The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era! Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802! If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!
This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location. Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning. He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.
In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year. In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’. He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France. We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:
‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’
I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes. The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air. The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew. This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.
The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.
The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him. He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers. These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.
His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight. We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions. He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant. The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’. The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….
There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’. Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires. The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.
His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks. The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.
There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city. Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long. The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.
The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead. This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination. The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant. The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating. We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.
The poem presents us with a very compact series of images. His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft. (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd). His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city. They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry. The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.
A poem with such feeling must be musical. Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’. These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder. I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene. Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.
This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is. He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time. Nature is here presented from a different perspective. It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities. It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’
Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here
Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here
Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem. If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement! It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen. These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place. Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration. Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.
The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’. This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle. Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers. So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet. Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.
Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today. Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality. Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.
Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’. In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’. In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs. He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’. However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet! In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.
The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’. The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers. This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.
The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands! Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts. These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter. Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.
The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present. His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader. The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.
Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one. He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.
The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties. The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns. We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’. This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand. In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.
The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.
The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper! There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience. These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.
Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like. This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder. This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith. In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’. In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, / He leans out on the jamb, …’. However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.
The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires. In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.
In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different. In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen. Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swim;
Fresh–firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:
The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best. Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials. His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft. The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.
The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different. He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth. Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!
The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation. The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped. We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!
The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow. We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case. The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty. The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’. Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem. The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige. The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins. Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.
Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers. He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so. Man can also give this glory to God and mean it. Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.
Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields. ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop. It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air. Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.
In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks. All these also give glory to God.
The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted. We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things. ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word. To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’ ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’. This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words). Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.
A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE
Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on. In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet! His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images. He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon. The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye. He obviously feels what he sees. This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins. In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.
Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’. The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration. In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!). This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.
As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed). There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables. Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line. This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.
A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here
It is encouraging to see Shadows on Our Skin back on bookstore shelves again, thanks mainly to its inclusion on the new Junior Cycle Text List for Second and Third Years. The novel tells the story of a young dreamer called Joe Logan who lives with his ailing, cranky, sick father and harsh, resentful mother in a Northern Ireland beset by ‘The Troubles’. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in. It was first published in 1977, eight years after British troops were deployed onto the streets of Derry and Belfast. The purpose of this move by the British Government in Westminster was to prevent further civil strife between the increasingly polarised Protestant and Catholic communities. While the initial reaction of the beleaguered Catholic community was a guarded welcome for the British soldiers, this over time turned to suspicion and hostility and finally hatred, especially in such ghettoised areas as The Bogside in Derry and The Falls Road and Ardoyne areas in Belfast. Many Catholics came to regard the British as an army of occupation, much as Joe Logan’s father does in Shadows on Our Skin. For example, on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded. Other protesters were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles. The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The soldiers involved in this infamous incident were members of the Parachute Regiment. The inevitable result of incidents such as this was that increasing numbers of young men joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.
‘Over and over again, the same stories’
The background to Shadows on Our Skin, therefore, is the plight of these poor Catholics living in deprivation in mean streets, their lives constantly disrupted by street fighting, ambushes and British army raids on their homes, leading to the destruction of their property and the arrest and internment of many fathers and sons. This struggle between the authorities and a large section of the Catholic population is mirrored in the tensions within the Logan home. Two distinct points of view on the IRA campaign are represented by Joe’s father and mother. The father’s background, reflected in his political outlook, helps to explain why the struggle against the British occupation of part of Ireland persists from generation to generation. He has, for years, filled his son Brendan’s head with tales of his own achievements as an Irish freedom-fighter during the War of Independence in the early 1920’s. We are never quite sure whether these heroic stories are to be believed; his wife, for one, has her doubts. Whatever the truth about the days in which, as Mrs. Logan sarcastically remarks, he ‘ran the Movement’, he creates a persona for himself by means of which he impresses and indoctrinates Brendan. Since childhood, Brendan has been close to his father, feeding off his romanticised accounts of the part he has played in the downfall of the British power in Ireland, ‘listening to the stories, over and over again the same stories, of the glamorous days, the fairy tales’.
What matters is not whether these stories are true, but the effect they have on Brendan’s imagination, outlook and actions. He can repeat the names of the heroes of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the new IRA as one might repeat a litany of saints: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Mellows, Sean Russell. He has been taught that these men were uniquely men of principle as well as heroic men of action. Even Joe, young as he is, has been affected by the mythology of republican nationalism. The world his father imaginatively inhabits is peopled with heroes, ‘with patrols and flying columns and sad songs that used to drift down to Joe below, songs about death and traitors and freedom and more heroes’. Much of his father’s patriotism is a matter of bar-room rhetoric, of purely negative emotions such as hatred for the British and contempt for ‘the Free state’ authorities for shirking their ‘legitimate responsibilities’. He is in total sympathy with the military campaign of the new IRA. He believes that the organisation could do with the expertise of people like himself. He longs for a part in the guerrilla campaign as an armchair general (‘If they’d ask me … I have it all at my fingertips … Not only have I the experience but I’ve read the books … They need the old fellows so they do’).
