The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde

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This photograph was taken near Old Barna Railway Bridge by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state.  In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).

Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:

The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).

Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,

‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).

The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37).  However, far from being a  ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career.  Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985.  During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.

The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10).  However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002.  Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).

In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English.  Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975.  However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life.  If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight.  As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.

The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.

As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:

Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).

This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.

In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.

The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a  modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland.  Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.

The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9).  Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.

Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’.  Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.

Section 1
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past.  Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.

Section 2
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).

He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!

I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’.  Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney.  She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.

Section 3
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’.  He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’.  This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.  Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.

The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’.  Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).

Section 4
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’.  Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’.  Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.

This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’.  The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.

Section 5
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered.  It is night-time and it is raining.  She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery.  Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:

and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.

However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.

Section 6
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark.  However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:

They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.

She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.

Section 7
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’.  There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.

Section 8
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:

I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple

This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:

Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí

We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here.  Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).

There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).

Section 9
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’.  Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history.  In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’).  Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.

Conclusion
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry.  However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.

If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.

The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century.  Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society.  She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’.  In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.

Works Cited
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975),  p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.

Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.

I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!

 

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Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas. The photograph was taken in 2017 before renovations began by the new owners. Photograph by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

Poems by my cousin, Bernie Crawford

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Between the Pages of the Limerick Leader

Sometimes, when she didn’t have the time
to write long letters, my mother would roll up
a copy of the Limerick Leader, wrap a brown
envelope around the middle and address it:
PO Box 10, Mapoteng, Kingdom of Lesotho.
Printed material was cheaper than letter post, much
cheaper than parcel post and my mother loved a bargain.
Afternoons after school I walked
to the tin-roofed post office, its sky-blue walls dulled
with red dust from gravel roads, and in the lazy sunshine
‘Me Vero passed my mail to me. Recognising
my mother’s hand on a newspaper, I’d be full
of excitement for what I’d find between the pages:
a white cotton shirt, mauve and pink sweet peas
from her garden, pressed between photos
of a supper social and the Ballylanders notes,
and once, a matching set of soft, silk underwear.
She told me afterwards she got the nice lady in Todds
to help her choose, but insisted on no underwire.
She didn’t want to give away our little secret.

 

lesotho2-1592

Leaving for Lesotho

My father gave his nod to the morning: he’d shaved,
wore the trousers of his second-best suit,
(was it already flapping a little loose?)
his braces over a portly shape,
a deep wine of summer shirt.
He wasn’t travelling to the airport, said he’d let
my mother go with me. Before we left I went
out to him. He was fixing netting over fruit bushes
to stop jackdaws from taking his harvest. It wasn’t
his way to say much but he offered me a fistful
of freshly picked juicy goose gobs. Our mouths
full of their redolent taste, we walked together
to the front steps to take photos. Later,
much later, I went over and over what
I could/should have said. Instead, I reached up
and flicked a piece of newspaper from his face,
must have nicked himself while shaving.
We posed on the top step, his hands
casually nesting my shoulders, there where
we recorded all our comings and goings.
He came as far as the gate, said he knew
I was well able to look after myself but still . . .
I turned to wave from the car. That was the last time
I saw him, standing under the bough of roses
wiping his face with the back of his hand.

Ballylandersstreet
‘The Street’ – Ballylanders, Co. Limerick

House Work

Since January stole my tongue and tied it
into knots, the house has become a blank verse.
My hands repeat a cleaning rhyme in every stanza,
I pack metaphors into drawers, layer them
on shelves in the hot press among folded towels.
Sparkling saucepans, spilling stolen poetry, hang
from the freshly-painted bracket over the sink.
The old carpet is hoovered pink in borrowed time
and on the windowsill, the amaryllis blooms
its second bloom, overwatered with words.
In the kitchen, I serve page after page of tasty bites,
baked potatoes filled with buttery half-baked similes.
A lattice of deftly crafted pastry lines criss-cross
an apple pie and even the dog hasn’t escaped. Long
walks have compressed her into a revised version of herself.

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Clipped Life

They all said he wouldn’t last a hurry
what with Iris gone
But he knocked their wind ’n all
Two days after funeral
He was down allotment by ten
Took thermos with him
That became his way, bought paper
Meals-on-wheels every other day
Picked up some eggs at corner shop
Pension day he chanced two bob each way
I went with Mum and timed those visits
in cups of Lipton’s, dunked ginger nuts
He said George popped in too
Not regular, mind you
He still went down pub
early evening ’fore crowd came in
Half a bitter, back home
Watched telly an hour or so
The only time I heard him smile
was the day he told Mum and me
about the colour of purple-blue
flowers that came up between the cabbages
from bulbs he’d dug in
two days after Iris passed.

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Bringing Home the Cows

He struts
in the middle of the road
in the middle of the afternoon
His buttocks tight in blue denim
jiggle like g’s in the middle
of a giggle
He saunters his strut
all over the road
No one can pass
I shift from fifth to first
feast on his arrogant rear end
so cocksure
He flicks
an occasional switch
off a cow’s backside
Their full udders oscillate
like giant pendulums
and lull me
In my car
behind him
in the middle of the afternoon
on my way to Active Ageing Yoga
I’m thrumming full
of humming birds

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Impure Thoughts and Beethoven

Confession began
with an examination of conscience:
telling lies, five times,
fighting with her sisters,
stealing gobstoppers,
popping a clove rock under the tongue
when Moll Foley’s back was turned.
These were straightforward sins,
venial things that could be wiped clean
with a swipe of the clerical cloth.
It was the entertainment of impure thoughts
that swamped her. Her fingers played them
in the pocket of her winter coat,
as she dawdled to school
in November rain and January cold.
She tucked them up the puffed sleeves
of her summer dress,
and pushed them high on the swing
until they hovered in the air like dandelion wisps.
They entertained her.
But she must have entertained them too
because when she mastered Für Elise
on the piano they trembled to her tune.
Semi-quavers quivered her belly,
notes staccatoed down below,
and even more so when she glided forward
on the stool to reach the pedals.
Impure thoughts became interwoven
forever after with Beethoven.
Quiet Please
I don’t have one kind thought in my head
This is not the poem I intended to write
The gnawing teeth of a bushman saw
are cutting into my frontal lobe
I swallow down screams
The steady drip of commentary
to her companion pockmark my eardrum
I want to remove my silk sock
and stuff it in her mouth
I believed in freedom of speech
I scan the bus for another seat
Calculate travel time to Dublin
Plug my ears with a scratchy serviette
The words of her mosquito buzz penetrate
I clutch the rolled-up Irish Times in my hand
Brief moments of reprieve
Sweetness like Greek honey
trickling onto a parched palette
Eyes at rest in a dark room
after the dazzle of fireworks
And then it starts again
I look up misophonia on my iPhone
Strong, negative feelings to trigger sounds
Not to be confused with Hyperacusis
An increased negativity to certain frequencies
For me she strikes the wrong note
again and again. Two hours into the journey
the motion of the bus lulls her to a sporadic silence
I am newly disappointed when she pauses
so thoroughly am I wallowing in her lack of modulation.

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Bernie Crawford, originally from Ballylanders, County Limerick now lives in Galway and in 2019 was awarded a bursary by Galway County Council to work on her first collection. Her poetry has been published widely in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, the North magazine, and Mslexia. A selection of her poetry is featured in The Blue Nib Chapbook 3. She is on the editorial board of the poetry magazine Skylight 47.

‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ by Jennifer Johnston

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THE HISTORICAL AND LITERARY BACKGROUND

This novella was published in 1974 and is set at the time of the First World War. It depicts the culture of the Big House before its collapse as a result of the war and the 1916 Rising. The occupants of the Big House are sheltered from the reality of the world outside. They continue to live an ordered and leisurely life, which is only occasionally interrupted by distasteful reports of war injuries. As more and more local men enlist in the forces and many are killed or maimed, the war slowly becomes a reality for the family. When Alec enlists, this brings the war right into their home, and they are forced to acknowledge its existence.

Before he joined the British forces, Jerry had been involved in Republican activities in the local area, and this was his main reason for joining. He planned to bring back knowledge of fighting methods to use to good effect in fighting for a free Ireland. The location of the novel changes. It is now set in France in the heat of battle. Even though the hail of gunfire and the agonised screams of the wounded are always present, the novel focuses primarily on human emotions and man’s capacity to endure war.

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THE STORY

This is a novel about friendship based on a young man’s experience in the First World War. Alec Moore is an only child from an Anglo-Irish family in Wicklow. There is a tense atmosphere in the home because Alec’s parents are estranged from each other. The boy from the Big House befriends Jerry Crowe, a local boy from a working-class background, and a close friendship develops between them.

As they grow older and the war intensifies, both men enlist in the British Forces for very different reasons and are sent to fight in France. Their friendship continues under the disapproving eye of Major Glendinning who forbids his officers to associate with junior soldiers.

Jerry deserts the army temporarily to search for his father who had gone missing on the battlefield. On his return, he is sentenced to death as an example to other soldiers who may be considering desertion. Alec, as an officer, is ordered to instruct the firing squad or face the same fate himself for refusing to obey orders.

The men exchange farewells and to avoid prolonging the agony, Alec kills Jerry in his room. He is sentenced to death for defying authority and the novel ends with Alec writing while calmly awaiting death.

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THEMES AND ISSUES

1. Love versus Hatred
2. Friendship (Relationships)
3. War

Love versus Hatred  In the novel How Many Miles to Babylon? Jennifer Johnston explores the theme of love versus hatred in an interesting way. Alec Moore must experience a horrific test of love in the course of the novel.  He narrates his tragic tale of a loveless childhood, which left him emotionally scarred. His mother is cruel, manipulative and full of hatred for her husband whom she regards as weak.

From childhood, Alec was goaded by his beautiful mother, who is portrayed as being without nurturing or loving instincts. Mrs Moore’s physical beauty is contrasted with her vindictive personality. Her actions, which are swift and dismissive, suggest her passionless nature. Despite keeping a beautiful house hers is not a home where real love and affection are displayed: ‘The dining-room in the daytime was unwelcoming. It faced north and that cold light lay on the walls and furniture without kindness’.

