John Noreen

ENG 362

February 27, 2010

Life and Lineage: The Ideas of Reform and Judgement in W.B. Yeats’ Purgatory

     Before the play even begins W.B. Yeats eschews the assertion suggested by the title of his play. Although the title of his play, Purgatory, invites the audience to assume that it will take place in an otherworldly setting, Yeats makes it clear from the scene that the world he intends to examine is not the hypothetical and fictional one of the afterlife, but rather an easily recognizable earthly landscape. By allowing the story to unfold and develop under these circumstances, Yeats creates a backdrop for a different notion of purgatory.* The once intangible characteristics of a world beyond our own now acquire a greater relevance, carrying more human properties. By transplanting the themes invoked by purgatory onto a new setting, Yeats brings the growth and reflection down to Earth and makes it possible for the living. W.B. Yeats uses an earthly setting with realistic and universal characters to fully formulate the symbolic significance of the fictional world of purgatory. 

     The setting is the first instance where Yeats begins to examine and explain an earthly form of purgatory. He describes the scene as, “A ruined house and a bare tree in the background” (29). The symbolism invoked by these images captures the nature of purgatory. The tree is not described as dead or in a stage or rebirth, but simply bare. The audience finds the tree in between fall and spring. A stage caught in the ambivalence of death and a new form of life. While the leaves of the tree have already escaped and fallen, buds have yet to grow and sprout. Yeats presents the audience with a play in which the central themes pertain to spirituality and religion. Most importantly, purgatory suggests the impending continuation or possible damnation of life. However, the few indications that Yeats gives as to the setting ground the play in a familiar and earthly world. This world, and the two indicators it possesses, are easily identifiable and resonate with the audience. Despite the hypothetical suggestion of purgatory, Yeats uses realistic elements to recreate the same setting in a symbolic way. The bare tree represents its own purgatory. Its future is uncertain. While it may remain bare, and essentially dead forever, there is still the possibility, and with the hope, that the tree will once again carry leaves and achieve new life. [I am not sure about this. In the theatre, a leafless tree is not likely to arouse thoughts of the possibility of regeneration you suggest] The tree is the elemental and natural aspect of purgatory that Yeats captures before the first line of dialogue is spoken. 

     In the same description of scene, Yeats also expresses the other side of human existence on Earth. In general, there are two aspects of human life on Earth. The first is humanity’s interaction with nature, and nature's imposition on human beings. The other, is human creation and our imposition on nature. The creation aspect of human life enters with Yeats’ description of the ruined house in the setting. It is a man made construction, and it has fallen to ruin during its lifetime. The audience assumes that the house was once new, a freshly built structure with the promise of upkeep. However, the house entered a period of deprecation and uncertainty at some point during its lifetime. Although the house maintains a chance at vindication, that possibility remains unclear. There is always the chance of repair, but no action to restore the house proves foreseeable. When opposed to the tree, the house assumes a human quality. It takes on the characteristics of its creators, paralleling the decline of human life. The ruin of the house is visible, but as with humanity, the ability to repent perpetually keeps the house from reaching a point of no return.** Yeats uses these realistic elements to achieve the same symbolic meaning contained in the idea of purgatory to translate the themes to an earthly environment. 

     Yeats goes beyond setting and uses his choice of characters to show his great understanding of the meaning behind purgatory. With only two characters to relay the significance of the entire play, each must carry great weight and relevance within the story. The namelessness of the characters gives indication to the ideas which Yeats hopes to relay in the play. By creating nameless, [and therefore faceless]a rhetorical over-reach, portraits of humanity, Yeats makes the characters universally applicable. Age serves as the only illuminating characteristic [but class is a characteristic--they are tramps, tinkers; there are in fact a lot of tramps in Abbey Theatre plays] he provides for the persons in the play, and incidentally, it becomes the most important, if not the only significant aspect of the figures he depicts. Pitting the two opposite ends of human existence against one another, Yeats intends to portray the essence of purgatory. Purgatory is judgement. Judgement implies reflection on one’s life. 

     Yeats suggests, by means of the two characters, that the best way to reflect on one’s life is to view the beginning and the end. The start and end of the journey. The boy represents the beginning of life. He encompasses all of the equipment and individual entities that eventually compose the final and finished product. He embodies youth, opportunity, and promise *** while the old man represents the finality. He makes the promise a reality. The promise is eventually fulfilled or forgotten. One either takes or ignores opportunity. Youth evaporates from the instant it begins. The boy represents what could be, and the old man represents what came to be. In between the two points of boy and old man was life. The events that transpired all took place under the control of the person between the boy and the man. Man takes the boy and, without knowing what old man he will transform into, he acts. The space and time that one occupies between those two points on the lifeline is the substance of purgatory. That journey becomes the basis of judgement. Yeats suggests in his play that purgatory conveys itself through a dialogue between the two ends of life’s spectrum. One does not have the luxury to explain oneself in the moment, providing rationale for one’s choices. The accountability, instituted by the judgement of purgatory, enters only after life. Only the finished product is judged against the starting point. Purgatory places importance on what one made and accomplished with the tools they were bestowed and the potential they once possessed. 