A selfish father
The value of these ideas and of Mr. Logan’s present career as ‘a retired hero’ is consistently challenged in the novel by his wife. From her point of view, he has been living far too long on the legacy of a wound acquired in the Civil War. For her, this has meant living with his self-pity and sentimental reminiscences. It has also meant that she must support the family while he wallows in the misery of his decaying health, tears trembling in his voice as he remembers the days when he was in his prime. Now his life is divided between his sick-bed, the dinner-table and the pub, and dominated by wasteful, futile regrets (‘I should have died then, instead of being mutilated, body and soul. Aye, soul too. I have wasted away my life since’). Apart from having to endure this ever-present sickness of body and soul, the yearlong tears which have left their grey tracks on his cheeks, Mrs. Logan must live with a man whose outlook on issues of life and death differs fundamentally from hers. He is the great life-denying force in the novel, not only in regard to himself but in regard to others as well. He is sustained by memories, drink, and hatred of Britain, none of which find a sympathetic echo in his wife’s heart.
Mr. Logan’s visual appearance suggests a sinister significance: ‘He was like some evil old demon propped up there in his grey pyjamas with an old jersey pulled over the top of them. His eyes were a dirty grey like his pyjamas.’ His response to the killing of two British soldiers provokes a bitter argument with his wife, in which the play of contrasting ideas on violence which dominates the novel is given free rein. When Joe tells him that the two soldiers are dead he smiles happily (‘That’s as good as a tonic … Cause for celebration … A nation once again … Two of the enemy are dead’).
A worn out mother
Mrs. Logan finds this gloating over the deaths of two young soldiers offensive and absurd. What she has to say exposes the poverty of her husband’s outlook on the political situation. Their arguments show how defiantly he lives in a world of abstractions, most of them quite meaningless and alien to her practical mind. His hackneyed celebration of freedom gives her an opening to express the point of view of all those, particularly women and children, who suffer on behalf of political causes. She turns his own terminology of freedom back on him. She wonders, for example, if ‘liberated’ southern Ireland enjoys any more freedom than the occupied North. To her practical mind, freedom has no real purpose unless it results in a better way of life for people. Her comments on the Southern Republic bring some of the major issues raised in the novel into sharp focus:
Is there a job for every man? And a home for everyone? Have all the children got shoes on their feet? Are there women down there scrubbing floors to keep the home together because stupid, useless olds men are sitting round gassing about freedom? Singing their songs about heroes?
A dominated brother
This suggests that Mr. Logan’s notions about Irish freedom reflect an absolute lack of concern for practical urgent realities. There is, of course, more to them than this, because of their profound influence on Brendan. The son precisely echoes and mirrors his father’s reactions to the deaths of the British soldiers. ‘Not too bad … a couple of soldiers killed’ is how Brendan responds when Kathleen Doherty asks him if anybody has been hurt. The depth of his father’s influence is further suggested in conversation with his mother. She believes that the young men of the area who have been arrested for IRA involvement deserve their fate. He sees them as leaders in the struggle for a better life for people like his mother, and argues, as his father does, that nobody will have a decent life until after the British have been dislodged. He regards those who oppose the aims and methods of the IRA as traitors to their class and to their religion, and therefore finds the killing of British soldiers can be easily justified. Her condemnation of this idea and of her husband’s patriotic outbursts is absolute. ‘Does it not enter your head,’ she asks Brendan, ‘that there’s a rare difference between sitting around and listening to a bunch of old men telling their hero stories and what is happening now?’ Words, she knows, can be as deadly in their effect as bullets. She can even defend the actions of the British soldiers in pillaging the Logan home by fixing the blame on her husband and son: ‘They’re no worse than the next man. They only do what they do because of people like you and your father.’
Joe, a victim of his environment
Shadows on Our Skin is a novel of blighted childhood. The adult world casts an ugly shadow on Joe’s youth. He is the innocent victim of a hopelessly inept, irresponsible father and a selfish brother. His school life is as unhappy as his home life. His one pleasant human relationship is ruined by his brother’s interference. The most remarkable thing about Joe is his ability to endure all the cruelties that life can heap on his head and still remain buoyant for so much of the time. Jennifer Johnston renders the sordid atmosphere of the Logan home and its effect on Joe with disturbing realism. Images of decay, filth, and tedium pervade the novel. Down-to-earth details of the domestic scene can suggest the silent, frightening desperation of so many lives like Joe Logan’s: ‘they were eating their Sunday dinner, Mass behind them, an endless Sunday afternoon in front of them …’ the atmosphere of sickness is also ever-present in the Logan household. His father’s sick spells are liable to last for weeks: ‘Ill, shaking all the time and giving off a terrifying smell of illness that made Joe want to keep away from him.’ The father’s predicament has made him so repulsive that Joe is afraid to touch him: ‘He was always afraid that his fingers would sink through the soft, mouldering skin.’
All of this leaves Joe with a diminished capacity for optimism. Everywhere around him there is evidence of human despair and unhappiness. Apart from his father, who has been bemoaning his own fate for years, those closest to him often seem close to tears, particularly his mother. ‘He was’, we are told, ‘frightened by tears, not by children’s tears of rage or pain, nor his father’s blubberings of self-pity, but adult tears like hers and Kathleen’s which made him feel that the world might crack open suddenly.’ Towards the end of the novel, we are given a pitiful glimpse of the effect of his morbid experience on his vision of the world. In his natural resentment of his brother’s interference in his personal life, Joe instinctively destroys Brendan’s relationship with Kathleen by revealing the identity and occupation of her fiancé Fred Burgess. Having performed his act of what he calls ‘deliberate destruction’, Joe runs away for a while, speculating on the kind of world that might lie beyond the sea. The real world beyond the confines of Derry may not, he decides, be any different from the world he knows. His account of the world of his own experience shows that nothing he has so far learned about human relationships gives him cause for hope. As far as he can judge, people are helpless victims of their mutual cruelties, doomed to have their hopes dashed:
Perhaps everywhere you went people were lost, searching with desperation for something they would never find, mutilating themselves and each other in their desperation. There was no safety.
