The 10 stories in this collection were written in Laugharne during 1938 and 1939 (though not in the order in which they appear in the volume), and the collection signaled the emergence of Welsh writer Dylan Thomas (1914–53) as a master of autobiographical prose as well as poetry. In contrast to his early stories, which were introspective, obscure, and surreal, Thomas now turned to the world about him, drawing extensively on his experiences as a journalist and releasing a spring of comedy and nostalgia. The stories give a coherent picture of the growth of a poet’s mind, each dealing with a state of his childhood, youth, or early manhood as well as giving a faithful depiction of Swansea during the Depression—its poverty and unemployment and the destruction and decadence of Welsh culture. Thomas denied the influence of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, saying, “I made a bit of doggish fun of the painting-title and . . . intended no possible reference to Joyce.” He added, however, that “the shaping of some of my Portrait stories might owe something to Joyce’s stories into the volume Dubliners” (quoted in Ackerman, 185). As Joyce’s Dubliners encapsulates a people, time, and place, so does Dylan Thomas’s Portrait, and despite the gently satiric tone, the narrator shows compassion for the suffering of his characters and delights in their humanity.
In the opening story, “The Peaches,” Thomas explores his family origins by depicting his mother’s relations’ life on their small, impoverished farm in Dyfed. The story opens with a journey from town to country in spring, at night, which becomes a rite of passage for the boy. While waiting for his Uncle Jim, who stops for a drink and leaves him alone in the darkness, the boy experiences a nightmarish and surreal enlargement of his imagination. The story depicts the rural world as empathizing with nature (“I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me” ) but hopelessly decayed at the same time, and thus symptomatic of the economic plight of Welsh rural areas during the 1930s. Uncle Jim is a drunkard who sells his farm stock for alcohol, Auntie Annie is kind but ineffectual; the son Gwilym is supposed to be training for the ministry yet is a sexual fantasizer and masturbator who terrorizes young Dylan and his friend Jack with his preaching. The title-giving peaches are not the luscious fresh fruit but a tinned version, which becomes a symbol of a helpless gesture of Welsh hospitality. As a luxury for the poor Welsh peasants, Auntie Annie offers the peaches to wealthy Mrs. Williams, mother of Jack, who cruelly rejects them out of snobbishness. The final humiliation is reached when Jack flees home, leaving the “ruin of Gorsehill” (18) behind. Pathos and comedy are well balanced throughout, and the story gives an idea of the young boy’s sensitivity.
In “A Visit to Grandpa’s” the world of his father’s family is depicted as an equally strange mixture of the everyday and the surreal, the hilarious and the serious. His grandfather rides horses in his dreams, and while awake he tries to walk in his best waistcoat to nearby Llangadock to be buried there, because “the ground is comfy” (24). When the neighbors find grandpa, he refuses to return home, standing “like a prophet who has not doubt” (24). The precision of topographical detail and deep knowledge of Welsh traditions that emphasize a person’s place of burial make this a memorable story of the Carmarthenshire district of Thomas’s youth.
The following eight stories, all but three of which are written in the first person, explore aspects of the protagonist’s life from childhood to late adolescence. In “Patricia, Edith and Arnold,” a story written in the third person, the child glimpses an adult world of chaotic sexual relations and unhappiness. Young Dylan observes how two women who have found out that they have received similar tokens of love and love letters from the same man try to settle their dispute. Forced to decide between the two women, the narcissistic suitor turns both of them against him, as female solidarity finally overcomes sexual jealousy. Similar in theme is “Just Like Little Dogs,” in which the protagonist, now older, again observes the tragicomic arbitrariness of sexual relations and the pain that is yet involved in them.
For Thomas, the most important relationships are masculine friendships, and women merely feature as mothers or as objects of desire, usually superior to the protagonist. “The Fight” details the odd development of a childhood friendship that begins with a fight between two boys and results in the decision that they will edit a magazine together. Similarly, in “Where Tawe Flows” the poet, now somewhat older, attends a meeting of men who plan to collaborate in the writing of “a Novel of Provincial Life” that centers again around sexuality and death. Friendship and the creative process are closely linked, and each aids the development of the other.
Several of the stories explore the developing sexuality of the adolescent poet. “Extraordinary Little Cough” is a story of pubescent love, a nostalgic account of a camping outing to Rhossili and its beach. Other stories, such as “Who Do You Wish Was with Us” and “Old Garbo,” deal with the theme of death. The title figure of “Old Garbo” is Mrs. Prothero (“We call her Old Garbo because she isn’t like her, see” ), an old working-class woman who believes that her daughter and new grandchild have died in childbirth. After a collection is made for her, the daughter is found to be alive, and the mother, drunk and unable to face her friends, throws herself into the river. The story depicts Swansea as a city of two halves—a respectable part and a disreputable dock area—in which the narrator, who works as a journalist for a Swansea newspaper, shifts between the two areas. This is in contrast to his boss, Mr. Farr, who tries to shut his eyes against the poverty, unemployment, and misery.
The concluding story, “One Warm Saturday,” Thomas’s favorite, exudes an atmosphere of missed opportunity. The poet is wandering by himself about Swansea on an August bank holiday and contrasts himself in his isolation with the happy families on the sands. Thomas gives a humorous and self-mocking portrait of the artist here: “He thought: Poets live and walk with their poems; a man with vision needs no other company. . . . But he was not a poet living and walking, he was a young man in a sea town on a warm bank holiday, with two pounds to spend; he had no vision, only two pounds and a small body with its feet on the littered sand; serenity was for old men” (102). Characteristically, the protagonist falls in love with a beautiful girl and fantasizes about sexual fulfillment, but he loses track of her in the nightmarish world of a labyrinthine house full of stairs and doors; Alfred Tennyson’s dramatic poem spoken by a madman, “Come into the garden Maud” (1855), provides heightened ironic effects. In these stories love is a frustrating and unsatisfying experience of isolation and loss.
The collection is unified not only through the protagonist and the Swansea setting but also by the theme of increasing alienation. As young Thomas encounters various worlds, his desire to belong intensifies while his ability to belong decreases (Davies, 180). The growth of the young man into a poet is a process of distancing himself from his hometown environment.
Ackerman, John. A Dylan Thomas Companion: Life, Poetry and Prose. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1991. Davies, James A. A Reference Companion to Dylan Thomas. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Thomas, Dylan. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Introduction by Aeronwy Thomas. London: Phoenix, 2001.