The Playboy of the Western World

by

J. M. Synge

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The Playboy of the Western World: Act 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s the morning after. Christy is cheerfully going about his duties as pub-boy, cleaning boots and counting up the glasses. He happily imagines spending the rest of his life at the pub, picturing a romantic life of drink, conversation and fairly easy work. He picks up the looking-glass from the wall and admires his reflection, thinking about Pegeen’s comment about his handsomeness.
Christy is delighted by his new role as hero, but he also displays a vanity that suggests to the audience that he is not the pure hero that Pegeen and the others think he is. This moment allows the audience to see Christy on his own and get a deeper understanding of his psychology.
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Four young village girls—Susan Brady, Nelly McLaughlin, Sara Tansey and Honor Blake—arrive at the pub. Christy gathers his coat and the looking-glass and hides in the inner room while the village girls search for him. They want to see a man who has “killed his father.”
The arrival of the girls indicates that news of Christy’s deed has got around, in turn demonstrating the power of story and myth—the community is crying out for this kind of event and feeding the spectacle.
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The girls notice Christy’s boots by the door, which Sara mischievously tries on. Just then, Honor looks inside the inner room and notices Christy. They call him out. He enters, hiding the looking-glass behind his back. They ask where Pegeen is, and he explains that she is tending to the goats.
Christy is self-consciously embarrassed by his vanity, sensing it to be at odds with the kind of hero the villagers perceive him to be.
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The girls quiz Christy enthusiastically about whether he is the man who killed his father. Christy confirms this, while secretly trying to re-hang the looking-glass behind his back. The village girls present Christy with gifts: Sara has brought duck eggs, which she says are “the real sort;” Honor brought some cake to aid his “thin stomach;” and Nelly brought a hen, which she makes Christy feel the breast of.
Synge makes an ironic gesture towards the biblical story of Jesus. Christy’s name aligns with Christ and the bringing of gifts is a comedic rendering of the nativity. Though the allusion is subtle, it leaves the audience in no doubt that Synge wants Christy to be considered in the context of the heroic archetype—best exemplified by Jesus Christ.
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As Christy dutifully admires the breast of Nelly’s hen, Nelly notices the looking-glass behind his back. She exclaims, “them that kill their fathers is a vain lot surely.” The girls giggle, making Christy feel embarrassed.
Christy is forced to feel the breast of the hen, again linking his heroic status to sexual prowess. Here, though, it’s undermined by the discovery of the looking-glass, which puts his vanity on display.
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Widow Quin comes in, having just entered Christy into all of the village’s sports events taking place later that day. Surprised to see the village girls and their gifts, she instructs them to make Christy breakfast. She sits down with Christy and asks to hear his “story” before Pegeen comes back.
The village sports will be an important part of Christy’s ascension to being the villagers’ hero. Widow Quin wants to hear Christy’s story from its source, which gives him an opportunity to frame it in such a way that reinforces his hero status.
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Christy describes how his father had recently ordered him to marry a hideous widow, whom he describes as “a walking terror from beyond the hills,” massively overweight and with a “blinded eye.” Christy, chewing on a chicken leg under the eager eyes of Widow Quin and the village girls, tells how he refused to wed this widow. His father had then called her “too good” for him and threatened to “flatten [him] out like a crawling beast” crushed by a wagon.
The archetype of the “hideous widow” has a fairytale feel to it, highlighting that Christy’s account is, if not fictionalized, certainly sensationalized for his audience (both in stage and in the theater). The chicken leg creates a sense of the fragility of life and man’s primal nature, both of which Christy needs to make his retelling effective.
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Christy concludes the story: his father had lifted his scythe up above his head and wished Christy “mercy” on his soul. Then, the fight ensued, with Christy quickly dealing the fatal blow using his loy. As he tells this, he uses the chicken bone as a prop. The girls call him a “marvel” and his story a “grand” and “lovely” one.
Christy’s retelling makes for a powerful story, and he knows it. That’s why he acts it out as he speaks. The girls are evidently satisfied. The loy as a weapon symbolizes his transformation from oppressed peasant to heroic conqueror, being both the farming implement that he had to use every day and the item that he thinks has dealt a fatal blow his father.
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Sara says that both Christy and Widow Quin are heroes, and that they should get married. She pours them a drink and toasts to “the wonders of the western world.” At this point, Pegeen comes in. The girls “spring away from Christy.” Pegeen angrily dismisses them and Widow Quin, who reminds Christy about the “sports and racing” taking place at noon.
As with the other characters before her, Sara links the capacity for violence with heroism. Her toast informs Christy’s nickname as the playboy of the western world. The “hero” will have a chance to symbolically prove his status by competing in the village sports and games.