Joe is puzzled by some of the unhappiness he finds in the lives of others, such as Kathleen Doherty, for example. She is telling him about Fred Burgess, the British soldier she intends to marry when he notices how unhappy she is. She eventually confesses that her life is without purpose and she is extremely unhappy with her lot. Even the prospect of marriage to Fred fails to give purpose or meaning to her daily activities. She is unable to find happiness in what she calls ‘the birth, marriage, death routine’. Joe can understand why he himself might have cause for unhappiness but what he finds hard to understand is that ‘safe’ people like Kathleen could or should be unhappy with their life. This he finds unfair. He thinks it unacceptable that life should ‘gnaw at her in this way’. Kathleen’s unhappiness induces a ‘clotted sadness’ in his head.
A world of grief
Joe views the world as a place where people mutilate themselves and each other and where nobody is really secure from grief. The endless domestic conflicts between his parents have helped to condition his responses to the unhappiness of most human relationships. His mother’s predicament is a further lesson in the horrors of home life for so many people of her social class. The burdens of family life have almost crushed her spirit. We learn that her voice is ‘tired to death’, and that she cries quietly. Her face is ‘full of pain at having to move into yet another week’. She is not, however, the burnt-out wreck of humanity that her husband is. She responds with animation to every domestic challenge, repairs the ruins of the house after the British soldiers have wrecked it, devotes herself untiringly to the basic needs of her family, does all she can to further Joe’s moral education, and keeps a home going heroically against the odds. Her husband does little to deserve it, but her love for him shines through in subtle ways. After they have quarrelled bitterly over politics, he leaves her in tears with Joe for company:
‘There’s no sign of your Daddy.’
‘He must have someone to have a drink with.’
‘He’d have been home otherwise.’
Despite his total inadequacy as a husband, she can still look forward to his return and worry about his late homecoming.
Three themes in the novel
Three interwoven themes in Shadows on Our Skin are the past, the family and betrayal. (These same themes are also dealt with powerfully in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel Reading in the Dark also about a young boy’s experience of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland). The legacy of the past haunts the Logan family and has a profound effect on the present outlook and activity of its members. Betrayal by family members and close friends of each other’s interests is a disturbing feature of the novel. Indeed, Jennifer Johnston herself has written:
The way I see the world, we are constantly at risk from the people we love most. They are, after all, the only people who can do us serious damage, a damage that lasts forever. I’m a very optimistic person, but I can see this happening.
Mr. Logan is the vehicle through which the past constantly intrudes into the lives of his wife and two sons. He himself lives much more in the past than in the present and keeps an idealised version of his own past before the minds of all who will listen to him. The continuity between past and present which he enforces is based on an ongoing hatred of the ancient crimes of the British enemy against the long-suffering Irish people. He sees to it that his eldest son remains conscious of the grievances of the past and all its bitter memories. His emphasis on past wrongs means that his eldest son sometimes approaches the British-dominated world around him in a spirit of revolt. Love or forgiveness of enemies can have no place in this scheme of things: ‘Look around. Hate is a better word. I can understand that.’ Mr. Logan’s insistence on living in a mythical past in which he was a wounded hero disables him from living in the present in any useful sense and from making any positive contribution to the welfare of his family. Indeed, he invokes the past to poison the atmosphere of the present, to hand on his peculiar version of old events to the next generation.
The novel offers some small (prophetic?) glimmer of hope that the terrible dominance of the past may eventually be broken. Brendan has been indoctrinated by his father’s view of the past, but his commitment to its influence is far from absolute. Kathleen Doherty recognises this. Far from being totally committed to the legacy his father seeks to pass on to him, Brendan is, as Kathleen observes, ‘in a state of great confusion’, with ‘a lot of wrong ideas pushing the right ideas rather hard’. Towards the end, the ‘right’ ideas, the rejection of the violent heritage represented by Mr. Logan, achieve the upper hand, at least temporarily. Brendan tells Joe that he always sees himself carrying on the struggle against the British where his father left off. When the IRA people gave him a gun, this ended his dream of violent activity: ‘It was the gun finished me off. I wouldn’t be any use to them.’
A sense of betrayal haunts the novel. Mr. Logan betrays the interests of his wife and children by refusing to take a constructive interest in anything relating to their welfare. His life is a betrayal of decent standards, an outpouring of totally negative and destructive emotions. Joe practises his own understandable but very deadly form of betrayal. When Brendan infringes on his pleasant relationship with Kathleen, Joe’s jealousy and hatred begin to dominate his life. Kathleen has indicated to Joe her intention of marrying a British soldier, Fred Burgess, but he has kept the identity of this man a secret from Brendan. Joe has promised Kathleen that he will tell his brother nothing about Fred. When Brendan confides in him that he may marry Kathleen, he betrays Kathleen’s secret, taunts Brendan to fury with revelations which shock him, telling him that his rival is ‘a British soldier. She wears his ring, you know. And she tells him everything.’ It is this final betrayal which leads to frightening consequences for Kathleen and darkens the close of the novel.