Alec’s closest experience of love for his mother is related very early in the novel when he describes her daily ritual of strolling down the gravelled path towards the lake to feed the swans: ‘I heard her call once to them in a voice so unlike her own recognisable voice that for a moment I felt a glow of love for her’. This rather ironic revelation indicates her unloving attitude towards her son. It appears as though she loves the perfection of the swans, their separateness from her and their uncomplicated, instinctive existence.

For her, human relationships are meaningless unless she can gain some kind of power or victory from such intimacy. She uses her allure, the pretence of love, to secure what she desires while underneath she seethes with rage. He concludes that he ‘thinks’ his mother loved him but not in a way that he could understand.

Alicia Moore also disregards her husband’s feelings by constantly insulting him even in front of Alec; ‘I have no intention of remaining alone in this house with you. I have already said that. Made myself quite clear, I thought’. When she discovers the friendship between Alec and Jerry Crowe she moves swiftly to destroy it. Not only is she averse to the mixing of the classes but she is also suspicious and aggrieved at the bond which exists between the boys. Her refusal to allow Alec to go away to school is not the result of her grief at their separation but because she would be left alone with a husband she detests. She uses her son in a most despicable way, as a buffer between herself and her husband. She brings her son to Europe not for the love of learning but as a means of dealing with his unsuitable friendship with Jerry.

Friendship  Alec feels real affection for his father. He realises that his mother abuses his father but he is helpless to prevent it. It has to be acknowledged that Alec’s father is partly responsible for the maltreatment he receives. He misjudges Alicia, only realising his mistake when it is too late to rectify it. It is interesting to note that Mr Moore deteriorates in the absence of his son. When Alec returns after four months in Europe, he notices a change in his father, ‘My father had failed a little during our absence … but he seemed a smaller man than I had remembered’. It is also interesting to note the way that Frederick’s defective eyesight is highlighted in the novel – we deduce from this that he lacks the insight necessary to recognise true love and he suffers grievously for this defect.

The friendship which develops between Alec and Jerry is the only real love and affection which Alec experiences. Jerry makes Alec’s dreary life more bearable with his sense of fun, adventure and good humour. He mimics and makes fun of Alec’s education and he ‘sends up’ the Anglo-Irish ‘set’. However, he shares the same sad home life as Alec. His father is distant and his mother is unloving and apparently greedy for money: ‘She wants me to join the army … follow me, dad. Then she’d have two envelopes arriving. On the pig’s bloody back.’.

The boys’ friendship is firmly fixed not only because of their sad home lives but also because of their passion for horses and nature. Both Alec and Jerry are capable horsemen. They plan to somehow overcome their class barriers to breed and train horses together.

War  The images of hatred in the novel revolve around references to the First World War and the Irish Nationalist cause. From the earliest moments in the novel, the impending war in Europe forms the backdrop to the feuding husband and wife. It is possible to argue that the hatred between Alicia and Frederick Moore is used as a compressed image of the hatred between the allied and enemy forces in the war.

The inferences to madness in the novel serve the same moral function as the images of war. They make the reader understand that love is the essential element to the survival of the world because without it there is only chaos, cruelty and hatred. Alec’s decision to go to war is partly a consequence of his mother’s hateful behaviour, but the insanity of the war, the death and maiming, proves that it too is a destructive human force.

Alec’s relationship with his father is affected by the war. Alec’s decision to become a soldier leaves his father bereft of his only source of love. Their parting scene in the novel, though it seems superficial, is actually heart-rending. Given the period in which the novel is set and the class to which they belong, Alec and his father do not show the intensity of their feelings for each other but it is evident in Frederick’s actions and his son’s private reflections. Alec accepts the money which his father gives him, understanding it as a gesture of love: ‘Don’t let yourself go short. Anything you want’. Similarly, the gold watch which the father gives the son is used metaphorically, as though it represents his beating heart, that somehow if Alec kept his watch close to him it would protect him from danger, give him comfort by reminding him of his father: ‘It was warm in my hand with the warmth of his body. I put it into my pocket with the money’.

Alec’s mother sees his decision to become a soldier as a personal triumph. Having goaded him earlier about his cowardice, she can now ‘enjoy’ and ‘suffer’ the sympathy of her peers about giving a son to the war effort. Both Jerry and Alec ridicule their mothers for their hypocritical show of grief as they go to war. Jerry’s reference to ‘candles and novenas’ and ‘bending the ear of God with decades of the rosary’, illustrate his sense of alienation from his mother. Alec satirises Alicia for her insensitivity towards him: ‘Mine played Chopin triumphantly on the piano the moment I left the room’.

The description of the war in the novel evokes a sense of horror in the reader. The trenches which Alec describes are a physical representation for the reader of humankind without the redemptive power of love. It is like descending into the hell which he describes so well in the course of the novel.

We can plot the gradual degeneration of Alec’s physical condition over the course of the war. However, Alec’s love for his friend remains intact despite the class barriers between ranks in the army. Alec embraces the friendship of Jerry, caring for his welfare and trying to buffer some of the abuse hurled at him by the officers.

When Major Glendinning reprimands Alec for his friendship with Jerry, arguing that ‘strict impersonal discipline’ must be maintained between the men, he is actually arguing that there is no place for sentiment (or love) in the army. It seems that Alec and Jerry should become insensitive to feeling and the little kindnesses which make life bearable. Yet despite this ultimatum, Alec continues to befriend Jerry and their smallest gestures of help to each other indicate the pointlessness of the war which rages around them.

The murder of the ‘Gloucester’s regiment’ soldier by Glendinning is carried out with precision and dispassion. This murder illustrates the breakdown of the inherent moral code in humanity. After the murder, Glendinning never once shows remorse or disgust for his act. His dispassionate nature is illustrated again when Alec requests leave for Jerry to find his father, who was reported missing in action: ‘The answer is no. Crowe goes to the front again tomorrow with the rest of his squalid friends.’

Jerry also abides by his sense of filial duty and wants to find his father, ‘if he’s wounded maybe there’d be something I could do for him’. Jerry’s compassion for his father is contrasted with a very good description of the barbarity at the front.

Friendship  The reunion between Jerry and Alec near the end of the novel is very moving. This poignancy is more effective because the reader of the novel suspects that the reunion will be short-lived:

He threw an arm across my shoulders and we lay in silence. My warmth was spreading through him, but the hand that clasped the back of my neck was still cold as a stone fresh from the sea.

When Jerry is found he is put into the detention camp where Alec visits him to carry out the greatest test to their friendship and love. They reminisce about their youthful dreams and ambitions. Jerry confesses for the last time that he loves his country above his king. It seems an odd thing to say before death but it is important to remember its symbolic significance. For Jerry, his country encompasses more than the nationalist cause, more than the land itself; it reflects his belief about the brutality of war, the uselessness of it. When Alec pulls the trigger he has committed no gross act of murder but has saved his friend from a shameful death by firing squad: ‘They will never understand. So I say nothing’.

Without Jerry, there is no love in Alec’s life and he becomes indifferent to everything and everyone and he effectively withdraws from life after Jerry’s death.

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LITERARY GENRE

This novel fits into the category of social realism. It is a story which is extremely true to life. Johnston does not over-exaggerate her plot or stretch it beyond the bounds of credibility. It is a novel based firmly in an actual time and place in history. Her main characters belong to clearly defined social backgrounds, the Anglo Irish gentry and the Catholic underclass of Ireland in the early 1900s. Both men are accurately drawn as they each possess certain qualities of their respective backgrounds. The bigotries which attempt to divide them both at home and on the battlefield are all too real in the novel.

All of the events are quite plausible, such as when the men escape briefly on horseback to have a good time and avoid the reality of the trenches, or when the Major ends a man’s suffering because it may have a negative effect on his men. Also, Jerry’s escape to search for his father is believable and his death sentence fits in all too well with the personality of Major Glendinning. It is, therefore, a book rooted in reality.

THE STRUCTURE OF THE NOVEL
This novel is written in the form of a first-person narrative. At all times the reader shares Alec’s view on life and his interpretation of the things which occur to him or around him. In many respects, the novel takes on the form of an autobiography. It could also be said to be a confessional work. It begins with an officer alone in his room, about to face death by firing squad and he is writing his last thoughts. Therefore, the novel is told in flashback.

He begins by reflecting on his life, ‘As a child I was alone’, and the story develops as the officer goes back over his past as a child, his life as a man in the trenches and the events which led up to his imminent death. The novel is presented strictly in chronological order with only a few slight references to the past, as Jerry and Alec at times of depression or crisis look back longingly to the good times they spent together in the Irish countryside. It is divided into two distinct settings: Ireland and France. It ends with Alec in captivity beginning to write his last words, so that the novel has come full circle and ends as it began, ‘So I sit and wait and write’. It is a simply structured but completely effective novel with a plot that is uncomplicated and direct.

THE STYLE OF THE NOVEL
Jennifer Johnston’s use of language is striking. She does not waste words on rambling descriptions nor does she overuse images for exaggerated effect. This makes her images all the more memorable when she does use them. Clarity is her main strength. She describes her characters and the action in the plot in a concise condensed manner.

Many of her descriptions are based in nature:

‘Memories slide up to the surface of the mud, like weeds to the surface of the sea, once you begin to stir the depths where every word, every gesture, every sigh, lies hidden.’

‘Rain was in the air. The rushes bowed to her as a little rippling wind stirred through them. A thousand green pikemen bowing.’

‘The swans would allow themselves to drift on the wind like huge crumpled pieces of paper hurled up into the sky.’

She also conveys the desolation of the Irish landscape very well:

‘The lake was in one of its black moods. It heaved uncomfortably and its blackness was broken from time to time by tiny figures of white, mistakes.’

The loneliness of the characters who inhabited that desolate landscape and the emptiness of the family atmosphere is also beautifully expressed:

‘Their words rolled past me up and down the polished length of the table. Their conversations were always the same, like some terrible game, except that unlike normal games, the winner was always the same. They never raised their voices, the words dropped malevolent and cool from their well-bred mouths.’

