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Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas

Updated on March 25, 2015
A statue in Swansea's Maritime Quarter representing Thomas's fictional Captain Cat
A statue in Swansea's Maritime Quarter representing Thomas's fictional Captain Cat

A standard reading in colleges from 1965 to the present, Under Milk Wood opens itself to a variety of interpretations. It is said that Dylan Thomas claimed it was a reaction to the Hiroshima bombings of World War II, showing that there is indeed still beauty in the world. But there are so many layers to this work, that have no bearing on the horrors performed by mankind, but rather Thomas’ own return to the womb of Wales.

The basic “plot” is twenty four hours in the life of a rural Welsh community. It opens with the dreams of several community members, then progresses through their day and wraps up back in the arms of slumber.

Perhaps the dreams depicted are not really dreams, with all the usual strange visions and unrelated events, but rather dreams as wishes, as the reader discovers what the character is happy for or regretting. A weak character dreams of revenge; a sad character dreams of escape.

While the location of this “novel for voices” suggest Wales, and names are seemingly Welsh, if one considers the fact that this was written in England and the United States, another viewpoint is that the novel was written with sarcasm and the attitude that nothing ever changes within human society.

Consider the town’s name of Llareggub; in reverse, this spells BUGGERALL. And character names are equally indicative of a satiric look at small town thinking around the world. There is no main character, but rather a repertory company of characters. However, we could single out Captain Cat, since he sits in a window observing, commenting and narrating, as a passive main character.

A look at some key characters displays the conflicts between actual events and the person’s hidden wishes and reactions.

Captain Cat is blind and retired. So much for the sharp sight of a cat. One wonders just how much he is actually observing and how much is his interpretation of what he hears. He dreams of the dead – old shipmates and an old lover – and his life without sight and a ship is equally dead.

Myfanwy Price and Mog Edwards live a life apart, only entering into a torrid romance in their letter exchanges and dreams of one another.

Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard maintains both surnames of her deceased husbands and a guestless guest house. She will not abide guests dirtying up her clean house, and apparently by nagging them in her dreams, she will not abide her deceased husbands getting the surcease of death from her control. The use of two surnames immediately invokes the vision of a snobbish matron who prefers “superiority” over real relationships.

Gossamer Beynon is well-named. Like gossamer, her life is floating somewhere in the ether, a victim of the winds of life around her. In her dreams she get wily, but her real life exposes her as a helpless waif, unable to even generate a legitimate relationship with Sinbad Sailors. Despite his superman name, Sailors is equally unable to face up to his grandmother’s disapproval of the couple.

A boat bearing the name of the fictional location of Under Milk Wood
A boat bearing the name of the fictional location of Under Milk Wood

The Organ Morgans typify a man who lives unfulfilled and a woman who never did accept what the man she married obviously is.

The Cherry Owens exemplify a weakling/enabler couple. He fears losing his access to alcohol, which he needn’t fear as long as she is there.

The choice of name for the police constable is interesting. Attila Rees can be read as artilleries.

Mr. and Mrs. Willy Nilly live in a half-world. His dreams of knocking on the door of his wife and hers of being mildly chastised indicate a haphazard and half-hearted interest in sado-masochism. Their daytime practice of opening other people’s mail (which in this town doesn’t offer a lot of ‘dirt’ nor excitement) allows them to live their lives vicariously.

Mae Rose Cottage reminds us of the days when we longed for a rose-covered cottage.

The Butcher Beynons remind us of the most common marriage, where neither will ever end it, but both delight in torturing the other.

More descriptive names, which really need no explanation, are the Dai Breads, Polly Garter, Lord Cut Glass and Nogood Boyo.

With this viewpoint, one could apply this town of Llareggub to any town, city or village in the western world with the same accuracy. Despite the outward appearances, no household is really desirable. Dylan does the same with the novel, submitting it as an idyll when in reality is it a condemnation of humankind.

© 2015 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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