This series of events split Joe’s world apart, and he is left to process the consequences of the things he has done and the choices he has made. Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it. It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot-wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.
And of course, there’s also a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and sectarian war being waged on the streets of Derry. Jennifer Johnson ensures that this is the ever-present backdrop to the novel but it is never the main focus for the reader. However, its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it is reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.
In essence, this is a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very serious situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming. It’s a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970’s in Northern Ireland. Joe is depicted as an innocent victim of the ‘troubles’ and strife that is going on all around him.
This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 and I am not surprised. It is very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers. I think the author did a marvellous job of portraying the characters of Joe’s father and mother. We really are transported right to their tiny little kitchen as his mother pours the tea and his father complains about how he was once a hero but no more.
The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year can be viewed here
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century. Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies. He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school. However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.
Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism. Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up. His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother. She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope. She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad. He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member. It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.
Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.
This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.
“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on. Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free. As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail. This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired. Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”
Christopher is quite good at puzzles.
His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery. His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London. Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.
Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.
Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!
Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages. At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.
The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind. So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated. With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’. By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.
“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.
Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.
“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.
One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.
If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.
And I said, “What does single or return mean?”
And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”
And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”
And he said, “For how long?”
And I said, “Until I go to university.”
And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”
Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!
When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.
Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.
And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.
“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”
Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one. He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey. Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.
The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations. And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer. And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist. ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’
The critic C.S.Lewis once remarked that the qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral ‘is to know what it is, what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used’. George Orwell, with nice irony, subtitled Animal Farm ‘A Fairy Tale’. It is, in fact, an extended allegory. As a literary term, allegory is not really difficult to grasp. The writer of allegory describes a subject under the guise of another subject which has apt and suggestive resemblances to the first one. The allegorical work conveys a meaning other than, and in addition to, the literal meaning. If we read a story and conclude that beneath its surface meaning another meaning may be discovered and that the real point of the story resides in this other meaning, then we may safely conclude that we have been reading an allegory. Even the least qualified reader of Animal Farm will no doubt reach such a conclusion.
Animal Farm is a special kind of allegory, the beast fable. Most of us are familiar with this universal literary form through our reading of Aesop’s Fables. Those who have read the Fourth Book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will scarcely be surprised to learn that Swift’s talking horses are literary ancestors of Orwell’s talking farm animals. A fable is a story designed to inculcate a moral about some aspect of human behaviour. Sometimes (as in the case of Animal Farm) the moral or lesson is implicit in the story; sometimes it is explicitly stated in brief form at the end. Like other writers of beast fables, Orwell uses animals and birds to represent the deeds and motives of human beings; like them, too, he has his moral lesson to enforce.
Satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution
Every account of Animal Farm traces the fairly obvious parallels between the characters and motives of Orwell’s animals and those of the human beings they represent. It was immediately clear to his original readers (in the mid-1940’s) that Orwell had written a fairly explicit satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, a circumstance which made it difficult for him to find an English publisher. The parallels are easily traced. Major is Lenin, although since he dies before the rising, the identification is not exact. Napoleon is Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky, whose quarrel with Stalin after Lenin’s death led to his expulsion from the Communist Party and from Russia. Molly stands for those Russians who fled the country after 1917. Boxer is an image of the loyal, uncomplaining proletariat, and Moses an unattractive representation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Battle of the Cowshed is clearly the Civil War that followed the 1917 Revolution; Western countries (Jones and his neighbours) sent troops to the aid of the dissenting White Russians. The Battle of the Windmill is the German invasion of 1941. Orwell pointed this out in a letter to his publisher. He felt that at one point in the story he had been unfair to Stalin. ‘All the animals including Napoleon,’ he wrote in the Windmill episode, ‘flung themselves on their faces.’ This he wanted altered to ‘All the animals except Napoleon flung themselves on their faces,’ pointing out that Stalin, after all, did remain in Moscow during the German invasion.
The moral lesson of the fable
So much for the main parallels between Orwell’s animals and their human counterparts. What of the moral lesson of the fable? His experiences during the Spanish Civil War and his close study of Russian politics made Orwell acutely conscious of what he called ‘the barbaric and undemocratic’ methods of Communist governments. His main concern in Animal Farm was to make people in Western Europe see the Soviet regime for what it really was.
It appeared to him that since 1930 the USSR, far from moving towards socialism, showed clear signs of transforming itself into a hierarchical society in which the rulers (the pigs of the fable) were no more inclined than were the members of any other power elite to surrender their privileges. Since it was the common view of Western European socialists that a genuinely socialist regime existed in Russia, Orwell saw it as one of his tasks to dispel this misunderstanding in a story that could easily be assimilated by almost anyone, and that would lend itself to easy translation into other languages.
At the end of Animal Farm it is impossible to distinguish the human beings from the pigs, the latter having entered heartily into commercial and social relations with their former enemies and abandoned the major slogan of the Revolution, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ In his preface to the Ukranian edition, Orwell made an interesting (and perhaps surprising) comment on his ending. A number of readers, he felt, might finish Animal Farm with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs (the Soviet power elite) and the humans (the Western capitalist leaders). This, he pointed out was not his intention. On the contrary, he meant the book to end on a note of discord. He wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference, which everybody thought, had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. ‘I personally,’ Orwell observed with satisfaction, ‘did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.’
