Toxic Masculinity in James Joyce’s “Counterparts” and J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea

Mike Gole

Analytical Paper

August 7, 2015


Toxic Masculinity in James Joyce’s “Counterparts” and J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea

     Toxic masculinity in Irish society at the turn of the 20th century manifested itself in several ways, including the desire to assert masculinity by fulfilling traditionally masculine roles,the fear of emasculation, and frustration with the stagnation of middle class life. These issues resulted in damaging outlets for the resulting frustration. These included excessive drinking, abuse, and the need to prove one’s masculinity through an often dangerous sense of duty. James Joyce, in his short story “Counterparts,” displays issues of frustration through emasculation, and shows possible negative consequences when this frustration is poorly handled. J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea shows the potentially deadly consequences of a sense of duty stemming from a strict adherence to traditional gender roles.
     As Joseph Valente explains in his book, The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922,” Irish men were unfairly stereotyped by British society, and caught in a catch-22. If an Irish man displayed primal urges or traits traditionally related to manhood, (what Valente calls “manliness”), he fulfilled the stereotype held by the British of the ape-like, subhuman Irishman. However, if he suppressed those manly feelings (a trait that Valente calls “masculinity”), he fulfilled the stereotype held by the British of the emasculated, overly feminine Irishman (Valente). In James Joyce’s “Counterparts,” the character Farrington is clearly more concerned with avoiding being stereotyped in the second way. Farrington spends the entire story trying to prove his manliness, and avoid being emasculated. To this end, Farrington displays frustrations suggested by the author to be common among lower and middle class men in Dublin around the turn of the 20th century. Throughout “Counterparts,” Farrington encounters intense frustration, usually stemming from what he perceives as attacks on his masculinity. Farrington handles this frustration very poorly, venting his anger through self destructive acts like drinking to excess as well as violent acts such as the abuse of his son. Farrington and his boss, Mr. Alleyne, are physical opposites. Farrington is described as having a “heavy step” and is often referred to as “the man,” as if to underline his traditionally masculine physical qualities. Meanwhile, Mr. Alleyne is described as “a little man wearing gold rimmed glasses on a cleanshaven face” with a bare head (Joyce). Immediately upon beginning the story, the emphasis that Farrington places on his physique is apparent. Although he is in an inferior position to this weaker man, he takes comfort in the fact that he is physically Alleyne’s superior. He deals with Mr. Alleyne’s criticisms by imagining himself beating the man to death. In addition to his violent fantasies, Farrington finds an outlet in excessive drinking. He thinks constantly about leaving work to go to the pubs with his friends. Farrington’s obsession with the pubs may stem from a desire to experience classically manly and masculine activities. He looks to the pubs for camaraderie, good conversation, and opportunities to prove his traditionally manly traits (drinking, arm wrestling, etc.). Unfortunately for Farrington, he doesn’t fit in at the pubs much better than he does in his office; he is emasculated even in this space which he longs for during the work day. When buying rounds for the group, Farrington is forced to buy more expensive drinks for Weathers, a young man whom he had just met. Farrington’s lack of money is a source of embarrassment. His breaking point comes after losing an arm wrestling match with Weathers, whom Farrington describes as a “stripling.” While walking home, Farrington is described as “full of smouldering anger and revengefulness…Humiliated and discontented” (Joyce). The thought of being beaten in a test of strength by someone he considers a mere boy is too much for Farrington. This embarrassment and perceived affront to his manhood causes a violent outburst at his son upon his arrival at home. Farrington, afraid of being emasculated and perceived as the typical feminine Irishman, overcompensates to the point of violence. In doing so, he plays directly into the stereotype of the violent, ape-like Irishman.
     In J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, the issue of toxic masculinity is much less apparent than it is in “Counterparts.” However, it can be argued that Bartley’s ultimately deadly sense of duty to provide for his mother and sisters stems from the fear of emasculation and the desire to adhere to traditional gender roles. Bartley is, like Farrington, subjected to the unfair and unbeatable British stereotypes regarding the Irish. However, unlike Farrington, Bartley seems to strike something of a balance between the primal Irishman who displays traditionally manly traits, and the effeminate Irishman stereotypes. Bartley’s traditionally manly traits revolve around his perceived sense of duty to provide for his mother and sisters despite his mother’s warnings and the clear danger of doing so. In this sense, Bartley strictly adheres to traditionally manly gender roles. Bartley’s masculinity, as Valente would call it, is seen in his general demeanor and behavior in the play. Bartley is fairly soft spoken. He knows what he needs to do for his family and he does it quietly without any show or fuss. However, despite the fact that Bartley seems to walk this line between what Valente refers to as manly and masculine, he is still ultimately killed by his adherence to the traditional male role of the provider and protector. However, in discussing damaging male gender roles in Riders to the Sea, the most important character to study is Maurya. Maurya suffers immensely as a result of Bartley’s supposed duty to provide for the family; she loses her son, but she also loses her voice. While Bartley is preparing to depart to sell the horse, Maurya pleads with him not to go. This is completely ignored by Bartley. When he does respond to his mother, Bartley is dismissive of her. Maurya is being shunted aside by her son in his desire to fulfill the role of provider. Maurya is again (presumably) the victim of toxic masculinity after her son’s death. Life as a woman with no father, husband, or son in Irish society at this time left the woman essentially destitute. The fact that, at this point in Irish society, the roles of provider and protector were bestowed almost entirely upon men is damaging to both genders. It was precisely this that led Bartley to his death. However, the effect on the women of the family is twofold; they have lost the male members of their family, and are also now subjected to a life in which they have no protector or provider, and are not socially allowed to fill those roles themselves.


Works Cited

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Adelaide: U of Adelaide Library, 2014. Dubliners, by James Joyce. University of Adelaide,        17 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.
Synge, John Millington. Riders to the Sea. 1904.
Valente, Joseph. The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois, 2011. Print.

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