The emptiness of the Irish landscape and the emptiness of the inhabitants of the Big House are matched by the desolation of the war fields. The desolate landscape of Flanders is reflected in the ‘leaden rain which fell continuously’ or ‘The wind was blowing straight in our faces and the drops were like a million needles puncturing our skin.’

Johnston introduces a vivid comparison when she introduces war for the first time. As the men trained on the shores of Belfast Lough, ‘It was like some mad children’s game, except that the rules had to be taken seriously.’ The mental torture which the men were subjected to was brought out in the description of the man screaming:

‘Out beyond the wire, a man was screaming. Not a prolonged scream, it rose and fell, faded, deteriorated into a babbling from time to time and then occasionally there was silence. During the silence you could never forget the scream, only wait for it to start again. The men hated the sound as much as I. You could see the hate on their faces.’

Johnston also uses symbols to good effect in the novel. At intervals in the book, the swan is used as a symbol of loyalty and eternal friendship. Alec and Jerry share a common love and respect for swans as they begin to know each other. Swans reappear in Flanders, both literally and metaphorically. At times of crisis as the men struggle to endure the hardship of the war, they remember the swans in the few rare glimpses the reader gets of the past. At the end of the novel, as Alec leads his men to a new location, two swans fly overhead and a man kills one for fun, to Alec’s horror. This symbolises the imminent death of Jerry as the bond of friendship between him and Alec is about to be severed.

Another literary device favoured by Johnston is the use of rhyme and poetry at crucial moments. The title of the novel is taken from a well-known children’s rhyme:

How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten, sir
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again sir.

This was a rhyme that Alec learned innocently as a child and it comes back to haunt him as an adult. It is referred to three times in the early part of the book and again just as Alec leaves for the war: ‘Will I get there by candlelight?’ This reflects Alec’s uncertainty as he heads off into the unknown, to some ‘Babylonic’ place, unsure if he will ever return again.

Lines of poetry are sprinkled through the novel when Alec is at his most philosophical: ‘I was being troubled by the poetry of Mr Yeats’. As children, Alec introduces Jerry to Yeats on the shore of the lake:

Rose of all roses, Rose of all the world
And heard ring
The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.

In contrast to this, Yeats reappears in a very different situation. A line of Yeats’ slips out involuntarily as Alec sees a man writhing in agony on the battlefield:

Far off and secret and inviolate Rose

Here he is experiencing his strongest emotional test and it is significant that he turns to Yeats for help. There are echoes of Yeats’ work in many places in the novel, for example, Alec’s statement at the very beginning of the novel: ‘I am committed to no cause. I love no living person.’ This reminiscent of Yeats’ poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’. Jerry also compares Alec’s mother to Helen of Troy, a striking beauty often admired and featured by Yeats in his work.

While Alec quotes the poetry of Yeats, Jerry uses a different kind of rhyme to show his dedication to the Republican cause:

Now father bless me and let me go
To die if God has ordered so.

This emphasises some of the differences between the two men.

Humour is sparse in the novel and when used it is often grim. It is evident on the morning when Alec leaves for the war and it is used by the soldiers at moments of stress to lighten their moods.

Dialogue is used sparingly and it is often loaded with inferences particularly in the relationship between Alec and his parents. The absence of words only illustrates the lack of communication within the family. Dialogue is not favoured by Major Glendinning who uses short, sharp sentences. These have the primary function of giving orders and he forbids discussion as much as possible.

Johnston’s style of writing is compact yet lucid. It is extremely effective as it invites the reader to fill in the gaps and particularly to infer meaning from the electric silences which permeate the story.

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CULTURAL CONTEXT

While Alec and Jerry have lived in close proximity to each other in Ireland there is a strong contrast between their backgrounds. Alec is the only child of an aristocratic couple whose values and beliefs differ significantly from those of the Catholic people of the time. The socials division between both groups was strong yet Alec and Jerry chose to ignore it. Alec’s mother forbade him to see Jerry and his father, for once, agreed with her that it was an unsatisfactory relationship:

‘It is a sad fact, boy, that one has to accept young. Yes, young. The responsibilities and limitations of the class into which you are born. They have to be accepted. But then look at all the advantages. Once you accept the advantages, then the rest follows. Chaos can set in so easily.’

Both boys were also educated differently. Alec had the doubtful pleasure of his own tutor, Mr Bingham, and a piano teacher. This meant that Alec never mixed with other boys of his own age as a child and therefore his friendship with Jerry was particularly important for him. Jerry, on the other hand, went to an ordinary school but had to leave early to find work. Alec naively suggested that Jerry could work in his father’s stables, but Jerry knew that this would end their friendship. Their respective cultural backgrounds would raise innumerable barriers between them: ‘Why is neither here not there. Your lot would care. My lot too if it came to it. One’s as bad as the other.’ Alec realises the truth of Jerry’s statement:

Yes, I knew they would care. He was right. My mother would purse up with disapproval, her voice rise alarmingly as it sometimes did when she spoke to my father.

Both men enlisted in the army for different reasons. Alec did so to escape from a disintegrating family structure, driven by the knowledge that he was not his father’s son. This was a damaging experience for him and now that the blood ties had been broken and he was dispossessed both emotionally and financially, he saw little hope for a positive future. He felt a strong desire to get away from his parents and war offered him an opportunity. Alec cut himself off and drifted into war in the hope of blocking out thoughts of reality.

Jerry had been involved in Republican activities and this was his main reason for joining. He planned to use his knowledge of fighting to fight for a free Ireland on his return. He tells Alec on the night before they leave that he also needs the money: ‘Or maybe the thought of all those shiny buttons appeals to me’. Whatever his reasons, Jerry cares little for the cause he will be fighting for, as his own personal needs are a priority.

On the battlefield itself, the cultural background of the soldiers is unimportant when men are facing a life and death crisis, yet ironically the distinction between gentry and peasantry is maintained by the emphasis on army rank. It is a strange paradox: background is irrelevant yet is of ultimate importance. Men cling to the importance of rank as it gives them a feeling of stability when everything else is crumbling around them. Alec and Jerry disregard this as the war intensifies.

Culturally, while there are many differences between them, Alec and Jerry are alike in that neither of them is attempting to be a hero who will come back decked with glory, as Alec’s mother would certainly like him to be. Neither of them is driven by a strong desire to win the war for the people. Both of them are using the war as an opportunity to resolve or escape painful issues in their own lives.

Another cultural contrast made by Johnston is to highlight the differences between the Irish and English soldiers. There was a certain amount of lighthearted banter between Alec, Jerry and Bennet when they were out on horses:

‘Don’t be such a damned English snob’ or ‘Irish sentiment creeping in. Perspective is needed. You damned Celts have none. It’s no wonder we don’t think you’re fit to rule yourselves.’

Major Glendinning also had difficulty with the fact that he had Irish soldiers to deal with and in a moment of anger declared to Alec: ‘I never asked for a bunch of damn bog Irish’.

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Concluding Comments

How Many Miles to Babylon? is not a novel solely about war.  Although World War I is in the background, Johnston also touches upon Irish history, in particular the tensions between the Irish and the British. Through Jerry’s revolutionary leanings and the harsh comments about the Irish made by Major Glendinning, Johnston hints at the coming battle for Irish independence.

Alec, the narrator, is a very passive character for most of the book. Just like his father, he submits to his mother’s every demand. When she told him that he has to go to war, he protests that he has no desire to fight or be killed, but he ends up doing what she expects of him anyway.    In many ways the novel is a tragedy of obedience: Alec, the isolated only-child in an Anglo-Irish big house, is a pawn in his parent’s pathological relationship. “Oh, you’ll go, my boy,” his fatalist father tells him. “You’re a coward, so you’ll go.”   In contrast, Jerry is more of a free spirit, making his own decision to go to war and speaking out when he should keep his mouth shut. With Alec as narrator, the book moves a bit slowly, possibly because I didn’t have any strong feelings for him until the very end. Still, there’s a beauty to Johnston’s prose that kept me glued to the page.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is one of those novels that hit you hard at the end.  The ending says so much about the characters, and it was both a satisfying end to the journey and one that left me wanting to know what happened next. Johnston surprised me and I’ll certainly be thinking about this book for a while. Amazingly, there are only two deaths described in the novella, yet, for me, it remains a stark depiction of devastation.

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Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

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The Postcard Beautiful English village of Bilberry, Gloucestershire, England. (Photo by Saffron Blaze)

One of the major themes raised by George Eliot in Silas Marner is the English class system. However, it has to be noted that she doesn’t deal with anything like the whole range of English class distinctions that were in existence in the early years of the nineteenth century. For example, she omits the aristocracy in all its graduations, and, since her chief location is a quintessential English village, she cannot include the great industrial factory owners who were beginning to emerge as a potent force. And although the community at Lantern Yard is an urban one, we are given only the briefest sketch of the lives of the people who live there.

Those caveats aside, in Silas Marner, the highest social class is represented by the Cass family. In English social history, the local squire represented the class of medium landowners, who were less important than the landed aristocrats with their great estates. The squire was really a landowning gentleman; the village squire, such as Squire Cass, would be the chief landowner in the neighbourhood or ‘manor’. His house was often called the ‘manor house’, and many of the people of the surrounding area would have been tenants on his land.  Squire Cass of Raveloe cannot be called a major representative of his class. He is, with pleasant irony, called ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, but really only in the sense that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king! He is not a great landowner, although he does occupy the most impressive house in Raveloe. Indeed, he has, it transpires, only ‘a tenant or two’, who complain to him about the activities of poachers ‘as if he had been a lord’, which he is indeed far from being.

He and his family have, however, a considerable estimation of their own importance. Those next in rank to them, the Osgoods, who merely own the farm they occupy and have no tenants, and the Lammeters, must be content with a somewhat inferior place in Raveloe society. The social superiority of the Squire is nicely emphasised in the remark about asking Nancy’s father to agree to her marriage with Godfrey:

‘Well, then, let me make the offer for you, that’s all if you haven’t the pluck to do it yourself. Lammeter isn’t likely to be loath for his daughter to marry into my family, I should think’.