A novel of universal political truths
Some of the pleasure of reading Animal Farm lies in the reader’s gradual recognition of the parallels with modern Russian history. The various identifications can be disclosed rather like the answers to a crossword puzzle, or chalked up on the blackboard like so many equations. But the question arises: once we have made all the identifications what further interest are we likely to have in a work like Animal Farm? It might be argued that even as an allegory of Soviet politics, the book has lost some of its original point, since Orwell clearly did not contemplate, for example, such developments as those associated with the Krushchev era, or the astonishing course taken by the Soviet system since the coming to power of Gorbachev in 1985. Fortunately for Orwell’s reputation, his book is likely to attract readers long after the Russian experience has been forgotten, because it has large implications extending beyond the immediate circumstances of any single movement such as the Russian Revolution of 1917.In several respects, Orwell’s fable embodies universal political truths. What he describes is what happens sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, to all revolutionary movements. The modern Chinese theory of continuous revolution as a means of preserving intact the ideals of the first revolutionaries is an interesting recognition of the dangers (so convincingly illustrated in Animal Farm) which attended all large-scale efforts at the betterment of the human lot. Orwell’s book is a comment on the failure, as he saw it, of the Russian Revolution to fulfil the expectations of those who saw it marking a new era of true socialist democracy. But it can also be read as a disillusioned recognition of the apparently inevitable failure of every great reforming movement to preserve its original momentum. The French Revolution began in unbounded hope for a better world and petered out in the Jacobin terror.
Limitations of the moral fable
In Animal Farm, as in all moral fables, the author starts off with his abstract truth or idea, and uses his story to illustrate this, to give it life. All the elements in the story are necessarily subordinated to the pattern dictated by whatever precepts the author desires to enforce on the minds of his readers. Even these bald statements about the literary genre to which Animal Farm belongs suggest its almost inevitable limitations. The major landmarks of fiction are exploratory in character; their important discoveries about human life and conduct emerge with the progress of the story. Writers like the Orwell of Animal Farm, on the other hand, give the impression of having made their discoveries before composing their works. The problem for all those who write fiction to illustrate pre-conceived ideas is that they must force a disorderly mass of experience into conformity with these ideas, which results inevitably either in some falsification of experience, or in a radically simplified view of it. Inconvenient facts tend to be rigorously excluded. Orwell, however, in choosing to illustrate what seems to be a universal human experience, is exempt from charges of distortion, whatever may be said about the limitations of his fable.
Orwell was one of those fortunate writers who recognised his limitations, who knew what suited his special talents and what did not. Readers of his other novels will quickly realise that he found it extremely difficult to breathe life into his characters, none of whom is really convincing or memorable. There is a sense in which Orwell is not really a creative writer, but a brilliant publicist, journalist, and apologist for liberal causes, who used the conventional fictional framework for his special purposes. If he could not create life-like characters in his novels, he could at any rate write a great political fable. What gives Animal Farm its vitality is not the kind of imaginative power one associates with a great novelist. Such imaginative power was not really needed in this kind of work. Orwell’s mind was one, which, like Swift’s, often contemplated the great human questions in political terms; like Swift, he found the beast fable an admirable vehicle for political ideas. The almost perfect correspondence in Animal Farm between form and content at once helps to explain its astonishing popular success and to ensure its survival as a minor classic.
Lord of the Flies was published in 1954 and in it, William Golding sets out to create a disturbing and dystopian view of the world – a social experiment that goes horribly wrong. The bleak aftermath of the second war to blight the Twentieth Century is still being felt in Britain, Europe and the rest of the world in the early 1950’s. Images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, along with personal war memories and experiences and other atrocities were still very raw in people’s minds. This powerful novel can be included among other dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. This genre of dystopian fiction represents the other extreme from Utopias, fictional representations of ideal political states or ways of life, the classical example here being St. Thomas More’s Utopia, a Latin work written in 1516.
Golding, as you will soon be aware, is very concerned with the pervasive influence of evil forces in our world, and he has few allusions about the counterbalancing forces of good. It is possible to classify Lord of the Flies as a dystopian fable because in it Golding is casting a jaundiced eye on earlier and more optimistic variations on his theme, the best known of these being R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Lord of the Flies was written as a kind of parody of The Coral Island and Golding makes specific reference to it in his novel. A very brief comparison with Ballantyne’s book helps us see what Golding is attempting in Lord of the Flies. In The Coral Island, Ballantyne shipwrecks a group of upright, solid, church-going British boys, and allows them to build a decent imitation of British civilisation in their new and primitive surroundings. In Lord of the Flies, the shipwreck is now a plane wreck; the boys are still middle-class British Christians. Even the names of three of Golding’s main characters are similar to those in Ballantyne – Golding’s three central characters – Ralph, Piggy and Jack – are caricatures of Ballantyne’s heroes . The vital difference between the two novels, however, is that whereas Ballantyne’s is thoroughly optimistic in spirit and outcome, Golding’s outcomes are disillusioning and pessimistic.