From an early point, the dialogue addresses purgatory’s common ideas of judgement, reflection and change. The old man tells the boy, “Study that house. I think about its jokes and stories” (29). The command serves to express multiple meanings. While literally it suggests that many events happened in the physical space of the house, it also implies that, because the house may also be viewed as the human aspect of life as discussed before, a deeper meaning when one considers the old man’s following words, “I try to remember what the butler said to a drunken gamekeeper, but I cannot. If I cannot, none living can” (29). The stories are those that transpired in life. They are what happened to the old man when he was fulfilling the future of his youth. He cannot remember these stories any longer because the full story is only available as it happens. Although the old man is now accountable for those stories, he is not the same person he was when he incurred them years before. He cannot retell the stories to their fullest extent, and that is where purgatory becomes relevant. Only an outside source possesses the necessary distance to judge. Even the active participant changes too much to provide full explanation for his or her life, and so it becomes evident that the two polarities, the boy and the old man are the pieces of evidence that must be inspected, measured, weighed and ultimately passed judgement upon if a conclusion is to be reached. 

     Through judgement, purgatory becomes a time when one learns from the actions they committed. The old man places importance on coming back to familiar spots to gain the necessary perspective. By stressing familiarity, he allows a chance at earthly purgatory. The old man says, “The souls in Purgatory that come back to habitations and familiar spots. Re-live their transgressions, and that not once but many times; they know at last the consequence of those transgressions whether upon others or upon themselves” (30). Only the final product, the old man, can determine the relevance, significance and outcome of every action. Hindsight is not enough. It’s necessary to relive. The tree is like a silly old man now, but it can relive and once again achieve a beautiful bloom and reach its full potential. The old man comes to the boy because he is family. Part of the old man lives on in the boy, and by seeing the boy in a stage of life already endured by the old man, he visits the familiar spots in a metaphorical sense. 

     Although the boy is full of youth and promise, he also polarizes the old man in the form of naivete and ignorance. What the old man has learned, even if from mistakes, also becomes part of the equation in purgatory. The boy embodies the cyclical nature of life, and the chance at wisdom and the ability to correct one’s mistakes. In the real-world setting imposed on the play by Yeats, the suggestion is that to rectify one’s transgressions on Earth, one must teach the child, who still has time in this life. The old man has life in this boy, and that is how he can transform himself and learn from his mistakes. The separation between the two parts of the man’s life is similar to that in purgatory. By imparting this knowledge on the boy, the piece of himself, future generations improve and the self becomes better over time. The piece of oneself that still inhabits earthly life engages in a form of repentance by passing on lessons learned. Unfortunately, the boy does not take to the old man’s lessons. The boy says, “What education have you given me” (31). He says this as the old man tries to impart his wisdom in hopes that the boy will better himself with the knowledge. The boy confuses education and knowledge. The old man realizes that the boy’s innocence is already threatened and knows that improvement is an impossible dream as the boy threatens to repeat the same mistakes as the old man. The old kills the young, symbolizing the death of the mistake. Ultimately, the image of the bare tree under a white line shines on the stage. The light is the nourishment that will bring the tree back to life. A natural rebirth awaits. 

     Yeats replaces the process of purification and punishment that generally takes place after death with one on Earth. By eliminating the notion of the afterlife as one in heaven, Yeats makes the themes of redemption, reflection and judgement clearly visible as themes present in earthly life. While opposing two different forms of life with the setting of the tree and the house to represent two different aspects of transitional life, Yeats also uses the polarities of the boy and the old man to express these themes as well. Eventually, Yeats is able to bring the themes from an area beyond the realm of life into the foreground of human existence, showing how purification can take place on Earth when one takes an alternate view of transcendent life. 

Works Cited

Yeats, W.B. "Purgatory." Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John p. Harrington. Second ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 29-35. Print.

*"Purgatory" would also have more Catholic than Protestant associations, although Yeats was interested in it via Theosophy and other spiritualist traditions.
** Isn't it true in both cases (houses and human beings), that there is a point of no return?
***Yes, the potency to recreate "in the style" of his father and grandfather, signified by associating his 16th birthday at The Puck Fair