Decidedly below the landowning class, represented by the Squire, the Osgoods and the Lammeters are a variety of occupations and include some of the most interesting figures in the novel. We have the Squire’s brother-in-law, Kimble, who is an apothecary (our modern-day pharmacist); Mr Crackenthorpe, Rector of Raveloe; Mr Macey, tailor and parish clerk; Mr Tookey, deputy parish clerk, Ben Winthrop, the wheelwright, husband of Dolly; Mr Snell, the landlord of the Rainbow Inn; Solomon Macey, the fiddler; Jem Rodney, the mole catcher; and last but not least Silas Marner, the weaver. These humble characters are the life and soul of the novel; their social superiors are a great deal less vital, less human, less sympathetic.

In Silas Marner, George Eliot casts a cold eye on the English social system, particularly on its more privileged sectors. Her comment on the class to which the Cass family belongs is less than flattering:

‘It was still that glorious war-time which was felt to be a peculiar favour of providence towards the landed interest, and the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels’.

Details of the extravagant habits and carefree attitudes towards social and personal responsibility soon follow. The Squire keeps all his sons at home in idleness. Dunstan, in particular, is a noted rake, spiteful, jeering, drunken, a gambler and a waster; his brother Godfrey seems to be following the same path. George Eliot, significantly, gives Godfrey a miserable fate; he ends up humiliated and unhappy. Meanwhile, the chief representative of the lower orders, on the other hand, has luck on his side: despite his early reverses, Silas survives to enjoy a relatively happy old age. The moral of this contrast in fortunes is clear: Godfrey’s fate is bound up with the habits and attitudes of his class; he is conditioned by these to be the man he is.

Silas Marner deals with rich and poor people, a common enough theme of novelists of all ages. What is interesting here, however, is not so much the theme, but the way in which it is treated. Traditionally, romances involving rich and poor characters, if they were to end in marriage between persons of different classes, would employ a stock device: the poor character would not really belong to the lower class at all but would turn out to have noble or wealthy ancestors or rich parents who had died. George Eliot is having none of this! Instead, she turns the conventional social approach on its head by implying that the life of the poor is superior to that of the rich and expects our approval when she has Eppie reject the comfort and status of the Red House for a marriage to a working-man. Furthermore, she suggests to her readers that Silas is a better man than Godfrey, in that, while both men have to cope with the events surrounding Eppie, Godfrey proves himself inadequate, and Silas does all the right things. She lets us see that Godfrey is a prisoner of his class. While his ‘inferiors’ give their thoughts to helping others, Godfrey is concerned with the effects on himself of ‘the increasing poor-rate and the ruinous times’. At no level, except on the purely economic one, do the privileged people in Silas Marner enjoy any superiority. Nancy Lammeter is a self-regarding woman whose ‘principles’ will not permit her to adopt a child; while, on the other hand, Dolly Winthrop enjoys helping Silas to care for Eppie, and has a deeper understanding of the mysteries at the heart of things than her socially and better educated ‘superior’ has.

There is a nice irony here. The events of the novel show up the moral inferiority of the ‘better’ class. Despite this, their chief representative, Godfrey Cass, is convinced of his own superiority and of that of his way of life. His tone with Silas during their vital interview about Eppie’s destiny is very much that of a superior talking down to a man of lower degree: unfeeling, patronising, narrow-minded, insulting. It is his unwitting admission of his contempt for the working-class that deprives him of any chance he might otherwise have had of winning the confidence of Silas and Eppie:

‘I should have thought, Marner, he said severely – ‘I should have thought your affection for Eppie would have made you rejoice in what was for your good, even if it did call upon you to give up something. You ought to remember your own life’s uncertain, and she’s at an age now when her lot may soon be fixed in a way very different from what it would be in her father’s home: she may marry some low working-man, and then, whatever I might do for her, I couldn’t make her well off’.

I suppose there are some who would argue that George Eliot is not being overly radical here in her depiction of the class distinctions that prevailed in the early 1800s in England. Some would argue that she is simply following the status quo and that she takes for granted the fact that class divisions are part of the natural order of things. In her defence, we must acknowledge, however, that this novel would have been read by the Nancy Lammeters of the time rather than the Dolly Winthrops: surely it took great courage and conviction to write a novel which could potentially alienate most of your readers?  When we read closely, there are numerous examples given of stark divisions of class and it is obvious that George Eliot is disapproving rather than approving of these episodes. For example, she describes the scene following Sunday morning service in Raveloe church:

‘It was the rural fashion of that time for the more important members of the congregation to depart first, while their humbler neighbours waited and looked on, stroking their bent heads or dropping their curtsies to any large ratepayer who turned to notice them.’

Eliot presents this to us in such a way that it is difficult not to feel distaste at the social system that encourages this kind of debasement of human beings in the presence of others. Again what is one to make of the Squire’s wish to prolong the war with France solely because to do so would serve the interests of his own class?:

‘And that fool Kimble says that the newspaper’s talking about peace. Why, the country wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Prices ‘ud run down like a jack, and I should never get my arrears, not if I sold all the fellows up’.

Here, ‘the country’ means the Cass family and the landed interest generally. Of course, nowhere in the novel does George Eliot advocate the destruction of the class system, but her presentation is such that no sensitive reader can fail to question the validity of an order of things that causes Silas Marner, Dolly Winthrop and Mr Macey to think of members of the Cass family as their betters. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. The tone and manner of their presentation here, and in many similar instances, tend to undermine whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is the same Squire who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and who is seen to give his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. Therefore, I think you’ll agree there are enough such disturbing scenes and incidents to make Silas Marner a radically disturbing social document.

 

 

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Typical nineteenth-century English village (Photo by Dirk Seifert).

 

Further Reading:

You might also like to read

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

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The main fairy-tale element in Silas Marner is found in the story of Silas and Eppie. Remember the paragraph which launches the main plot:

‘In the early years of this century, such a linen weaver, named Silas Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit’.

This opening has some of the essential features we expect in a fairy-tale: its compactness, its air of authority, its establishment of essential detail. The location of Marner’s cottage and the suggestion of timelessness are other appropriate details. The ending, too, is a typical fairy-tale one, reminiscent of hundreds of endings in children’s stories, where the good characters live happily ever after:

‘O father’, said Eppie, ‘what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are’.

The details, the style and the tone of these passages convey the impression that we are in the world of fairy story where the good characters, having been tested, emerge to live happily ever after. Between the beginning and end of the novel, numerous passages take us far away from anything we might expect to find in a realistic novel, and into the magical world of the Brothers Grimm  or Hans Christian Anderson:

‘Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair and was stooping to push his logs together when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold! – his own gold – brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’

Fairy-tale elements are scattered freely throughout the novel and gold is a dominant influence on the action, as it is in so many fairy-tales: other features worth mentioning are the themes of loss and discovery, of death and rebirth, restoration, regeneration and transformation. The mystery of Eppie’s identity is also relevant here, as are the many secrets long hidden but at last revealed. The extremes of good and evil represented by some of the characters should also be noted, as should the motif of stolen, buried and recovered treasure. Finally, it is significant that Eppie appears on New Year’s Eve. This accords with the ancient superstition that luck commonly turned with the New Year. For Silas, Eppie’s arrival fulfils the old prediction of ‘third time lucky’. Two previous entrants to his home brought ill-luck with them; now Eppie is to transform his life for the better.

However, we have to agree that if Silas Marner were simply a fairy-tale, it would scarcely have achieved its classic status. It is, of course, much more than that. While the fairy-tale elements are numerous, it is the solid grounding of the story in the actual and familiar sights, sounds and events of everyday life that makes the story so credible. Raveloe and its immediate environs are compellingly presented in realistic detail:

‘…… orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard; which men gazed at lovingly at their own doors in service time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come’.

The atmosphere of Raveloe is presented to us in concrete detail. Its inhabitants impress themselves unforgettably on our consciousness with their diverse personalities and rich, distinctive speech. The most striking instances of this are found in the Rainbow Inn scenes (Chapter 6). Here the leading personalities of the district drink, argue and gossip:

‘The pipes began to be pulled in a silence which had an air of severity; the more important customers, who drank spirits and sat nearest the fire, staring at each other as if a bet were depending on the first man who winked; while the beer drinkers, chiefly men in fustian jackets and smock-frocks, kept their eyelids down and rubbed their hands across their mouths as if their draughts of beer were a funereal duty attended with embarrassing sadness’.

Realistic scenes like this one are common throughout the novel where very real characters speak very realistically against a realistic background. George Eliot pays great attention to the thought processes of her characters and constantly renders these with great fidelity. One very good example of this is the way in which she traces the pattern of reflection forming in Dunstan’s mind as he enters Marner’s cottage and finds nobody there:

‘If the weaver was dead, who had a right to his money? Who would know where the money was hidden? Who would know that anyone had come to take it away?’

Her realistic treatment of the way in which people’s thoughts can be influenced is also very well illustrated in the affair of the pedlar’s earrings:

‘On the spread of enquiry among the villagers, it was stated with gathering emphasis that the parson had wanted to know whether the pedlar wore earrings in his ears, and an impression was created that a great deal depended on the eliciting of this fact. Of course, everyone who heard the question, not having any distinct image of the pedlar as without earrings, immediately had an image of him as with earrings, larger or smaller, as the case might be, and the image was presently taken for a vivid recollection, so that the glazier’s wife, a well-intentioned woman, not given to lying, and whose home was the cleanest in the village, was ready to declare, as sure as she ever meant to take the sacrament, that she had seen big earrings, in the shape of the young moon, in the pedlar’s two ears’.

George Eliot once argued that ‘a man or woman who publishes writings, inevitably assumes the office of teacher or influencer of the public mind’.  In Silas Marner she has a stark lesson for her audience: there is a strong implication in the novel that the lives of the poor have a lot more to recommend them than those of the rich and also that the attitude of the poor towards the important issues of living are often more valid than those of their social superiors. There are also many contrasts made in the novel between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ characters. Silas and Godfrey Cass are both deeply involved in Eppie’s fate, but, while Silas makes all the right decisions, Godfrey, who should know better, makes all the wrong ones.