The need for social order
Lord of the Flies is a very grim illustration of the kind of situation that, as Golding sees it, must inevitably arise if the sanctions and controls of society are abandoned. In this kind of situation, the great majority of human beings (whether boys or men) will choose destructive courses. There will be the few who will choose order, whose acts reflect human decency and goodness, but they will be outnumbered and defeated by the evil tendencies of the many. The ethos of Ballantyne’s island was that of the boy-scout camp; on Golding’s the greater number of the boys choose to enact the roles of savages, painting themselves, wallowing in an orgy of animal slaughter, sinking into bestial habits, engaging in torture, murder and sacrifice to false gods.
Speaking of false gods prompts a reference to the significance of Golding’s title for the novel. This refers to Beelzebub, traditionally the most debased and disgusting of all the devils. The young British Christians, most of all the choirboys, instinctively chose him, rather than the Christian God as the object of their worship. This choice bears fundamentally on Golding’s views on human nature. Golding is, above all, a didactic writer and he is trying, therefore, to teach us a moral lesson here. One of his primary purposes is to expose what he sees as the shallowness of optimistic theories (he would see them as illusions) about human nature. At one level, his novel can be read as a strenuous rejection of humanistic theories of human perfection. It enacts an unrepentant belief in the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin; the doctrine which teaches that the first sin of Adam, as the old Catechism put it, ‘darkened the understanding, weakened the will, and left us a strong inclination to evil’.
A pessimistic world view?
This traditional view sets Golding apart from many of the modern ‘trendy’ currents of thought. Few of us have escaped the influence of the romantic view of childhood as a time of glorious innocence; the cult of the noble savage has, since Rousseau, enjoyed widespread support in all kinds of fiction. It was a common Romantic assumption that man was potentially a noble, upright creature if only he could be freed from the fetters of a corrupt society. Golding is having none of this! Not for him the vision of the child emerging in clouds of glory, or the inherent nobility of the savage life. What he finds instead, is that only the slightest push, or the removal of sanctions or firm restraints, is needed for children, as well as for men, to tumble into unfathomable depths of depravity. In Lord of the Flies he is trying to show us with what frightening ease man and boy can throw off all his superficial decency (‘off you lendings’ in Lear’s version) and regress back to that primitive state where ‘chaos is come again.’
To return to categories and literary genres for a moment, Lord of the Flies is a fable. As Golding himself points out, the writer of fables is a moralist: ‘he cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it’, very similar to the parables in the Gospels. No matter how we look on this novel, however, it would be very difficult to describe Golding’s lesson here as a hopeful one. For him, men are generally vicious, murderous and liable to extremes of self-degradation and animal behaviour. What most forcibly strikes us as we read this novel is Golding’s intuition that, at best, civilising conventions and rules are passing things, but that what endures is man’s wild irrationality and his destructive urges. A passing visit to Sky News or CNN or BBC News may confirm this for us on a daily basis! Who would choose to live in Aleppo in Syria or the many cities in Iraq who have been condemned to untold barbarity in recent times?
A realistic novel
Lord of the Flies has proved an extraordinary popular book, both from the point of view of general readership and among academics. Golding may have conceived his novel as an allegory, but he is also a master of realistic fiction, and the book has a striking impact on the generality of young readers, for whom it is, here in Ireland as well as in Britain, a widely prescribed school text. Golding was a teacher for a number of years, and has an instinctive understanding of, and feeling for, the characters and mannerisms of schoolboys. One of the striking features of his method is his success in presenting his young characters in terms of idiom and linguistic habit (compare the under-educated, ill-spoken Piggy in this respect with Ralph and Jack). The novel, for all its allegorical and symbolic overtones, is rooted firmly in real experience. Physical sensations are admirably and tellingly rendered; the discomforts, unpleasantness, delights and other sensations associated with life on the island are evoked with astonishing realism. The beautiful descriptions of island and sea are unforgettable. Golding’s continuous success with the depiction of the physical realities of life, the rootedness of the book in the solid earth, is perhaps its most memorable feature for younger readers, most of whom, it is safe to suggest, can approach it on a realistic level without bothering unduly about its allegorical implications or its status as a moral fable. Discussing the wider picture, the novel as fable or allegory or simply realistic novel with an eager English class, is one of the great joys and job satisfactions of the teacher of English Literature!
Academics have naturally tended to focus on the allegorical and symbolic features of the book, following Golding himself, who has strongly emphasised these in his critical comments. There are numerous examples of symbols in the novel. The shell or conch discovered by Ralph and Piggy has attracted a wide variety of such interpretations. It is most obviously to be regarded as a symbol of the forces in the boys striving to uphold civilised standards and values. The character of Simon attracts a good deal of symbolic weight also. The pig’s head covered in flies is a symbol or sign of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Simon’s hallucination of the monologue from the pig’s head is another symbolic feature. But whatever importance one may attach to such matters, the vital consideration is that most of the episodes which obviously attract symbolic interpretations also work most successfully at a realistic level, which adds to the great appeal of the novel.
Dream to nightmare
Golding has a remarkable gift for presenting abstract conceptions in compelling concrete terms. One of the themes of the book that particularly appeals to younger readers is that it enacts a powerfully imagined version of the dream that most children cherish at one time or another of escaping from the restraints of a society controlled by adults. What Golding does in Lord of the Flies is bring this dream to life. But what he also does is to turn the dream into a virtual nightmare. Escape from the stabilising forces of the adult world, instead of bringing about happiness, results in a riot of destructive individualism. At the beginning, there is a vague, unsatisfactory sense of kinship and comradeship: Ralph and Jack, the two ‘mighty opposites’ of the later parts of the novel, can, at the beginning, look at each other ‘with a shy liking’. The collapse of this sympathy, the breaking of most of the bonds of human kinship, is the stark reality which haunts Golding’s fable. And even when the outside world comes to the rescue at the conclusion of the novel it only brings further reminders of disorder and war with the finding of the dead airman and the arrival of an armed warship. There is little comfort, then, to be drawn from Golding’s dystopian novel: neither a ‘civilised’ environment nor the lack of it, seem to offer much hope of even limited perfection or happiness to human beings.
