Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth is a work containing elements of satire, portrayed through Thady. It is to these satiric elements that it owes much of its subtlety. Castle Rackrent is an achievement because of what lies in the subject matter and the narrative methods through which Maria Edgeworth presents her characterisation, language, imagery, tone and satire. These methods are wrapped in the subtlety that comes from total control. The most substantial and remarkable aspect about the novel is the subtlety of its implications.
In her dealings with the Edgeworthstown tenants Maria Edgeworth gained first hand knowledge of Irish peasant life and of the peculiarities of Irish peasant character, which form the basis for the success of Castle Rackrent both as a social document and as a work of fiction. At the centre of Maria Edgeworth’s work is the ‘Big House’ itself, which is the symbolic focus of the Protestant Ascendancy’s preoccupation with its own decline. ‘The big house’, the manor houses of the Anglo Irish ascendancy, are often used as a ‘metaphor which might allow the author to explore the socially disintegrated world of the protestant ascendancy’
Sin Of Omission Matute Summary
Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, ‘the first “Big House” novel set on an ascendancy estate, was the first Irish family chronicle, and the first fictional book to make Irish history and politics central to its story and theme’. The critic Patrick Murray states that Maria Edgeworth allows many of her characters to reveal them selves by indirection. Thady is an outstanding example. It is interesting to observe how much we learn about Thady himself from his descriptions of other people, particularly when his feelings are strongly engaged.
One of his more diverting habits is to praise or censure his various masters and their wives according to their generosity or meanness towards himself – the classic attitude of the old retainer. This habit produces some extremely satiric and at times subtle effects. As well as being the first regional novel in English literature, Castle Rackrent has a strong claim to be considered the first of the saga novels, since it traces the fortunes of a single family through several generations. The novel has been often commended as a work of profound historical significance
The most ironic word throughout the novel is the word ‘faithful’ – ‘faithful Thady’, the steward, who tells this tale, in the first person when he is beyond his eightieth year. So skilful is Maria that the quick and careless reader may finish the story without detecting the deviousness with which Thady had managed to turn his employer’s weaknesses to his own advantage. According to Patrick Murray Thady Quirk is commonly taken at his own valuation as an honest, faithful, unselfishly loyal servant who feels deeply for his ruined masters and is willing to excuse their worst failings.
But on of the triumphs of Castle Rackrent is the subtly ambivalent presentation of the old steward. To regard him as an artless, simple-minded old man is to miss completely the wealth of irony, which pervades the whole narrative. The irony of Castle Rackrent is that Thady’s much-vaunted loyalty to the Rackrents should be the principal means of his son’s acquisition of their estates. The critic, Thomas Flanagan finds the novel’s ‘acts and statements ambiguous and unsettling’ and comes to grips with the problem of Thady in a much more forthright matter: Thady is a partisan of the family, or rather, of ‘the honour of the family’. Only when the story is finished does the reader realise that Thady has his own wry view of the matter. Even so he does not fully understand the story, which he is telling. The meaning and passion with which he instinctively invests the words ‘honour’ and ‘loyalty’ lead him to bring forth evidence which prompts the reader to a quite different judgement of the Rackrents. ‘
Thady tells the story of the Rackrents with a hint of satire running through it. A memorable satiric piece within the novel made with Sir Kit’s cruel vengeance on his Jewish wife in having pig meat of all kinds brought to her table against her wishes, even though she has visited the cook in her kitchen for the precise purpose of averting this. Satirically, when she is unexpectedly released after seven years, by Sir Kit’s death, her first act is to sack the cook.
Thomas Flanagan states that the effective satiric detail here is shown throughout the book, particularly in the first part, where the madness of the Rackrents seems to rage most wildly. Thady quirk is the most alive and complete of all Miss Edgeworths character creations and one critic has considered him ‘The most subtly drawn and skilfully presented character in the whole course of the Irish novel’. The reader is shown in the passage below the satiric nature that Thady portrays each character with.