Finally, in dealing with Eppie’s choice of a humble marriage rather than the life of a lady in the Cass household, George Eliot combines realism with one other classic fairy-tale motif.  This time, however, the usual fairy-tale ending does not quite materialise. If Eppie is Cinderella, she does not achieve the same result as her fairy-tale counterpart, and the reason for this lies in her own conscious choice. Her rejection of ease and privilege in favour of life with Silas and her working-class husband makes explicit her refusal to play the role of Cinderella:

‘I shouldn’t know what to think on or to wish for with fine things about me, as I haven’t been used to. And it ‘ud be poor work for me to put on things, and ride in a gig, and sit in a place at church, as ‘ud make them as I’m fond of think me unfitting company for ‘em.  What could I care for then?  …. I like to working folk and their victuals and their ways’.

The ideal fairy-tale ending generally implies that happiness and material wealth are synonymous. However, here we have a young heroine, Eppie, who can declare with great feeling:

‘I’m promised to marry a working-man, as’ll live with father, and help me to take care of him’.

Her arrival in the story may have carried strong associations from the world of fairy-tales, but the life she has eventually chosen for herself is clearly to be based in the real, everyday world.

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Further Reading

You might also like to read:

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

Silas Marner – The Characters

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SILAS MARNER

The Pious Youth  In Lantern Yard, Silas was a very happy young man. He was very respected for his piety by the religious community to which he belonged; he had a good trade as a weaver and he was engaged to be married to a pretty serving girl named Sarah. However, it was during this period that Silas experienced his first attack of catalepsy. When he suffered a fit during a religious service, his co-religionists taking his trance-like state to be a divine visitation were filled with admiration. This aroused the jealousy of his best friend William Dane, who now sought some way to destroy his friend’s standing in Lantern Yard. His opportunity came when Silas had another attack while watching at the bedside of an old Dean, who had died before Silas recovered. While Silas was in his trance, his former friend stole the Dean’s bag of money and made it look as if Silas were the thief. When charged with the theft, the young weaver decided to rely on Providence to clear his name: he asked the elders to draw lots to determine his guilt or innocence. When the lots condemned him Silas was cast out by the community and ostracised. Sarah broke off her engagement, leaving Silas utterly friendless. With his faith in God and man destroyed by these events, Silas turned his back on Lantern Yard and city life forever and sought somewhere out of the way where he would be completely unknown.

Raveloe – The First Fifteen Years  George Eliot tells us that Raveloe, ‘was a village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices.’  She further describes it as being, ‘Not …. one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization — inhabited by meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England’. However, like Harper Lee’s Maycomb it was well off the beaten track, ‘it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’.  Much of this abundance is, of course, meant to contrast with Silas Marner’s previous place of residence in Lantern Yard. Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays. Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming! Here Silas found his trade of weaving in such great demand that work kept his hands busy and his mind occupied. The villagers viewed their new strange outsider with interest at first, but when he repulsed their friendly overtures they stayed well clear of him. His paleness, his protuberant eyes (due to shortsightedness) and his unsocial ways led to rumours developing about the hermit-like weaver who lived alone in the stone cutter’s cottage and showed no interest in finding a wife.

Strange Powers  During his early days in Raveloe an incident occurred which had profound consequences. Noticing that one of his customers, Sally Oates, was suffering from dropsy, Silas was moved to pity. He prepared a herbal tea which he had learnt from his mother and gave it to the sick woman. When she was cured, Silas was eagerly sought out by people seeking remedies for all kinds of ailments. Rumours were rife about Silas’s magical powers and soon his cottage was under siege. Unable to pretend to skills he did not possess, and too honest to take their money under false pretences, Silas sent them all away empty-handed. However, this did not prevent the locals from continuing to believe he knew how to charm and cure when he wished, and thus he became even further isolated from the community.

The second event which affected his relationship with his new neighbours and increased his fearful reputation was due to his catalepsy. When he experienced a fit while out walking, his strange state was noticed by Jem Rodney the mole catcher. Jem was thoroughly frightened by Silas’s condition, and when he reported what he saw, the villagers came to believe that Silas could send his soul in and out of his body.

The Miser  Having no faith in God or man, and completely friendless, it was inevitable that something had to fill the terrible vacuum in the weaver’s heart. The bright shining gold coins which Silas received for his work gave his life a new meaning. Soon he was hoarding the precious metal and devoting himself totally to the amassing of further wealth. Reluctant to spend any of his bright darlings, he lived frugally and dressed in clothes that were little better than rags.

The Robbery  Fifteen years after he came to Raveloe, Silas had become very well known throughout the district. Feared for his magical powers and envied for his treasure, he spent his days at his loom and his evenings counting and stacking his pile of gold. This routine would have continued for many more years had not the robbery of his hoard by Dunstan Cass completely destroyed his lifestyle. Bewildered by his loss, Silas was forced to seek help from his neighbours. The sight of the wretched weaver in his forlorn state was enough to arouse the villagers’ pity and warm humanity. Yet Silas was not ready to rejoin the world of men. Though Mr Macey and Dolly Winthrop sought him out and urged him to go to church, Silas was not yet ready to turn back to the God whom he believed had cast him off.

The Arrival of Eppie and the Awakening of Compassion  The robbery had ended Silas’s pastime of counting his gold. Now he spent his evenings standing by his open door looking out into the dark nights. While the rest of the village made merry on New Year’s Eve, Silas kept his lonely vigil waiting for his money to return. One again his catalepsy played a crucial role. Overcome by it, he fell into a fit, and so was unaware of the little child toddling past towards the welcoming light and heat of his fire. When he came to, Silas saw the child’s golden hair, and at first thought his treasure had been restored to him. However, the discovery that instead of lifeless metal he had found a lost child did not disappoint him. Emotions, long-buried surfaced again, responding to the child’s cries. Silas’s compassionate self, so long dormant, was awakened. More importantly, the child sent Silas once more seeking help from the Raveloe community, thereby transforming his life again.

The Father  Silas’ determination to adopt the child surprised the villagers. Once again they were forced to revise their opinion of the weaver. That the erstwhile miser should willingly burden himself with another’s infant was amazing but, in its way, admirable, and so they were quick to help.

At first, Silas was entirely ignorant of the demands of parenthood. Dolly’s assistance and advice were invaluable in those early days. Though he made mistakes, Silas was above all a loving and unselfish father. Eppie had replaced his gold in his heart, but this new-found love was not a possessive self-centred obsession such as he had felt for his treasure: he never sought to own his child. Even as an infant he tried to give her as much freedom as possible. Later he would show the same generous spirit when she wished to marry Aaron. He was even prepared to return Eppie to her natural father, Godfrey, had she wished it. Paradoxically, it was this willingness to free her from his care which grappled him all the tighter to her heartstrings, so that she refused the chance to become a lady, and chose instead to remain in the humble cottage which had proved her first refuge.

Faith Restored  The advent of Eppie forced Silas to once again embrace a communal life. As a father, he could no longer plough his own lonely furrow living aloof from his neighbours. Their kindness melted any residual bitterness remaining from his Lantern Yard days. By having Eppie christened, Silas also returned to the Christian fold. The Raveloe church was very different from the religious community he had known before in his youth, but he soon adapted and adopted to its easy ways and he became a regular church-goer.

However, the experience of Lantern Yard had deeply troubled Silas. To seek some understanding of God’s betrayal in the lots, he and Eppie journeyed north to find the answer. But Lantern Yard no longer existed. He could find none of the community and no trace of William Dane and Sarah. Resolved to accept God’s mysterious ways, which made him so unhappy once but then brought him Eppie, Silas decided that henceforth he would trust in Providence until he died.

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GODFREY CASS

A Moral Coward  Though handsome, well-built and well-born, Godfrey Cass is no hero. His father’s neglect and the absence of a mother encouraged Godfrey and his four brothers to idle away their youth. His weak character had allowed him to be easily led by his younger and more dissolute brother, Dunstan, into a life of drunkenness and other forms of immorality. He had become involved with a barmaid, Mollie Farren, made her pregnant and then secretly married her. Ashamed to acknowledge his low-born wife, he found himself being blackmailed by Dunstan who was aware of the whole affair. To keep him quiet, Godfrey had given Dunstan £100 rent money which he had received from Fowler, one of his father’s tenants.

The Lover  Godfrey loves Nancy Lammeter, the daughter of a local landowner. For her sake, he reforms his ways. Nevertheless, he cannot propose to Nancy while Molly Farren is still alive. Yet Godfrey refuses to do anything to resolve his dilemma; instead he relies on chance to save him.

His faith seems to have been rewarded when Dunstan disappears and Molly dies in the snow. Freed of the burden of his opium-addicted wife, and rid of his blackmailing brother, Godfrey’s troubles appear to be at an end. At last, he can openly woo Nancy and seek her hand in marriage.

The Father  In refusing to accept responsibility for his infant daughter, Godfrey commits his most shameful wrong-doing. Rather than reveal his secret marriage, he allows his child to be adopted by the weaver and brought up in humble circumstances. When his marriage to Nancy proves childless, Godfrey feels that God is punishing him for his rejection of Eppie. To ease his conscience, he makes generous gifts of money and furniture to Silas and helps him to extend his cottage. Later he tries to persuade Nancy to adopt the little girl but she, unaware of the child’s true parentage, stubbornly resists, believing such an act to be against God’s will.

The Snob  Though Godfrey entrusts his daughter to Silas’s care, he clearly regards the weaver as his inferior. As a member of the gentry, Godfrey has been brought up to believe his own class to be superior in every way to the humble villagers. He addresses the weaver as ‘Marner’ and refers to Aaron Winthrop as ‘a low working man’. Yet, as he discovers when he reveals himself to Eppie and Silas, the reformed miser is a far better man morally and has been a better father to Eppie. Shamed by her rejection, Godfrey is forced to face up to his moral shortcomings and accept his guilt. Now, at last, he can show true repentance and achieve redemption. The experience also teaches him to appreciate Nancy’s love and forgiveness; so, though chastened, Godfrey is a far better person at the end of the novel than he was sixteen years earlier.