The title that Steinbeck finally chose for his novel emphasises the unpredictable nature of existence as well as its promise, George and Lennie’s blasted dream to ‘live of the fatta the lan’. Taken from a poem by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, the novel’s title suggests the transitory quality of even ‘best laid schemes’. Burns’s poem tells of an unfortunate field mouse whose home is flattened by a plough:
But Mousie, thy art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promised joy.
GEORGE: George is the story’s main protagonist, a small, quick man with well-defined features. A migrant ranch worker, George dreams of one day saving enough money to buy his own place and be his own boss, living off the land. The hindrance to his objective is his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie, with whom he has travelled and worked since Lennie’s Aunt Clara, whom George knew, died. The majority of George’s energy is devoted to looking after Lennie, whose blunders prevent George from working toward his dream, or even living the life of a normal rancher. Thus, George’s conflict arises in Lennie, to whom he has the ties of long-time companionship that he so often yearns to break in order to live the life of which he dreams. This tension strains George into demonstrating various emotions, ranging from anger to patience to sadness to pride and to hope.
LENNIE: George’s companion, the source of the novel’s conflict. Lennie, enormous, ungainly, and mentally slow, is George’s polar opposite both mentally and physically. Lennie’s ignorance and innocence and helplessness, his childish actions, such as his desire to pet soft things, contrast his physical bulk, making him likeable to readers. Although devoid of cruel intentions, Lennie’s stupidity and carelessness cause him to unwittingly harm animals and people, which creates trouble for both him and George. Lennie is tirelessly devoted to George and delights in hearing him tell of the dream of having a farm, but he does not desire the dream of the American worker in the same way that George does. His understanding of George’s dream is more childish and he grows excited at the possibility of tending the future rabbits, most likely because it will afford him a chance to pet their soft fur as much as he wishes. Nevertheless, a dream is a dream, different for everyone, and George and Lennie share the similar attribute of desiring what they haven’t got. Lennie, however, is helpless to attain his dream, and remains a static character throughout, relying on George to fuel his hope and save him from trouble.
CANDY: He is the old, one-handed swamper who is the first to befriend George and Lennie at Soledad. He is humble and weary and seems to be at the end of his line after Carlson shoots his last possession and companion, his old, blind, dog. ‘When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me’, Candy confesses to George and Lennie, hoping for a similar fate as his dog. But when he hears the two talking of their little place, Candy offers all his money and his meagre services to be in on the dream. His substantial sum of money and the fact that he knows of a place make it impossible for George to refuse him. Candy clings to this hope of a future as a drowning man would to a piece of driftwood. It rekindles life within him, but it also becomes an obsession, and in his excitement and indignation, he lets the secret slip to both Crooks and Curley’s wife. And when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and shatters the reality of the dream, Candy becomes hopeless and full of anguish, the broken shell of a man.
CURLEY: He is the boxer, the son of the boss, the angry and hot-headed obstacle to George’s attempt to keep Lennie out of trouble at Soledad. Insecure because of his size and over-protective of his wife, Curley is eager to fight anyone he perceives as a threat to his self-image. Lennie unwittingly incurs Curley’s antagonism simply because of his size, and the reader immediately braces for future confrontation. Curley remains undeveloped, forever little and forever mean, poking his head in at various points in the novel, either to look for his wife or to stir up trouble on account of her.
CURLEY’S WIFE: Nameless and flirtatious, Curley’s wife is perceived by Candy to be the cause of all that goes wrong at Soledad: ‘Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up. You wasn’t no good’, he says to her dead body in his grief. The workers, George included, see her as having ‘the eye’ for every guy on the ranch, and they cite this as the reason for Curley’s insecurity and hot-headed temperament. But Curley’s wife adds complexity to her own characterisation, confessing to Lennie that she dislikes Curley because he is angry all the time and saying that she comes around because she is lonely and just wants someone to talk to. Like George and Lennie, she once had a dream of becoming an actress and living in Hollywood, but it went unrealised, leaving her full of self-pity, married to an angry man, living on a ranch without friends, and viewed as a trouble-maker by everyone.
CROOKS: called such because of a crooked spine, Steinbeck does not develop Crooks, the Negro stable buck, until Chapter Four, describing him as a ‘proud, aloof man. He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs’. Crooks is bitter, indignant, angry, and ultimately frustrated by his helplessness as a black man in a racist culture. Wise and observant, Crooks listens to Lennie’s talk of the dream of the farm with cynicism. Although tempted by Candy, Lennie and George’s plan to buy their own place, Crooks is constantly reminded (in this case by Curley’s wife) that he is inferior to whites and, out of pride, he refuses to take part in their future farm.
SLIM: The tall, jerkline skinner whom Steinbeck describes as something of a living legend: ‘He moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke ….. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.’ Slim lingers in the shadow of this overwhelming description throughout the novel. He serves as the fearless, decision-maker when conflicts arise among the workers and wins the confidence of George, offering advice, comfort, and quiet words of wisdom.