The swaggering Sir Kit, who throws a guinea to the servile Thady with such bravura, cuts a very different figure as he is brought home from his last duel ‘ up the avenue on the hand-barrow’ while his wife watches incredulously from her window, scarcely able to believe that the tables have been so thoroughly turned on her bizarre spouse. The alcoholically hospitable Sir Patrick is granted the final Irish accolade, a fine funeral, but just as all was going on right, through his own town they were passing, when the body was seized for debt.
The litigious Sir Murtagh, so proud of his forensic capacities, is literally talked to death by his domestic opponent, the Skinflint widow, and bursts a blood vessel while the servants crown the back stairs to eavesdrop on his final apoplectic submissions. There is an unmistakable darkening of tone of the work in the second part the ‘History of Sir Conolly Rackrent’. Where the earlier Rackrents were tragic-comical characters, Sir Conolly is pitiable. The next incident illustrates the ambivalence in Maria Edgeworth’s presentation of Honest Thady. When Jason visits Sir Condy in the hunting lodge to pester him with a final piece of business.
Sir Condy is asleep and Jason insists on seeing him at once but Thady seems to resist. ‘ I’ll not be disturbing his honour for you, Jason, ” says I; ‘many’s the hour you’ve waited in your time, and been proud to do it, till his honour was a leisure to speak to you. His honour’, says I, raising my voice, at which his honour wakens of his own accord, and calls to me from the room to know who it was I was speaking to. Jason made no more ceremony, but follows me into the room. ‘ Thady’s raising his voice on recurrence of ‘his honour’ is a fine satiric touch.
This may serve as a rebuke to Jason or as a means of focusing the sick man so that Jason may wring the last penny out of the Rackrents before Sir Condy dies. Castle Rackrent has considerable historical importance. There is a good deal of evidence that represents Edgeworth’s attempts to capture the speech, rhythms and idioms of the Irish peasants with whom she came in contact. Maria Edgeworth’s novel confused fiction and history. In her preface to Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth attacked conventional histories as unreliable while claiming that the recollections of an Irish servant were more genuine and important as a historical record.
Edgeworth claims that in her novel the civilisation of Irish life involved its Anglicisation in every facet and that she presented a stereotype of the native Irish, designed mainly to convince an English audience of the validity of her preferred approach. Edgeworth’s colonialism was a benevolent one and she stressed the amenability of the Irish character to this, and by contrast its degradation by the abrasive and tyrannical colonialism, which she felt still characterised Irish society.
Her fascination with and delineation of, Irish character focussed on language, and in particular its exploitation as a mechanism of survival by the vulnerable servant. Thady makes an effective use of irony and uses it as a satiric weapon against Sir Murtagh’s wife. ‘She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent and all fast-days, but not holidays.
One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep body and soul together we put a morsel of roast beef into her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh’s dinner, who never fasted, not he;………………………. There are references of irony to Lent, fast days and holidays. Irony as a satiric weapon is effectively wielded by Thady to ridicule Sir Murtagh. Castle Rackrent is episodic in structure, but the consistent use of satire helps to lend consistency and unity to what might other wise be an ungainly collection of episodes and incidents randomly strung together. Maria Edgeworth’s title to Castle Rackrent is to minimize the reader’s alertness to the question of irony. Within the novel itself there is a body of evidence, which casts shadows upon the short title.
Within the larger area of Irish culture one can find the material for an ironic interpretation even of the short title. Maria Edgeworth allows many of her characters to disclose themselves by indirection. Thady is an excellent example. We learn a lot about Thady from his portrayal of other people, particularly when his feelings are strongly engaged. One of his diverting habits is to praise his various masters and their wives according to their generosity towards himself. This produces several extremely comic, and subtle effects. Maria Edgeworth’s chief purpose is to tell an entertaining story, and consequently she does with enthusiasm.
As well as being a regional novel, a saga novel, and a social and historical document, Castle Rackrent is a work containing elements of satire. It is in fact to these satirical elements that it owes much of its subtlety. There is some doubt as to whether Maria Edgeworth intended this novel to be anything but a comical revelation of the Rackrent family and its failings by using the tragic happenings of each family member to portray what could only be described as a work of satire. Maria Edgeworth presents her characterisation, language, imagery, tone and satire, all wrapped in the subtlety that is portrayed throughout the novel.