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SQUIRE CASS

The Gentry  George Eliot was largely unsympathetic to the pretensions of the landed gentry of her time and was particularly critical of those who gave themselves airs and graces. The idea, then common, that landowners were superior to their tenants and the villagers, is savagely satirised in this novel. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. In fact, George Eliot does a good job in undermining whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is a man who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and is seen giving his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. There is, therefore enough disturbing scenes like this one to make this novel a very radical and disturbing social commentary of its time. The Squire may own more land than everyone else, but he has few if any admirable qualities.

The Father  As a father, Squire Cass has proved a complete failure. His five sons have been allowed to grow up in idle and spoilt. Godfrey, his heir, has almost ruined himself through an unsuitable marriage, while Dunstan is a thief and a blackmailer. Bob is his favourite, though his only achievement is that he dances well.

Personal Habits  In his personal appearance is Squire is slovenly and dirty. His house is no better – untidy, dusty and littered with unwashed tankards. Since his wife’s death, there has been no domestic order in the Red House. Breakfasts are taken at all hours, and the servants neglect their cleaning duties.

The Landowner  In the management of his estate, the Squire has also shown his characteristic lack of purpose and order. Despite the high prices for agricultural produce due to the war, he is in financial trouble and he is forced to hound his tenants for their rent. Yet his extravagance and wastefulness are shown when we watch him feeding his dogs on steak.

The Jovial Host  Only on New Year’s Eve, when he is the host at the biggest party in Raveloe, is the Squire seen at his best. Even then he is loud, boisterous and boastful. He is also tactless in his remarks, embarrassing both Godfrey and Nancy by his rather obvious hints.

The Moralist  Though a man of many faults himself, he is quick to condemn others. He disowns Dunstan and criticises Godfrey as if he were himself a man of impeccable morality. When George Eliot refers to him as ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, she is clearly being ironic.

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DUNSTAN CASS

Dunstan Cass, the Squire’s second son, is the villain of the novel. He is described as ‘a spiteful jeering fellow’ who is happiest when hurting others. Godfrey’s predicament is a source of great amusement to him, especially since he can profit from it through blackmailing him. By nature, a drunkard, he is never without a flask of brandy and rarely sober.

He loves to bargain and swap since it allows him to swagger before others. Foolishly, Godfrey allows him to sell his horse. Even when the price has been agreed, Dunstan insists on riding the horse to the hunt to show off. His recklessness, due in part to having drunk too much brandy, encourages him to take one fence too many, and he stakes and kills the unfortunate animal.

His worst crime is his robbery of Silas Marner. Ironically, the theft proves to be the start of the weaver’s redemption. However, Dunstan has no time to enjoy his loot, as he falls into the quarry and is drowned within minutes of leaving Silas’s cottage.

Dunstan exhibits the worst features of the landed gentry in Eliot’s time. Idle and wasteful, he is full of his own importance, prepared to bully and blackmail and even to stoop to stealing when the opportunity arises. His disappearance is a relief to all in the village. Though mourned by none, the discovery of Dunstan’s skeleton prompts Godfrey to make a full confession to Nancy and restores his lost gold to Silas.

The Rarer Pleasure of seeing Miss Nancy Lammeter

NANCY LAMMETER

The Village Beauty  The loveliest girl in Raveloe is Nancy Lammeter.  As the daughter of a rich landowner, she is seen as the obvious choice of wife for Godfrey Cass and the match is greatly desired by the Squire. Godfrey is very much in love with Nancy but can do nothing as long as Molly, his secret wife, lives. For her part, Nancy loves Godfrey but abhors his dissolute ways. Only when he reforms completely after Molly’s death is she prepared to accept his proposal and become the mistress of the Red House.

Her Religion  Nancy is deeply religious. However, her Christianity is narrower and more rigid than that of Raveloe people in general. Since she also is stubborn by nature, she is prepared to take inflexible stances on what she believes are moral issues. Thus, when her baby dies in infancy, she decides it is god’s will that they remain childless. Having made up her mind, she stubbornly opposes Godfrey’s efforts to adopt a child.

Her Class  Though she belongs to the gentry, Nancy has none of the snobbery associated with her class. She has worked with her hands and thought nothing of it. Her beauty and charm are acknowledged by all, even the envious Miss Gunne. Her dress may not be the latest fashion, but it is far more becoming than theirs.

The Wife   As a wife, Nancy has devoted herself to her husband. She has restored the Red House to its former glory. Their marriage would have been perfect had they had children. Instead, Nancy finds her life empty and is even considering setting up a dairy to busy herself. Godfrey’s revelations about his former marriage test her love, but she proves herself truly Christian in her forgiveness. Her first thoughts are of Eppie, and she is prepared to accept the drug addict’s daughter as her own. She accepts Eppie’s rejection bravely and bears no grudge towards the girl. Indeed, she supplies Eppie with her bridal dress. Godfrey, realising how fortunate he is to have such a good wife, appreciates Nancy more than ever, and both discover a richer life together as a result of their experiences. Both have paid dearly for their mistakes, but in learning the lessons of life they achieve real happiness at last.

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DOLLY WINTHROP

Note: Though George Eliot favoured the ordinary villagers more than their so-called betters, she was not prepared to glamorise them in any way. Her working people are shown warts and all, but with enough endearing qualities to ensure our sympathy and even admiration.

An Unlikely Saint  Dolly Winthrop is illiterate and uneducated, yet she possesses great wisdom and kindness. She is known throughout Raveloe for her caring ways; she tends the sick and comforts the dying. When Kimble hears of Molly’s death, Dolly is the first person he sends for. She visits Silas after the robbery, bringing him lard cakes and homely advice. Dolly’s experience of suffering tells her that Silas’s real problem is loneliness. To remedy that, she encourages him to go to church to join the community.

The Godmother  When Silas finds himself the adoptive parent of a baby girl, he needs Dolly. Her maternal know-how proves invaluable in the early days as Silas takes on the new and daunting role of parent. As well as instructing him in the basics, she provides Eppie with clothes. She also becomes the child’s godmother and thereafter takes an active interest in Eppie’s development and welfare. However, at no time does she try to supplant Silas in his daughter’s affections. As always, her help is entirely unselfish and altruistic.

The Confidante  Dolly is Silas’s closest friend in Raveloe. He learns to value her help and advice. He also confides in her, revealing the story of the earlier theft at Lantern Yard and the judgement of the lots. Knowing how difficult it is for him to come to terms with this, Dolly advises him to have faith in Providence. Silas wants to know more, but after his fruitless journey back to Lantern Yard he comes to accept that God’s ways are too mysterious for men to understand. Yet, had he not suffered in lantern Yard, he would never have come to Raveloe and never known Eppie’s love. This realisation puts his mind at peace, and he resolves to follow Dolly’s philosophy and to ‘trusten ‘ till he dies.

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Further Reading:

You might also like to read

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

Hello Larry Barry by Keith McCoy

Hello Larry Barry

I have just finished my advance copy of Hello Larry Barry by my former past pupil Keith McCoy. Because of my very close and dear connection to Keith I have to confess that this will not be an objective review. I am biased from the start! However, I was very impressed and you will be too with Keith’s storytelling ability on this his first venture into the murky waters of fiction writing. This is a cracking first novel by this dark horse and true to his personality it is full of his uniquely quirky dark sense of humour.

Larry’s long stay in a mental health unit is at an end, but on discharge, he learns that he has been demoted from his very senior role with the Garda Special Branch in Dublin. Instead, he finds that he has been transferred to a relatively new detective unit in Limerick that appears to house a number of failed, odd and dysfunctional detectives. He wants his old job back and needs to save his marriage, all of which he believes rests on him being a success with this new team. Still very unwell and constantly hallucinating, he is having a go.

Set against a backdrop of police, political and business corruption, can Larry achieve this ultimate challenge. This is a funny, warm and serious story that explores mental health stigma, hope and the drive required to overcome the obstacles thrown at this likeable man. If you enjoyed TV shows such as The Office, Monty Python and Father Ted or any films by the Coen brothers, you will love this.

Keith McCoy was born and raised in Newcastle West, in County Limerick.   After finishing secondary school in St Ita’s Secondary School in 1992 he moved to London to attend university where he trained as a mental health nurse.  In St Ita’s he excelled as the school’s rugby captain and superb Number Eight.  Since then he has achieved even greater accolades, completing his master’s degree in mental health and an MBA. He is hugely interested in film, sport and acting.  He continues to work in mental health, in recent years as a health care director. Today he lives with his wife and young family in Manchester.

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West Munster Junior Cup Winners 1990. Back Row (Left to Right): Ger Normoyle (coach), Rob Moone, Kevin O’Brien, Tom Dooley, Barry Madden, Keith McCoy, Dylan O’Doherty, John Ahern, Eoin Cahill, Micky Lane (coach). Front Row: Seamus Harrold, Maurice Magner, Paul Murphy, Dave Dooley (Capt.), John Flavin, Noel Murphy, Noel Hennessy. (Photo jdtvideo, NCW).

 

The novel draws on Keith’s extensive experience in the mental health area and fittingly the locations in Newcastle West, Monegea and Limerick are obviously close to his heart.  Keith himself explains: “I was never interested in books, (despite the best efforts of my teachers!), I was very active, and just couldn’t sit still, I found the idea of reading very boring. Then one summer in the late 90s I was working nights as a nurse and was doing suicide watch on one particular male patient, and ended up doing so with him for the whole summer. He was very depressed, would just lie there, and was totally uncommunicative. After about three nights, I was finding the task difficult and decided to buy a book to keep myself stimulated.  I bought a biography of Frank Sinatra, and once I had settled down with this male patient for the night, I opened the book and he spoke to me for the first time, saying,  “You can read that aloud if you want”. That summer I must have read at least a dozen books to him. Over time he recovered from his depressive episode, and by that time I had developed a new and huge interest in books.

“I deliberately used humour in this book. When you are writing about a subject that for many is uncomfortable, writing it in dramatic reality makes it too heavy for most, so what I aimed to do and I hope I have achieved it, was use humour to engage the reader, get them enjoying the read, the fun, and then let everything sink in slowly, and gently provoke them to think about and understand the subject matter differently. I truly hope I have done justice to those who have mental health challenges, and that it is recognised that I am not making light of their journey, just using the comedy to get the audience to think more deeply about mental health.