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Now alone with Christy, Pegeen “imperiously” orders him to complete tasks around the pub. Trying to soften her mood, Christy picks up a loy and tries to tell her again about killing his father. She complains that she’s heard the story “six times” that morning and that, furthermore, he shouldn’t be telling his story to everyone who’ll listen.
Pegeen is annoyed with Christy for enjoying the affections of the Widow Quin and the village girls. He overplays his story, referencing it again in an attempt to win Pegeen over. The story, in a sense, is losing its power and must be replaced by something new (Christy’s poetic talk later on). She shows the same fortitude of character that earlier saw her dismiss Shawn.
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Pegeen purposefully teases Christy, scaring him that that the village girls might tell his story to the “peelers,” who she says would take great joy in hanging him. Christy, increasingly concerned, puts his boots on, believing he had best be moving on again. Christy laments the lonely prospect of “passing small towns with the light shining sideways when the night is down,” and hearing lovers in ditches while “passing on with an empty hungry stomach failing from your heart.” 
Pegeen enjoys teasing Christy, giving her a temporary authority over him. Christy’s descriptions of what life will be like if he has to leave are again poetic and serve to soften Pegeen’s attitude towards him.
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Pegeen calls Christy an “odd man.” He says anyone would be odd “living lonesome”; Pegeen points out that she has only ever lived with her father, but she’s not odd. Christy asks her, admiringly, “how would a lovely handsome woman the like of you be lonesome when all men should be thronging around to hear the sweetness of your voice.” 
Christy flatters Pegeen, sensing his command over his language. The talk of “living lonesome” also subtly implies the opposite: living with someone. That is, it draws out the possibility of Pegeen and Christy being married.
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Pegeen suspects Christy of pretending to be “lonesome” to win her affection, but he insists that “I was lonesome all times and born lonesome, I’m thinking, as the moon of dawn.” She’s surprised, considering he’s a “fine lad with the great savagery to destroy your da.” Christy tells her that his heart is “scalded” because he has to leave, “stretching out the earth” between them. “I’ll not be waking near you another dawn of the year till the two of us two arise to hope or judgment with the saints of God.”
Christy employs beautiful poetry, both to develop his sense of despair at having to leave Pegeen and to increase her sympathies towards him. This also lends the conversation an air of finality or fate that will transform into the two characters’ feeling that they are meant to be together.
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Pegeen finally lets on that Christy is safe at the pub and that there’s been nothing in the newspapers about his father. Christy is deeply relieved and talks rapturously about having Pegeen’s company from now on.
Having faced the possibility of leaving, Christy is emboldened by the news that Pegeen was tricking him. This renews his sense of freedom and confidence.
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Shawn runs in, accompanied by Widow Quin, and tells Pegeen that her sheep are “eating cabbages in Jimmy’s field.” She rushes out of the door to stop them. Having got rid of Pegeen, Shawn anxiously offers Christy a one-way ticket on a ship to the U.S.A, also offering up his best clothes. He wants Christy to “leave us in the peace we had till last night at the fall of dark,” explaining that he intends to marry Pegeen and can’t have a “clever fearless man” like Christy around.
Shawn’s story about Pegeen’s sheep is a distraction tactic to help him get Christy alone. He wants to get Christy as far away from the village as possible, hence the offer of a one-way ticket to America. This also plays on the idea of Christy being the playboy of the “western” world, attempting to push him as far west as possible. Shawn knows he is no match for Christy’s heroism.
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Widow Quin also tries to convince Christy, letting slip the rumor that Pegeen intends to marry him. This makes Christy “beam with delight.” As Christy goes into the inner room to admire his new hat and coat, Shawn worries that Christy isn’t going to leave. He’s sure Pegeen will prefer Christy over him, which Widow Quin confirms: “it’s true all girls are fond of courage and do hate the likes of you.” Shawn says he would inform on Christy but is scared Christy will kill him.
This is the first Christy knows for sure that Pegeen wants to marry him, and it only intensifies his desire to stay. His decision to take Shawn’s clothes is emblematic of his usurping of Shawn’s place as Pegeen’s love object. Widow Quin neatly sums up why Christy is the more attractive of the two men.
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Widow Quin makes a deal with Shawn: she will contrive to marry Christy if Shawn will provide her with a cow, a ram, right of way across his property, and the permission to cut turf on his land. Shawn eagerly agrees.
Widow Quin has an opportunistic streak, often looking for ways to improve her lot in exchange for favors. At this stage, Shawn will practically agree to anything to rid himself of the hero.
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Widow Quin compliments Christy’s appearance as he comes back in: “it’d be a pity surely to have your like sailing from Mayo to the Western World.” She makes a sign for Shawn to leave her alone with Christy; he makes his excuses and goes out. Christy boasts of his life to come as a “gallant orphan,” insisting he will stay at the pub.
