold detachment and curiosity, Synge describes the scene of the women keening (Synge 50). In instances like this one Synge does not seem to establish the same connection with the people that he does with the landscape throughout the text. The many emotions Synge feels for the landscape are not always reflected in his feelings for the people. In many ways, he simply does not seem to empathize with them. While Synge is not happy to see the scene of the young mans funeral, he does not mourn along with the islanders. To Synge the islanders are simply a part of the islands. He accepts the inevitability of their demise due to their landscape. He is fond of them but he does not connect with them.
Synge found the inspiration he was looking for when he entered the Aran Islands. He set out to write an anthropological record of one of the remotest cultures inhabiting Europe. To accomplish this Synge needed to be both acutely aware of his surroundings but also detached from them in order to provide his reader with vivid imagery and unbiased prose. Synges Romantic style of writing aided him in this venture because it motivated him to write extensively about the landscape of the Aran Islands, which is instrumental in the readers understanding of the islanders culture. It also provided him with a belief in the noble savage which enabled him to at once hold himself above the islanders and yet respect them and their culture. This attitude kept him separate from the people and thus able to provide the reader with a more detached recounting of his experience.