“When I got the idea for Hello Larry Barry, I was halfway through an MBA and busy, so I promised myself that I would have a bash at writing it when the degree was finished. Then after I had finished it, one day my son was telling me about how he was going to write a book too etc., and he explained some of his characters to me, so I thought to myself, how can I help him? I concluded that the best way would be by being an excellent role model, and therefore I should crack on with trying to write Hello Larry Barry. The following day, I sat down and took on the challenge.

“I got huge enjoyment from writing Hello Larry Barry, the words just flowed. It was hugely exciting and the positivity that came each day from achieving a new part or direction to the story was immense. At the outset, I wasn’t sure if I could write this and just went for it, and then it was done. Since completing it, the personal impact has been interesting, from feelings of incredulity to just being calm and much more content with myself. It’s hard to explain, maybe something to do with a renewed self-acceptance or something in relation to Identity.”

The novel was due its local launch in the Ballintemple Inn in Newcastle West tonight, 21st of March but events elsewhere intervened and the event had to be postponed. However, rest assured there will be and there deserves to be a local launch of this cracking read. It’s not every day that Newcastle West and Monegea form the backdrop to a modern novel. I loved the story and there’s a lovely twist at the end.  It’s also for sale on all Ebook platforms including Kindle, with print versions available from Amazon. Hopefully, ‘hard’ copies will be available locally in Tony Hayes’ and elsewhere in the near future.

In the meantime, from my enforced isolation in Knockaderry, I tell all my callers that I taught Keith McCoy everything he knows and even though he was somewhat slow in developing into the novelist that he has become there always seemed to be other challenges that took precedence over his academic studies and called for his attention first. He was one of the best natural leaders on the rugby field (and unfortunately, also in the classroom) that I have ever seen and even though he has travelled far and wide and now resides in Manchester his heart has never left his native place.

I hope you enjoy the read – spread the word!

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The author of Hello Larry Barry, Keith McCoy

Free Resources for Leaving Cert English Students 2020

Because of the ongoing school closures and the uncertainty and anxiety which this causes all Leaving Cert students, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2020.  These notes cover Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.

Caveat Emptor!  Leaving Cert Student Beware !!  These are resources which you should use wisely.  They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.   IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.  ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!

THE SINGLE TEXT

(You know the drill, click on the link!)

Hamlet

Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet: The World of the Play

The Problem with Hamlet – is Hamlet

Hamlet’s ‘Antic Disposition’ – That is the Question!

Hamlet’s Delay

Death and Deceit in Hamlet

The Moral Question in Hamlet

The King and Queen in Hamlet

Polonius and his family in Hamlet

Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet

Ghosts and the Supernatural in Hamlet

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Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Playboy of the Western World

An Analysis of the characters of Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin in The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

 

THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2020

RATIONALE
This section was introduced in order to bring some variety and interest to the manner in which texts are studied at Leaving Cert. level and to give students another perspective on the potential of literature in their lives.

Although literary texts are aesthetic artefacts they can be gainfully approached from a range of other viewpoints, e.g. cultural, historical, social, which can enrich our understanding of the role and significance of literature.

Studying texts comparatively from these perspectives invites students to interact with the different worlds encountered and to make discriminations and evaluations. Such study will hopefully reflect back on the student’s own world and raise her or his awareness of it.

MODES OF COMPARISON

For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).

This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level are as follows:
• Literary Genre
• Theme or Issue
• Cultural Context

Two of these three will be examined in 2020.

Literary Genre
This mode focuses on the ways that texts tell their story. This is also a legitimate basis for comparison: whether it is a tragic play, a detective thriller, a film, a historical novel, an autobiography or a travel book. (The amazing thing is that all these differing genres are available for study on this course!).

The following questions should be asked about the texts being studied by you:
• How is this story told? (Who tells it? Where and when is it told?)
• Why is the story told in this way?
• What effects do all these have?
• Is there just one plot or many plots? How do these relate?
• What are the major tensions in the texts? Are they resolved or not?
• Was this way of telling the story successful and enjoyable?
• How do the texts compare as stories?
• Is the story humorous or tragic, romantic or realistic?
• To what genre does it actually belong?
• Because your three texts are so different you have to be very aware of how different the experience of encountering a novel, a play, and viewing a film is.

Theme or Issue
This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.

  • Isolation and Loneliness
  • Relationships
  • Family
  • Childhood
  • Fantasy and reality

These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering

Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.

Cultural Context
Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.

When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.

In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.

THE COMPARITIVE STUDY

EXAM HINTS

• There are three modes of comparison this year – literary genre, themes and issues, and cultural context. Two of these modes will be examined this year.

• Four questions will be offered in this section to cater for the variety of texts that have been studied. (Only one question is to be answered from this section.) You must read each question carefully and in full to see if it suits your own set of texts.

• Some questions will be in the form of a statement to be discussed. Others will be presented in parts with the marking for each part clearly stated following the question.

• It is vitally important that you remember that the questions here will be mode-specific and not text-specific. Remember that you must approach this section with the comparative headings in mind and then you must apply them to your chosen texts.

• You should bear in mind that, as with the single text, e.g. Hamlet, you must avoid the easy option of merely summarising the story. This will fill up pages (and pages!) of foolscap and will give the impression of writing a lot but will not give the examiner the opportunity of awarding marks. Remember, THINK, ANALYSE, PROVE AND SUPPORT your points as you go.

• The most important words to remember in writing answers here in this section is COMPARE and CONTRAST. You should present texts alongside one another and then compare, contrast and think about interesting parallels and divergences as they arise.

• Remember to have your KEY MOMENTS well prepared for this section so that you can make use of them in comparing one text with another.

 

Links to Notes on Comparative Texts

A Doll’s House

Study Notes on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Silas Marner

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…

The Great Gatsby

Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Spinning Heart

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

 

THE POETRY SECTION IN 2020

I include links to FIVE of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link.

Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Boland’s Poetry

The Beauty of Ordinary Things – In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

‘Child of Our Time’ by Eavan Boland

Emily Dickinson

An Overview of the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Robert Frost

AN ANALYSIS OF THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST (1874 – 1963)

Some Personal Thoughts on ‘The Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost

Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

Adrienne Rich

Exploring the Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

Hidden Riches in The Poetry of Adrienne Rich

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s Poetry

Tintern Abbey – An Analysis

Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

REMEMBER ALL THIS WILL PASS – STAY SAFE AND KEEP THOSE CLOSE TO YOU SAFE ALSO.  IN ACTUAL FACT, MOST OF THESE SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDIES WOULD HAVE BEEN AVERTED IF PEOPLE HAD STAYED HOME…..

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Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

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The characters in Wuthering Heights are rooted firmly in the natural images of their environment. Catherine compares Heathcliff to the wildness of the moors when she calls him, ‘An unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone’. Lockwood explains that the very name Wuthering Heights is ‘descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather’. It is exposed to the elemental forces and the characters are frequently exposed to wind, rain and sun.

A typical example of this exposure is described in Chapter 9 on the night of Catherine’s search for the departed Heathcliff:

About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rustling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building; a huge bough fell across the roof and knocked down a portion of the chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen fire.

This storm reflects the tumult in Catherine’s mind as she, like King Lear, wanders through the storm in a reckless manner in search of the lost Heathcliff. Indeed, the use of nature imagery in Wuthering Heights is in many ways comparable to its use in King Lear. In contrast with the ‘atmospheric tumult’ at Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange is surrounded by peace and calm. The rough, uncultivated images of the Wuthering Heights environment are associated in our minds with the passionate, inhuman and uncultured qualities of Heathcliff, Hindley and Hareton.

The inhumanity of the characters is frequently conveyed by the use of animal imagery and demonic references. Catherine considers Heathcliff ‘a fierce, pitiless wolfish man’, who would crush Isabella ‘like a sparrow’s egg’. Isabella refers to Heathcliff as ‘a lying fiend! a monster, and not a human being’. On other occasions, she asks if he is a devil and calls him ‘a brute beast’. Nelly Dean, who had read about demons, asks in the final chapter: ‘Is he a ghoul, or a vampire’ and would have preferred to have seen him ‘gnash his teeth than smile’, in his unearthly manner; even after his death ‘his parted lips and sharp white teeth sneered’ at Nelly. There are also frequent references to dogs throughout the novel, which are associated with images of hostility and cruelty. The use of animal imagery shows us the breaking down of the barriers between animal and human. The rough, uncivilised atmosphere at Wuthering Heights and the luxurious, artificial atmosphere at Thrushcross Grange is the background to the contrasts between the characters and shows us the two alternative ways of living as is especially evident in the contrasts between Edgar and Heathcliff.

However, we should not forget that there are scenes of kindness in the novel as well and also scenes of touching tenderness. Nelly relates such a scene of perfect filial love just before Mr Earnshaw’s death:

Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair – it pleased him rarely to see her gentle – and saying – “Why can’st thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand and said she would sing him to sleep.

There are other similar scenes, such as the description of Cathy and Hareton at their reading and this helps convince us that not all is bad or evil in human nature. Eventually, through Cathy and Hareton the images of love and books triumph in the final phase of reconciliation in the novel.

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THE WINDOW SYMBOL IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS

The dominant symbol in Wuthering Heights is the window symbol, which is central to all the most intense moments in the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff. The ideas of ‘exposure’ and ‘enclosure’ are always associated with the use of the window symbol: for Lockwood, the window locks out the world of the spirit; for Heathcliff, it allows in the spirit of the wind; for Catherine, it reveals other worlds from which she is excluded.

Lockwood’s dream, after reading through Catherine’s diary, gives us the first insight into the Catherine/Heathcliff relationship. He is sleeping in Catherine’s oak closet and hearing the noise outside the window he is determined to stop it:

“I must stop it nevertheless”, I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in”. “Who are you?” I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. “Catherine Linton”, it replied shiveringly.

Catherine’s cry, “Let me in” indicates her desire to get from the ‘outside’ ‘in’, to return and be reunited with her human past. Lockwood piles up the books against the window to protect himself from the spirit in the wind and locks out darkness. Lockwood, the city slicker, the outsider, will not be disturbed. Heathcliff, on the other hand, calls to the wind: “Come in; come in” he sobbed “Cathy do come. Oh, do – once more”.