Christy has become so confident that he is able to take Shawn’s clothes without offering anything in return. This is a signal of hubris and ultimately hints at his downfall.
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Suddenly, Christy staggers back, thinking he’s seen the “walking spirit” of his father. Widow Quin looks out, seeing only a “tramper.” Old Mahon comes in; Christy hides behind the door. Mahon asks Widow Quin if she has seen an “ugly young streeler with a murderous gob on him.” Mahon wants to “destroy him for breaking the head on me with the clout of a loy.”
Christy is evidently surprised at the appearance of his father, indicating that the story has not been deliberately misleading. If anything, the disparity between story and reality just highlights Christy’s youthful naiveté and, of course, undermines his heroic status. Mahon’s mention of the loy makes it clear to Widow Quin that this is Christy’s father.
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Mahon takes off his hat and shows Widow Quin his bandaged head. She’s impressed with the wound, which Mahon said was done by his “own son.” She says that Mahon must have “vexed” and “tormented” his son greatly to make him “strike that gash.” Mahon, offended, claims to have the “patience of a martyred saint,” painting a picture of his son as lazy, foolish, and vain.
Mahon offers the counter image to Christy’s character, portraying him as the opposite of all the things the villagers think him to be. This to a degree reinstates Mahon’s paternal authority; though he has not yet found Christy, he has started the work to undermine his son’s false heroic status.
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Widow Quin, with one eye on Christy, asks Mahon why his son was “so foolish”—was it because he “was running wild after the girls maybe?” Mahon explains that his son would hide like a frightened hare whenever girls were around. Furthermore, he adds, his son couldn’t handle his alcohol and “would get drunk on the smell of a pint!” His son, he sums up, is the “laughing joke of every female woman.”
Mahon adds more detail to the description of his son. Everything he says paints Christy as boyish and distinctly unheroic. This also explains why Christy was initially so surprised to be described as handsome by Pegeen.
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Widow Quin gets rid of Mahon by saying she thinks she’s seen the man he’s looking for heading to catch a ship on the coast. Mahon goes out to follow her directions. She swings the door and looks at Christy, who is cowering in fear. Laughing, she calls him the “walking playboy of the western world.”
Widow Quin now has a degree of power over Christy, being the first character to know the truth about his story. Here, the use of “playboy” isn’t intended as complimentary, more suggesting trickery or playacting.
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Christy frets about what Pegeen will say when she hears about his father’s visit. Widow Quin thinks she’ll kick him out for being a “little schemer.” Christy rages to himself about his father: “to be letting on he was dead, and coming back to life…coming in here and laying desolation between my own self and the fine women of Ireland.”
Christy, despite the return of his father, is undergoing a genuine transformation in which he begins to feel more sure of himself. He sees his life as high stakes, knowing that he must vanquish his father or return to his old life.
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Christy despairs to Widow Quin about the prospect of losing Pegeen’s affection, who he says has “the love-light of the star of knowledge shining from her brow.” Widow Quin rejects this “poetry talk for a girl you’d see itching and scratching.” Christy says Pegeen is the kind of woman “fitted to be handling merchandise in the heavens above.”
Christy hasn’t lost his poetic tendency, which again might well speak to his naiveté given that Pegeen is effectively the first girl that he has ever properly spoken to. Widow Quin highlights this directly, drawing a distinction between Christy’s impressive use of words with what she sees as Pegeen’s lack of merit.
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Christy and Widow Quin hear people approaching the pub. Widow Quin hurriedly puts her proposition to Christy: that she has taken a “fancy” to him and wants him to live with her, where she can “tend” to him and he won’t have to worry about talking about whether he is a murderer or not. He instead begs her to help him win Pegeen’s heart, as the village girls clamor for him to come outside. She makes him promise that, if she helps him, he will give her “right of way” and a “ram,” to which he agrees.
Widow Quin offers Christy an easy way out of his situation by coming to live with her, but his lingering sense of the heroic gives him the confidence to refuse her proposal. Widow Quin makes her second deal of the play, showing her to be canny and opportunistic.
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Widow Quin suggests that she and Christy pretend Old Mahon is a “maniac” and not Christy’s father. Susan, Sara, Honor and Nelly run in, calling for Christy to “come on the sports now.” He goes off, leaving Widow Quin to say to herself, “well, if the worst comes in the end of all, it’ll be great game to see there’s none to pity him but a widow woman, the like of me.” She leaves too.
Widow Quin is enjoying the drama of what’s happening, sensing that the events taking place are becoming a good story—no matter what the outcome may be. Despite his father’s return, Christy is still tasked with proving his heroism in the village games and sports.
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