CANDY’S DOG: ‘A dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes’, Candy’s dog is a far cry from his sheepherding days. Carlson says to Candy, in regard to the dog: ‘Got no teeth, he’s all stiff with rheumatism. He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy? And Candy is left with no other option, but to shoot his longtime companion. This sub-plot is an obvious metaphor for what George must do to Lennie, who proves top be no good to George and no good to himself. Steinbeck re-emphasises the significance of Candy’s dog when Candy says to George that he wishes someone would shoot him when he’s no longer any good. And when Carlson’s gun goes off, Lennie is the only other man not inside the bunk house, Steinbeck having placed him outside with the dog, away from the other men, his gun shot saved for the novel’s end.
THE CRIPPLES: Four of Steinbeck’s characters are handicapped: Candy is missing a hand, Crooks has a crooked spine, Lennie is mentally slow, and Curley acquires a mangled hand in the course of the novel. They are physical manifestations of one of the novel’s major themes: the schemes of men go awry. Here, to reiterate the point, Steinbeck has the actual bodies of his characters go awry. It is as if nature herself is often doomed to errors in her scheme. And whether they be caused at birth, or by a horse, or by another man, the physical deformities occur regardless of the handicapped person’s will or desire to be otherwise, just as George and Lennie’s dream goes wrong despite how much they want it to be fulfilled.
SOLITAIRE: George is often in the habit of playing solitaire, a card game that requires only one person, while he is in the bunk house. He never asks Lennie to play cards with him because he knows that Lennie would be incapable of such a mental task. Solitaire, which means alone, is a metaphor for the loneliness of the characters in the novel, who have no one but themselves. It is also a metaphor for George’s desire to be ‘solitaire’, to be no longer burdened with Lennie’s company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man.
THE DEAD MOUSE AND THE DEAD DOG: These two soft, furry creatures that Lennie accidentally kills are both metaphors and foreshadowing devices. As metaphors, they serve as a physical representation of what will happen to George and Lennie’s dream: they (Lennie in particular) will destroy it. Lennie never intends to kill the thing he loves, the soft things he wants more than anything, but they die on him nonetheless. The dead mouse is also an allusion to the novel’s title – Of Mice and Men, a reminder that dreams will go wrong, even the desire to pet a mouse. And because bad things come in threes, Lennie’s two accidental killings of animals foreshadow the final killing of Curley’s wife, an accident that seals his fate and ruins the dream for him, George and Candy.
When discussing the various themes in Steinbeck’s novel, we would do well to first examine the title, which is an allusion to a line from one of Robert Burns’s poems: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglay.’ Translated into modern English, this line reads: ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.’ This cynical statement is at the heart of the novel’s action and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of all that is to come. For, indeed, the novel’s two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves. The tragedy, of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately our heroes plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan does not find fulfilment.
This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream. George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers, doomed to a life of wandering and toil in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labour. Their desires may not seem so unfamiliar to any other American: a place of their own, the opportunity to work for themselves and harvest what they sow with no one to take anything from them or give them orders. George and Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley’s wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own.
All the characters (all the ones that Steinbeck has developed, at least) wish to change their lives in some fashion, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person. Curley’s wife has already had her dream of being an actress pass her by and now must live a life of empty hope. Crooks’ situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America – the oppression of the black people. Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognised as a human being, let alone have a place of his own. Crooks’ hopelessness underlies that of George and Lennie’s and Candy’s and Curley’s wife. But all share the despair of wanting to change the way they live and attain something better. Even Slim, despite his Zen-like wisdom and confidence, has nothing to call his own and will, by every indication, remain a migrant worker until his death. Slim differs from the others in the fact that he does not seem to want something outside of what he has, he is not beaten by a dream, he has not laid any schemes. Slim seems to have somehow reached the sad conclusion indicated by the novel’s title, that to dream leads to despair.
Another key element is the companionship between George and Lennie. The two men are not unique for wanting a place and a life of their own, but they are unique in that they have each other. Their companionship contrasts with the loneliness that surrounds them – the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker, the loneliness of the outcast black man, the loneliness of Curley’s wife, the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple – and it arouses curiosity in the characters that they encounter, Slim included. And indeed, the reader becomes curious as to their friendship as well. And can we call it friendship? Lennie would call George a friend, but George would perhaps be hard-pressed to admit the same of Lennie. As he tells Slim, he has simply become so used to having Lennie around that he, ‘can’t get rid of him’. Despite his annoyance, George also demonstrates protectiveness, patience, and pride when it comes to Lennie. He is perhaps motivated to stay with Lennie by a sense of guilt, or responsibility, or pity, or a desire to not be alone himself. Most likely it is a combination of all these motivations. Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie, given the danger that Lennie poses for the both of them. George is not blind to the fact that life would be easier without Lennie, and he often yearns for independence when Lennie becomes troublesome, creating a major source of tension in the novel. This tension is not resolved until the final gunshot by the riverside, when the strain of Lennie’s company makes it impossible for George to survive with his companion.
By killing Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him). The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream, and he is forced to admit that it has gone hopelessly awry. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Slim’s comfort at the end (‘You hadda George’), indicates the sad truth that one has to surrender one’s dream in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise, the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.