Balancing Romanticism with Realism

Jeffrey Fronza, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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John McPhee does an excellent job of describing the complex and contradictory way of live on the island of Colonsay. He does this by balancing the different perspectives of people who live on, own, and visit the small island. As a travel book of an exotic place, the narrative wants to run towards the fantasic and romantic. McPhee counters this impulse by presenting in great detail the modern life of a number of crofters, especially Donald Gibbie, and also by presenting the laird's perspective. These counterbalance the lyricism of much of the book, and insures that readers will not merely think of the island as a relic of the past (as other visitors see the island). This balancing is expressed well in the following two passages:

He [the laird] is sorry, but he cannot accept the anachronism he stepped into when he became laird in 1959. It is an odd summer place indeed that includes a hundred and thirty-eight dependent people. Embalmed in law, the crofting system of the Highlands is borne forward ever more incongruously toward the twenty-first century, perfectly protecting the people from the terrors of the eigthteenth century while isolating them from the twentieth (124)

Donald Gibbie spends his time worrying about, among other things, the Common Market and 'what effect Great Britian's entry into it might have on subsidies as we know them.' It is not the islanders who preserve the early magic of the island. It is the women who stay at the inn -- the ones with the knitted caps and tweed skirts and walking sticks, some of whom have brought their own shepherd's crooks with them from Edinburgh (134)

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April 2002