After the episode of Lockwood’s dream, the chronological order of the novel reverts to the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff. We see them in Chapter 6 looking through the window at the Grange on the verge of the discovery of a way of life unknown to them:

Both of us were able to look in by standing on the basement and clinging to the ledge, and we saw – ah it was beautiful – a splendid place carpeted with crimson and crimson coloured chairs and tables.

The two children discover the luxury and wealth of the civilised world and when Catherine is taken in by the Lintons, she experiences their way of life. This looking through the window and her stay at the Grange is destined to affect the remainder of Catherine’s life, leading as it does to her marriage to Edgar Linton.

In the scenes of Catherine’s delirium, she looks out through the window to the moors and Wuthering Heights, which she had rejected for her present way of life. Catherine says:

I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. Open the window again wide: fasten it open.

This scene and the scenes previously mentioned are among the most emotionally intense scenes in the novel, each of them with the window as the instrument of separation or discovery. Catherine and Heathcliff looked in from an ‘exposed’ world to the ‘enclosed’ world of Thrushcross Grange. When Catherine becomes a prisoner of fate in the ‘enclosed world’ she looks out again to the ‘exposed world’ of the moors and the Heights in her longing for Heathcliff.

After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff says that, when he slept in her chamber, ‘she was either outside the window or sliding back the panels, or entering the room’ (Chapter 29). This explains Heathcliff’s cry ‘Come in, come in’ when Lockwood tells him about his dream in Chapter 3. When Heathcliff dies Nelly Dean finds him lying inside the open window, his dead body soaked with the rain (Chapter 34). Nelly relates:

The lattice flapping to and fro had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin and when I put my fingers to it I could doubt no more: he was dead and stark!

Heathcliff is finally no longer a prisoner on earth and the spirit of Catherine will no longer cry to be let in, since it is united with Heathcliff at last, the window no longer separates them because they have finally transcended the limitations of the physical world and are now free to roam the moors forever.

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References

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights’ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

Further Reading

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

and Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

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Modern (Leaving Cert) students of Wuthering Heights will undoubtedly notice the striking emphasis on childhood and young adulthood throughout the novel. The major part of the novel is devoted to childhood as we are gradually introduced to the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff, Edgar, Isabella and in the second half of the story, to young Cathy, Linton and Hareton.

Catherine and Heathcliff around whom the entire novel focuses, act in a very childish way. When Catherine discusses her love of Edgar and Heathcliff with Nelly Dean, she shows childish irrationality in hoping that Edgar Linton will allow her to continue her friendship with Heathcliff after their marriage.  Heathcliff’s action in running away for three years and his expectation that Catherine will receive him back with open arms on his return is a further sign of childish irrational thinking. Catherine’s delirious fits in the period from the return of Heathcliff until her death are more like a child’s tantrums than the behaviour of an adult. We are told that she also dashed her head against the arm of the sofa and ground her teeth in a frenzy. She even regresses to her own childhood:

She seemed to find childish diversion in pulling the feathers from the rents she had just made, and ranging them on the sheet according to their different species: her mind had strayed to other associations.

Later, she wants to return to her own bed in Wuthering Heights. There is a deep conflict in her mind as she is drawn between two worlds and tries to live a double life; she is confined in her life at the Grange, but her true nature belongs with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. She does not seem to realise that she cannot have both Edgar and Heathcliff.

Another example of this childhood behaviour is Isabella’s total infatuation with Heathcliff despite the fact that he gives no indication of any love or feelings for her. At best, her behaviour can be said to be adolescent, as are her occasional fits of anger.

It is interesting to note also that Cathy, who has already been married to Linton, is only eighteen and Hareton twenty-three when their love relationship begins to mature. Indeed, the attitudes of the different characters towards marriage are somewhat naïve and romantic and the romantic outlook in each case ends quickly except in the case of Cathy and Hareton. Heathcliff and, up to a point Edgar, are possible exceptions. None of the marriage partners has an awareness of any responsibilities in marriage and indeed they seem to live outside the world of moral responsibility. It is difficult to assess the morality or immorality of the actions of the characters without prejudice, nevertheless, we feel convinced that the inherently evil actions of Heathcliff in getting his revenge can only be classified as immoral. Some critics would dismiss Heathcliff’s evil on the basis that it was his environment that was responsible for it and that he was driven to it by Hindley’s treatment of him during his childhood and later by the treatment of the Lintons. We have already noted that Emily Bronte is not slow to manipulate our sympathy for Heathcliff despite his evil and it is clearly her intention that Heathcliff is vindicated in the end. Heathcliff is dehumanised by his own actions but she is eager to point out that he regains his humanity before his death.

We know little of Heathcliff’s origins except that he came from Liverpool. Nelly Dean says:

He seemed a sullen, patient, child, hardened perhaps to ill-treatment: he would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear, and my pinches moved him only to draw in a breath and open his eyes as if he had hurt himself by accident and no one was to blame.

From his earliest years, Heathcliff is a sullen, introverted individual and with Hindley’s harsh treatment of him he becomes bitter and rebellious; this bitterness and rebelliousness characterise his actions throughout the novel.

He lives according to his natural instincts without the benefits of any objective standards or any learned habits of behaviour. He relies on the friendship of Catherine until he learns about her proposed marriage to Edgar and then, feeling totally rejected, he runs away for three years. On his return he ‘looked intelligent and retained no marks of his former degradation’, but internally he is determined on vengeance. For the remainder of his life, he gives vent to his vengeance on Hindley, Hareton, Edgar and Isabella, a vengeance which displays a cruel, brutal nature; he is destructive and this destruction results from his total frustration with life. Heathcliff is a type, a figure from ancient mythology with his origins in nature and animals, and doesn’t seem to have any counterpart in modern literature.

The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff almost defies analysis, since it goes beyond the boundaries of normal human relationships becoming a union of ‘souls’. Catherine does not have a true identity without Heathcliff; she does not seem a part of the universe without him. ‘I am Heathcliff’, she says. This applies to Heathcliff also and he shows it when he says after Catherine’s death: ‘I cannot live without my life; I cannot live without my soul’. Earlier he had said to Catherine: ‘Would you like to live with your soul in the grave’. He is restless and disturbed from the time of her death until he realises that his own death is approaching when his restlessness on this earth increases as he anticipates and becomes obsessed with the thought of a reunion with Catherine. Despite their personality identification, Catherine gives Isabella an objective assessment of Heathcliff’s character when she says: ‘Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior. He’s not a rough diamond – a pearl containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’. Nelly backs up this assessment calling him a ‘bird of bad omen’.

The contrast between Edgar and Heathcliff reflects the major contrasts in the novel. Heathcliff on looking through the window into Thrushcross Grange considers Edgar and Isabella poor, petted children each of them crying and acting like ‘idiots’, to use his own expression. When Catherine becomes disenchanted with her life at the Grange, she describes both of them in adulthood saying:

But they are very much alike: they are spoiled children and fancy the world was made for their accommodation; and though I humour both, I think a smart chastisement might improve them, all the same.

Edgar and Isabella’s lives would probably have been happy had they never come into contact with Catherine and Heathcliff, and Nelly Dean leads us to believe that Edgar and Catherine would have been tolerably happy had Heathcliff never returned to intrude in their lives. Nelly Dean usually gives us a favourable impression of Edgar, she considers him ‘kind and trustful and honourable’. He is calm and reserved, happy among his books, only displaying his passion on the occasion when he strikes Heathcliff in his efforts to eject him from Thrushcross Grange. He lacks the strength and determination to curb Heathcliff’s revenge and is unable to cope with the kind of evil which he represents. Our sympathy lies with him, since he is caught in a web of circumstances beyond his control, and some critics consider him a tragic hero in the novel.

The emphasis on childhood continues in the second part of the story. The story of the young Cathy, Linton Heathcliff and Hareton is typically Victorian in concept. The innocent children, Cathy and Linton, are brought together in marriage under the malign influence of Heathcliff. Cathy first marries Linton Heathcliff and, after his death, marries Hareton. Interestingly, there is not one overt reference to sex in this whole story! We sense that Cathy is a lively, pretty, intelligent girl, in love with the peevish, sugar-candy sucking, Linton. It is also obvious to us that Linton has not inherited any of Heathcliff’s qualities or characteristics. Hareton is reared in ignorance by Heathcliff as a part of his revenge on Hindley. Heathcliff makes him live a life similar to his own childhood. Nelly describes Heathcliff’s rearing of Hareton thus:

He appeared to have bent his malevolence on making him a brute: he was never taught to read or write; never rebuked for any bad habit which did not annoy his keeper; never led a single step towards virtue, or guarded by a single precept against vice.

After his relationship with Cathy is established, Hareton is transformed, regaining his dignity and, on Heathcliff’s death, he is bitterly sad and sits all night by the corpse, even though he was the one most wronged by him.

Nelly Dean and Lockwood, who are scarcely involved at all in the action of the story, play an important part in the novel since it is through their eyes that we see the characters and events. Nelly Dean is the servant, first at Wuthering Heights and then at Thrushcross Grange. She grew up with the Earnshaws and experienced, at first hand, most of the story which she tells to Lockwood. In narrating the story, she influences to a degree our impressions of the characters depending on her own view of them, and this is very natural and to be expected. Lockwood is an outsider who becomes Heathcliff’s tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He is not part of the Grange/Heights scene, but his introduction into the story gives it greater credibility. He is not a sociable man but considers himself very sociable when compared to the sullen Heathcliff! He tells us that he had determined to hold himself independent of all social intercourse while staying at the Grange, but he becomes too interested in the story of Catherine and Heathcliff not to become involved.

The characters in Wuthering Heights are in a state of continuous flux, adapting themselves to their changed environments and conditions as the novel evolves: Catherine alters with her movement to and from Thrushcross Grange; Heathcliff comes to a realisation of the futility of revenge with his impending death; the young Cathy and Hareton discover a better way of life in their lonely isolation and are a symbol of hope for the future. Lockwood, who first encountered Heathcliff in the opening paragraph, looks on his grave in the last paragraph ‘and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.

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References

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970. (A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

Further Reading

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

and Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights