Study Guide to Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

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Original portrait of playwright Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

This semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1990.  In 1998 the play was adapted and turned into a very successful, award-winning film,  directed by Pat O’Connor.  The film competed in the Venice Film Festival of 1998. It won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role for Brid Brennan. It was also nominated for 6 other awards, including the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Feature Film and the Best Actress Award for the American actress, Meryl Streep, who played the part of Kate.

 Like many other of Friel’s works it is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg and tells the story of a family unit being torn apart by the many strong forces in society.  It is a memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old. 

This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in Ardara, a small town in the Glenties area of County Donegal. Set in the summer of 1936, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for five of the Mundy sisters (Maggie, Chris, Agnes, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, Jack, who has returned from a life as a missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer and all hope seems to fade.

The play takes place in early August, around the Festival of Lughnasa, the pagan Celtic harvest festival. The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown.

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PLOT SUMMARY

In the play, the adult narrator, Michael Evans, recalls the summer of 1936 when as a small boy of seven, he lived with his mother Chris, and his four aunts – Kate, Maggie, Agnes and Rose – in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for many of Friel’s finest plays.  His uncle Jack, a missionary priest, had recently returned from Africa to live with them.  He is suffering from the after effects of malaria and some other more mysterious mental ailment that has made him forgetful and frail.

The Mundy family are not well off.  Kate, a teacher, is the only wage-earner.  Agnes and rose make a little money knitting gloves at home, a cottage industry at the time.  Maggie and Roselook after the hens and household duties, as does Christina, Michael’s mother.

Michael’s abiding memories of that summer are of his Uncle Jack’s return to the family home, linked forever in his mind with hearing dance music on their first ever radio, and the two visits of his father, Gerry Evans.  The play depicts the complexity of the relationships of the adults around him and the changes that came over their lives in that crucial summer, against a deeply traditional and rural backdrop.

The action of the play takes place in August, (the Irish word for August is Lughnasa – the ‘Lughnasa’ of the title), traditionally a time when the pagan Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, was commemorated and celebrated.  The play is divided into two acts, reflecting the two particular days that stand out in Michael’s memory.  He narrates the action from an adult vantage point, and is, therefore, both part of and distanced from it.  As the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy and Gerry Evans he is both a source of joy and shame – all of the sisters have a great affection for him, but in the Ireland of the 1930s a child born to a couple who were not married was seen as a source of shame in the community.

Summary of Act 1

Act 1 depicts four of the sisters as they wait for their sister Kate to return home.  They carry out their everyday tasks – knitting, ironing, making mash for the hens – and they talk in a light-hearted way about ordinary things, a broken mirror, lipstick, the erratic behaviour of the radio that they have nicknamed Marconi, after the famous inventor.  Their relationships are affectionate, occasionally exasperated as in any family.

When Kate returns she brings news of the forthcoming Harvest Festival of Lughnasa that everyone in the town is preparing for.  The excitement of that seems to unsettle the women.  Against Kate’s better judgement they even consider going to the harvest dance, like most of their neighbours.  Another unsettling moment is when they discuss Father Jack’s strange behaviour since he came home from Uganda.  He has returned home to Ballybeg as he is suffering the after effects of malaria, but he also appears confused as to his own whereabouts.  He cannot remember ordinary English words and makes constant references to pagan rituals he seems to have practiced while in Uganda.

Michael’s father, Gerry Evans makes one of his infrequent visits to see him and his mother Christina.  Chris is still in love with him but it is clear that he, an irresponsible charmer, full of empty promises, has no intention of staying in Ballybeg with her and her son.  By the end of Act 1 we learn that Gerry intends to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.  By the end of the Act we have also learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the five sisters and also about their brother, Father Jack.

Summary of Act 2

Act 2 takes place in early September, three weeks later.  Michael still waits for the bike his father, Gerry, has promised to buy him.  Jack continues to speak of strange pagan rites.  He seems to have no interest in Catholic rituals such as the Mass.  This is now becoming a problem for the sisters in the village, especially for Kate as the schoolteacher.

Slowly but surely events begin to unfold and we hear that she will lose her job.  Agnes and rose will also lose their jobs as home knitters, due to the opening of a knitting factory in the area.  Gerry abandons Chris again, this time forever.  Money is scarce in the household.

Michael then narrates what transpired in the following weeks.  Rose and Agnes have to leave Ballybeg and go to London to find work.  He tells us that they lose contact with the family and it is twenty-five years later when he tracks them down – Agnes is dead by then and Rose is dying in a hospital.  Father Jack, who doesn’t resume his ministry as a Catholic priest as was expected, dies of a heart attack a year after the action of the play.  Gerry Evans is wounded in Spain, but survives to form a new family in Wales.  Chris spends the rest of her life working in the knitting factory, and hates it.  Kate finally gets a job as a private tutor.

The play ends as it began, with Michael remembering what happened that summer, particularly the sights and sounds of his mother and his aunts dancing in the kitchen.

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The famous ‘Gander Scene’ with Meryl Streep and young Michael

THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SETTING OF THE PLAY

Dancing at Lughnasa captures a time and place where great changes are about to take place – both in the Mundy household and in the wider world where all is about to change forever with the ominous rumblings of war to be heard in many parts of Europe.  The unspoken backdrop is Ireland and its emerging Republic which at the time was dominated by very strict social morality and the repressive influence of the Catholic Church.  The play seems to suggest that this traditional rural society, dominated for so long by communal values, will be changed forever by the power of the radio. 

From a twenty-first century vantage point giving the radio a name – Marconi – seems absurd, but it highlights the point that the radio will be like another presence in the play, giving people a window to what is going on in the outside world probably for the first time.  It is interesting that the predominant political movement in Ireland in the previous quarter of a century before 1936 was that of Sinn Féin which translates as Ourselves Alone – Ireland could survive on its own, isolationism was a good thing.  Ironically, a century later and our near neighbours have stolen our ideas with their obsession with Brexit.

It is significant that the tune to which the sisters dance so wildly to at the beginning of the play is the old Irish reel, The Mason’s Apron.  Towards the end of the play, however, the tune that plays when Gerry dances with Chris and her sisters is Anything Goes, with its faintly shocking lyrics:

In olden times a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking

Now heaven knows

Anything goes.

This may indicate that the old traditional moralities are also changing fast.

Michael, the narrator, tells us at the beginning of the play that he is remembering ‘that summer of 1936’ and the events that took place in Ballybeg.  As a boy of seven at that time, he clearly had very little understanding of the historical and political context in which he lived.  Throughout the play, however, Friel alludes to several specific events that took place in 1936 in both Ireland and Europe.

In Act 1, rose, one of the five Mundy sisters, sings,

‘Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?

Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun.

Mussolini will be there with his aeroplanes in the air

Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?

Shortly afterwards Maggie joins in with, ‘Will you vote for De Valera will you vote?’, to the same tune.  They are both referring to highly topical issues at the time: the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the success of Eamon de Valera, leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Irish General Election of 1933.  There was another General Election in the offing and this took place on 1 July 1937. A plebiscite on whether to approve the new Constitution of Ireland was held on the same day. This was a very significant event and it is interesting that here in Dancing at Lughnasa as in  Philadelphia Here I Come the important date to remember is 1/1/1937.  This was the day the new Irish Constitution came into effect and some critics suggest that Friel is here passing a harsh judgement on the Ireland that had emerged under that Constitution. 

Many critics and scholars also suggest that Friel is here giving a barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’. 

Later in the play, Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, decides to join the International Brigade, a group of socialists who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  All these events point to the fact that in the world outside Ballybeg great change and upheaval is happening – the Mundy family can’t but be caught up in and affected by these great changes also.

However, the most important change, according to Friel, is the rise to power in Ireland of Eamon de Valera.  De Valera’s celebrated view of Ireland as a predominantly rural society, peopled by frugal, contented people, clearly applies to the lifestyle of the five Mundy sisters – in fact, they are the very epitome of de Valera’s vision for the new Republic: comely maidens dancing at the crossroads or in their frugal kitchens.

Limited Opportunities

The limited opportunities available to the five Mundy sisters was typical of Irish society in the 1930s.  Conversation revolves around local gossip – who’s marrying who, the forthcoming harvest festival for the Festival of Lughnasa – and family issues; Father Jack’s strange behaviour since his return from Africa; the visit of Chris’s ex-lover Gerry Evans, the father of her child.  Their activities are equally confined to looking after the hens, baking, knitting and ironing.  They are barely making ends meet.  Crucially, it is Kate who does the shopping.  Their only source of entertainment is the radio, which fails to work more often than not.

From their conversations it is clear that the society of Ballybeg is small, not only literally but also metaphorically.  Michael tells us that Ballybeg was proud of his uncle and his work in the Ugandan leprosy hospital.  The local newspaper called him ‘our own leper priest’.  As he says:

‘it gave us that little bit of status in the eyes of the parish.  And it must have helped my aunts to bear the shame my mother brought on the household by having me – as it was called then – out of wedlock.’

The Influence of the Catholic Church

Religion had an enormous influence in 1930s Ireland.  In 1932 the great Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin and it is obvious that religion directly affects the lives of the characters in the play.  To have a priest in the family, especially a missionary priest, was considered a great honour.  It is Kate who expresses the most orthodox religious views for most of the play.  Indeed, Friel deliberately juxtaposes those views with the paganism associated with the Lughnasa festival bubbling away beneath the surface.  Early on Kate thinks it would be ‘sinful’ to give the name of the old pagan god, Lugh, to the new radio.  Any talk of the ‘pagan practices’ that take place back in the hills during the Festival of Lughnasa are not to be heard in ‘a Christian home, a Catholic home’, which for her is the ultimate ideal.  She reminds the others that ‘this is Father Jack’s home – we must never forget that – ever’.

Going to the harvest dance, as her sisters suggest, is for young people with ‘nothing in their heads but pleasure’.  In Catholic morality of the day, the idea of ‘pleasure’ was associated in a negative way with sex.  In the 1930s, attempts were made to prevent people going to what were called ‘pagan dances’.  These rigid attitudes extended to anything that might encourage personal vanity or loose behaviour and we can see from the play that the Mundy sisters have only an ‘oul cracked thing’ of a mirror to see themselves in.

Although he does not appear directly in the play (and only fleetingly in the film version), the power of the parish priest to fire Kate from her job in the village school because her priest brother does not conform to religious expectations, is another measure of the desire of the Catholic Church authorities to exert control in society. 

Friel returns to this theme many times in his plays.  In Philadelphia Here I Come! for example, religion is represented through the figure of the Canon. It is clear that he is an inept and ineffective one-dimensional character. Gar satirises his ineptitude when he comes in one evening to play his usual game of cards with S. B.,

“Sure Canon what interest have you in money? Sure as long as you get to Tenerife for five weeks every winter, what interest have you in money?”. 

In Philadelphia Here I Come!,  the Canon is seen as a very shallow man who is constantly being ridiculed by Gar Private.  He is not a pastor, he waits until, ‘the rosary’s over and the kettle’s on.’ And, in the end,  he proves to be as predictable and one-dimensional as S.B.  Indeed, both men are cruelly caricatured by Friel and the priest, in particular, is seen as a sad figure without influence or a constructive role to play in modern society.

We can also sense what a blow it must have been to the Mundy household when Chris became an unmarried mother.  De Valera and the Catholic Church at the time emphasised the role of marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father and ‘sturdy’ children – as a force for moral and political stability.  This ideal was best expressed in De Valera’s radio broadcast to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 when he said:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.

It is clear from the concern of the five Mundy sisters that they too value marriage and family.  Circumstances have caused them all to be single.  Only Chris has had sexual experience.  Given their ages – from twenty-six to forty – it appears that they have lost their chances of finding suitable men to marry.  But that does not mean that all desire for romance or sexual relationships has been crushed.  In different ways, each of the women in the play reveals a longing for love that goes beyond their actual circumstances.  Chris is still very much in love with Gerry Evans, the father of her child.  His visits cause emotional havoc to all in the household but especially to Chris and her young son.  He represents for all of them a different sort of life – there are hints that Agnes too is in love with him – even if Kate sees him as a sort of threat.  In her jokes and songs such as ‘The Isle of Capri’, Maggie reveals a sentimental side to her tough exterior.  Even Rose, described as ‘simple’, has a romantic interest in Danny Bradley, a married man.  Later in the play she joins him in ‘the back hills’, although we do not find out what, if anything, happens between them.  Even Kate, who is described as ‘a very proper woman’ and more negatively as a ‘self-righteous old bitch’, has had some hopes of attracting the attentions of Austin Morgan.  However, we later learn that he goes and marries a ‘wee young thing from Carrickfad’.

Dolores Keane sings ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ backed by the Irish Film Orchestra … and then the climactic dance of wild and free women.

The Dancing Metaphor

Throughout the play the metaphor of dancing is used to suggest romance, escape and sexual freedom.  For a short while the sisters entertain ideas of going to the harvest dance as they used to in their youth.  Kate, the authority figure in the family, makes it clear that this is out of the question, ‘do you want the whole countryside to be laughing at us? – women of our age? – mature women, dancing?’

Maggie has fond memories of going to dances with her friend Bernie O’Donnell, when she was sixteen and in love with Brian McGuinness, who later went to Australia.  The relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris is also depicted very much in terms of dancing.  And of course, the wild dance that the sisters engage in in their kitchen is a crucial moment in the play.  It allows them to get in touch with their inner selves, the sensuous side of their nature that is held in check by the dominant social attitudes of the Ireland in which they live.

Conflict in the Play

As already mentioned Friel juxtaposes in Dancing at Lughnasa the conflict between the repressive social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the 30s with an older, freer pre-Christian way of life.  This pagan way of life was one of celebration, wild dances and rituals held in the ‘back hills’ far away from the influence of the Catholic Church.  The Festival of Lughnasa traditions that Rose describes take place ‘up there in the back hills’, among people that Kate refers to as ‘savages’.  There are numerous references to Lugh, the pagan god, to voodoo, to omens of good and bad luck, to the devilish faces that Michael has painted on his kites.  Sweeney (the boy who was burnt in the festival bonfire) bears the same name as the legendary Sweeney who defied Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life.

Father Jack embodies this conflict too.  His experience as a missionary in Africa has caused him to lose his sense of what is appropriate in the context of Ballybeg.  From an Irish cultural point of view, sending priests as missionaries to Africa was seen as benefitting the native Africans by teaching them and enabling them to participate in the rituals of the Catholic Church.  But Father Jack no longer appears to believe that Christian ritual is superior to the rituals he observed in ‘pagan’ Africa.  In fact, after his time spent as a missionary, he now sees Catholic rituals such as the Mass as synonymous with the sacrifice offered to ‘Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth’.   Rather amusingly, he fails to live up to his expected role as moral judge of Gerry Evans (‘Father Jack may have something to say to Mr. Evans’ says Kate at one point).  Instead, he sees Michael as Chris’s ‘love-child’ and he asks her if she has any more ‘love-children’, and he pronounces that in Uganda ‘women are eager to have love-children’.  He even suggests that if they were in Uganda he would be able to provide at least one husband for all of his sisters, ‘That’s our system and it works very well’.

Father Jack’s view of religion now corresponds more to the goings-on at the pagan festival of Lughnasa than it does to the norms of the Catholic Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars’.  There is one telling statement he makes about the African people that seems to recognise the underlying truth of this.  He declares, ‘In some respects they’re not unlike us’.  It is clear, however, that his views would not be acceptable in the Ireland of the 30s to which he has returned.  This is sadly borne out by his own forced return to Ireland and the treatment meted out to his sister Kate by the local parish priest.

Change in Society

The over-riding impression we get from the play, however, is that changes are taking place, the world is sliding towards war and the old certainties are losing ground.  This is made even more evident with the return of Father Jack from Africa.  This event suggests that the domestic world of the Mundy’s faces disruption from the outside.  Father Jack brings with him from Uganda hints that Catholic ritual may not have universal appeal.  His obvious respect for native Ugandan rituals gives us a reverse view of the traditional role of the missionary priest!

Gerry Evans also brings a sense of the changing world of Ireland when he talks of giving ballroom dancing lessons, or of gramophone sales in Dublin.  When he decides to join the International Brigade in Spain, it is seen as part of a desire to experience the big bad world outside of Ireland.  There is a suggestion that Ireland’s cultural landscape is beginning to change ever so slowly.

One of the clearest indications of change takes place when Agnes and Rose can no longer make their living from home knitting, due to the opening of the new knitting factory in Donegal Town.  As the narrator says: ‘The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg’.  Their subsequent emigration was typical of the large-scale emigration from Ireland that took place in the first half of the twentieth century.  As in Philadelphia Here I Come!, Ballybeg is depicted here as a backwater, a stagnant place of despair and routine.  Escape through emigration is the only safety valve.   Like many an Irish town in the late thirties, forties and fifties Ballybeg has maintained its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings!  It is an example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would most certainly be ruined if those same young people stayed at home en masse

Faraway hills are said to be greener but when Agnes and Rose leave they possessed little education, few skills, and in reality their opportunities in London were limited to menial cleaning jobs.  Sad though this is, the narrator nevertheless suggests that they wanted ‘to get away’, to experience change and novelty, with all their challenges and disadvantages.  Someone said once that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies but there may be a positive side to change as countless numbers of Irish emigrants discovered as they made new prosperous lives for themselves in foreign lands.

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Family Relationships

Family is important to the Mundy sisters.   Within the family there may be disappointment, resentment or anger, but they will always present a united and brave face to the outside world.  Kate, in particular, insists that problems with Father Jack must be kept within the family, ‘not a word of this must go outside these walls’.

It is this family solidarity that causes them to unite in the face of the shame that Chris must have brought on them as an unmarried mother in a small town, baile beag, in 1930s Ireland.  Throughout the play we see the genuine affection each of the aunts feels for Michael: Kate brings him presents, Maggie jokes with him, Rose even says, ‘I wish he was mine’.  Clearly, he has never been made to feel unloved or unwanted.  It almost seems as if any or all of them could have been his mother. 

Similarly, their love and care for Father Jack outweighs any disappointment they may have felt at his ‘disgrace’.  Kate’s surprising acceptance of his religious beliefs and her grief when he dies reveal that family feeling overcomes conventional morality.  Each of the family members watches out for ‘simple’ and vulnerable Rose, as we see when she goes missing for an afternoon with Danny Bradley.  When Kate is sacked from her teaching job, it is ‘Rosie’ she worries about most.

However, despite the obvious closeness and the obvious loneliness and lack of fulfilment that they all feel, they rarely speak about their intimate feelings.  When Kate confides to Maggie that she feels ‘it’s all going to collapse’, for instance, Maggie declines to engage with her fears and simply says, ‘Nothing is about to collapse, Kate’.

Despite this, however, the family is capable of expressing negative feelings.  Hurtful things can be said.  Kate points out rather meanly to Agnes that neither she nor Rose made much money to contribute to the upkeep of the household.  Agnes retorts that she and rose are like ‘two unpaid servants’ in the house.  At another stage Agnes calls Kate ‘a damned self-righteous bitch’.

Ironically, the Mundy family of five sisters, one brother and their young nephew would not have corresponded to De Valera’s ideal nuclear family unit consisting of father, mother and their children of the time.  Tragically, too, the family grouping will disintegrate, as Michael the narrator tells us:

  • Poverty and economic change force Agnes and Rose to emigrate to London to find work;
  • Father Jack will die within a year;
  • Chris settles for a job she hated, working in the knitting factory;
  • Gerry Evans will visit less and less, until his visits stop altogether;
  • Michael himself will leave.  As he says, ‘In the selfish way of young men I was happy to escape’.

In many ways, then, it can be said that circumstances in the end have conspired to defeat the Mundy family.

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CHARACTER ANALYSIS IN DANCING AT LUGHNASA

Kate

Kate is the mother-figure and matriarch in the Mundy household.   She is the main bread-winner, respected in the community and the leader of the Mundy sisters.  She is a very religious and puritanical woman.  She has no time for ‘pagan’ ideas and is very prim and proper.  She doesn’t agree that the radio should be given a name, and definitely not the name Lugh because of its pagan origins.  She teaches in the local Primary School and would have been seen as a pillar of the community – especially in 1930s Ireland.  She had been involved in the War of Independence and she is very firm in her Christian attitudes.

She is very concerned with the way the people in the community view her and her family.  She would prefer the Mundys to be viewed as a decent family with a strong sense of dignity and strong religious faith.  She is, therefore, embarrassed by Father Jack’s return from Africa and feels that he has brought some shame on the family following his exploits in Uganda.  She has also been disappointed and hurt when Chris became pregnant outside of marriage and she does not want people to look down on the family.  When it is suggested that the sisters go to the harvest dance she is horrified at first.  She is very concerned about keeping up appearances and showing restraint both emotionally and socially.

Despite being part of a large family, Kate feels isolated and lonely in some way.  Perhaps she feels that she has to shoulder the burden of looking after the family on her own.  When the sisters dance together she dances alone.  This highlights her loneliness and isolation as she deals with her feelings by herself.

Maggie

At first Maggie seems to be the joker of the family.  She is always ready with a song, dance or joke.  However, on closer inspection we discover why she seems to be so bubbly.  Whenever there are moments of tension, or the possibility of any conflict, Maggie intercedes with some humour to help diffuse the situation.  In this way she keeps the peace and helps keep the family together because the family bond is very important to her.  She is a very likeable character and of all the sisters she is least prone to sarcasm and attempts to hurt others.  She is also generous spirited and kind and she adores young Michael.

Behind this apparent happy façade, however, Maggie is hiding deep unhappiness.  At one point Kate describes her meeting in Ballybeg with an old friend of Maggie’s by the name of Bernie O’Donnell.  It was Bernie O’Donnell who could attract the men that Maggie couldn’t when they were young.  Bernie later left Ballybeg and made a new life for herself somewhere else.  When Maggie hears this story from Kate she is quiet for once, which is very unlike her.

It is Maggie who is the first to start dancing in the climactic scene in Act 1.  She initiates the dance because she feels angry and frustrated with her small, lonely life in Ballybeg.  As described in the text her dance is ‘defiant’ as if she is trying to show life that it can throw anything at her and she will bounce back.

She is also a tower of strength for others when they need help.  She is there for Kate when she breaks down over her fears of not being able to keep the family together.  Maggie is possibly the most emotionally strong of the Mundy sisters, and she hides her secret pain much more effectively than the others.

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Catherine McCormack as Chris and Rhys Ifans as Gerry Evans in Dancing at Lughnasa.

Chris

Chris is a strong-willed character whose one great weakness is Gerry Evans.  She cannot help but love him despite all his false and empty promises.  Like all the Mundy sisters she fights off despair with humour and a defiant attitude.  She tries very hard not to let anything get to her.

When Gerry arrived back for the first time in over a year she tries to resist his advances by refusing to engage him in conversation.  He responds by dancing with her and she cannot resist the romance of this.  She returns to the house a changed woman, full of life and happiness, having conveniently forgotten what an unreliable rogue Gerry is.  She obviously craves romance in her life, otherwise she would not give in to Gerry in this way.  There are moments when she thinks back silently on her dance with Gerry, and it is obvious from her happy reaction that it has had a profound effect on her.

Throughout the play, however, she seems to be very jealous and suspicious of Agnes.  It becomes obvious to her that Gerry is also attracted to Agnes and visa versa, particularly after they both dance together.  This enrages Chris who probably feels deep down that Gerry loves Agnes more than he loves her.

However, her main claim to fame – or infamy – in the play is the fact that she is Michael’s mother.  He is obviously the apple of her eye and she is fiercely protective and proud of her son.  We have to remember also of course that this story is being narrated to us by her son Michael as he remembers with nostalgia the events of that momentous summer of 1936.

Agnes

Agnes is the most reserved and quiet of the five sisters, but she is also perhaps the strongest willed and the one with the greatest hidden reserves of strength.  She tends to listen when the others banter and poke fun at each other.  She is not the kind of person to start a conversation, yet despite her quiet and shy nature she is never afraid to stand up for herself or others.  She becomes quite angry when Kate refuses to use Gerry Evans’s name when referring to him.

She is the first to suggest that they could all go to the harvest dance and she is the one who makes the most emotional plea when she says she wants to dance and feel alive while dancing.  Despite being very quiet Agnes is not afraid at certain points in the play of revealing what her true emotions are.  However, normally she tends to bottle up her emotions and say very little, but when she does let go what she says is usually of great importance.  When she dances with her sisters in the famous kitchen scene she is very graceful and proud but also defiant at the same time.

Agnes is obviously very taken by Gerry Evans.  When she dances with him she is as graceful as ever and she dances like a woman who has been dancing with this man all her life.

Ultimately, Agnes is fearless despite her quiet nature.  She knows that when a crisis hits that hard decisions have to be made.  This is most obviously shown in her decision to go to London with Rose.  Of all the sisters, Agnes is the closest to Rose and she sees it as her life-long job to look after her sister.

Rose

Rose is very childish and innocent.  At that time, she would have been referred to as being ‘a bit simple’.  She is full of fun and life, but she is by no means a weak character who can be walked all over.   She has intelligence when required and like a child who wants something she knows cunning ways and means of getting it!

The other sisters are very protective of her, especially her sister Agnes.  They see her as the child of the family and it is their task to make sure she comes to no harm.  She takes a fancy to Danny Bradley, a local rascal with a bad reputation.    Despite her sisters’ insistence that she shouldn’t meet with him, rose concocts a plan to spend a day with him.  The fact that she does this shows her cunning and determination and also shows how underestimated she is, even by her own sisters.  Rose’s key character moment arrives when she defiantly stands up to Kate and is honest about her meeting with Danny Bradley.  In this moment she appears most adult-like and willing to be independent.

She has no shame, unlike Kate who is obsessed with the family’s good name and status in the community.  She is honest and pure and sees no harm in enjoying life.  She is a warm and endearing character with many childlike traits, but ultimately she is depicted as a strong, independent woman.

Brian Friel uses both Rose and Agnes to represent a generation of young Irish women (and men) who were forced by limited opportunities, poverty and economic depression top leave their small towns and villages in rural Ireland to seek work in London and elsewhere during the 1930s.

Gerry Evans

Gerry Evans is feckless, weak and irresponsible.  He is a scoundrel and a liar, but he manages to get away with it and gets by on his easy charm and a way with words.  This allows him to worm his way back into Chris’s life.  Gerry seems to be a drifter: unwilling or incapable of settling down, but later in the play we learn that he has been living a lie, and that he has another family in Wales.

Despite his flaws there is something likeable at times about Gerry.  He can get away with almost anything.  He is a child unwilling to take on real responsibility and merely puts on a show of enquiring about his son Michael’s well-being.

We also get the sense that Gerry is searching for something.  He goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but is not sure why he made that decision.  Gerry is also quite possibly in love with Agnes and he seems to have a problem asking after her when he is speaking to Chris.

He is a rogue who cannot be depended upon for anything.  He is a restless character with a great ability to charm all those around him with his easy words and his dancing skills.

Father Jack

Father Jack has obviously suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, as a result of his time spent as a Catholic missionary priest among the leper colonies in Uganda.  Despite his evident weaknesses and illnesses, we get a sense that he was once a great and determined man who deserved his reputation as a great missionary priest.

Father Jack is also quite unconventional.  This part of his nature is slowly revealed in the play until we get the ultimate revelation that he almost discarded his own Catholic beliefs to become one with the natives at his mission.  Unlike Kate he is tolerant of others beliefs, so much so that he took part in many tribal celebrations and rituals when he was in Uganda.  He is a very non-judgemental man who accepts everyone for what they are.

He is a good man with everyone’s best interests at heart.  He is a man of great humanity and strength and he quickly regains his physical strength after returning to his home in Ballybeg.  He is not a man who feels shame and is quite happy about how his African experiences have changed him.

An Analysis of Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Spring-by-Gerard-Manley-Hopkins
 (c) poetryanalysis.com

Spring

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Commentary

As we know Hopkins wrote The Terrible Sonnets but here we have one of the best of his ‘bright sonnets’ in which he celebrates the beauty of nature and the glory of God.  Hopkins loved to use the sonnet because he felt it suited his style.  He wrote ‘Spring’ in May 1877 while studying theology in North Wales. ‘Spring’ is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octet which is primarily descriptive, and a sestet which is typically more reflective. The sonnet can only be described as being quintessential Hopkins.

The octet describes nature and Hopkins’ appreciation of it shines through in his descriptive language. He gives many examples of how beautiful and fresh the world is, such as weeds, birds’ eggs, lambs, blue skies and lush greenery.  Many of Hopkins’ poems read like sermons and homilies and this is not unusual seeing as he was a Jesuit priest.  So we are not surprised, therefore, when he compares the beauty which surrounds him to the Garden of Eden.  The sestet reflects upon the meaning of this wonderful nature. As I said earlier there is always a spiritual dimension to Hopkins’ poetry and in the sestet he reflects on the sorry end of the Garden of Eden and he uses the last lines of the poem to ask God to protect the innocence of spring and also that of young children.

Many of the trademark conventions which define Hopkins’ poetry are to be found in this poem, such as alliteration, assonance, inscape, instress and sprung rhythm.   We are presented with an innovative and technically accomplished poem which is written in a unique and distinctive way. 

It might be important to define some of these concepts because some of them are unique to Hopkins’ poetry:

Inscape: For Hopkins, every single thing in the universe was unique. Everything contained qualities that helped to define that uniqueness, and to distinguish it from all other things. He called this inscape.  Hopkins believed that God was responsible for each unique thing. For him, inscape was the essential essence of each thing, that unique quality that set it apart from everything else.

Instress: Hopkins also believed that each living thing had its own unique energy which was also derived from God.  In the octet of this sonnet, therefore, he tries through language and imagery to capture the instress, the unique energy that defines Spring.

Sprung Rhythm:  Hopkins invented this unique kind of rhythm and used it extensively in his poetry. Basically, Hopkins stresses the important word in a line of poetry and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables e.g. the line ‘When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush’. 

Octet
Hopkins begins the poem with a very bold statement of his philosophy.   He won’t listen to any debate or argument as he declares with absolute conviction that Spring is the most beautiful season of the year.  He then proceeds to give evidence in support of this contention, by presenting the reader with a series of images, which try to capture both the beauty and vibrancy of Spring.

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

He immediately surprises us by celebrating the beauty of weeds, a type of plant we traditionally frown upon. He uses alliteration and sprung rhythm to capture both the essence (inscape) and energy (instress) of these particular plants.  The word ‘wheel’ causes us to pause as we try to understand what he means.  It may be the way briars and other weeds send out tendrils to curl around other shrubs and plants as they climb or indeed it may be a reference to the cyclical nature of the seasons, each one giving way to the next.

He then describes the thrush in the next few lines. Again he tries to capture for us in words the inscape and instress of the birds as they build their nests and lay their eggs.  The bird’s eggs are compared to the heavens, as Hopkins subtly introduces a spiritual dimension to the poem. There are examples of sensuous imagery in evidence also, while the onomatopoeic “wring” further captures that elusive inscape.  Notice his constant use of alliteration, ‘rinse and wring’.  There is a very clever metaphor in the third line when he compares the speckled thrush’s eggs to the heavens at night.  It nearly would have been easier for him to use the simile, Thrush’s eggs look (like) little low heavens, but he resists the temptation!

He does use a simile in lines four and five when he tries to describe the effect of birdsong on the human ear,

it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing

Further intense images follow, as Hopkins champions this particular season. We are told “that blue is all in a rush,” as he tries to capture the instress, the energy, that defines that season. The final line, with its rather quaint, colloquial language, is also designed to produce a similar effect.

By the end of the octet, the reader has been swept along by Hopkins in his description of nature. His use of sprung rhythm , coupled with the absence of any full-stops in the entire octet, ensure that the reader is made fully aware of the breathtaking beauty and vitality associated with Spring.

Sestet
The poem becomes much more reflective in the sestet. Hopkins begins by posing a question: What does all of this beauty of nature actually signify?   This rhetorical question signifies the poet’s own confusion and uncertainty.  The reader is invited to slow down and contemplate the answer to this question. Hopkins suggests to us that springtime is an image of what the world would have been like in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, before the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin into our world. 

In a series of complex and very theological images, Hopkins manages to suggest what is wrong with the world, provides a vision of the type of world he would like to see, and advocates a return to that time of innocence in Eden Garden. He suggests our loss of innocence by using the image of fruit becoming overripe and decaying.

Traditionally also it must be remembered that May was always linked to Mary the Mother of God – the month of May was Mary’s month.  He proceeds to use different images of innocence to present his image of the world he would like to see, and finally, he advocates a return to that world of innocence.  In my mind’s eye I can see children innocently dancing around the traditional Maypole on an English village green when I read these final lines.  For his English audience there would have been no better representation of childhood innocence!

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   (c) haikudeck.com

An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Inversnaid-by-Gerard-Manley-Hopkins
 (c) poemanalysis.com

This darksome burn, horseback brown, 
His rollrock highroad roaring down, 
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam 
Flutes and low to the lake falls home. 

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth 
Turns and twindles over the broth 
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, 
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning. 

Degged with dew, dappled with dew, 
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, 
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, 
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn. 

What would the world be, once bereft 
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, 
O let them be left, wildness and wet; 
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. 

Commentary

The initial response of a class hearing Hopkins for the first time – in my long experience – can only be described as a kind of muted sniffling, an uneasy shuffling!  Indeed, I am reminded of a scene from Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Van.   In the novel, Darren is studying Hopkins’s poetry for his  Leaving Cert.  He reads one of the poems – probably Inversnaid – and wonders when Tippex had been invented and he concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’  Not all students are as negative as Darren but given a chance most conclude that this poetry is old but yet new and surprising.  This difference is what opens the paths to further exploration.  Here we have someone experimenting and stretching the outer limits of language just like a modern rapper would do. 

Inversnaid, while not one of his best poems, shows how he continually explores the possibilities of words.  A good class will enjoy puzzling out the images, rather like trying to solve a cryptic crossword.  There may even be arguments about which sense of ‘comb’ is intended.  However, the average class will need a lot of help with this poem. 

Finally, by way of introduction, this poem does not end with a homily like many of Hopkins’ poems but instead takes on a very modern plea and could have been written in 2021 by any one of a range of eco-warriors from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg.  However, while the spiritual dimension, so explicitly treated in ‘Spring’ and other poems, may be hidden from the reader, here one senses that it is never far from the poet-priest’s mind.

The poem was written in 1881 while Fr Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, was ministering to his flock in inner city Glasgow.  On one of his rest days he paid a hurried visit to the little village of Inversnaid near the shores of Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to write this poem.

The poem was written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland and the poet makes a very prescient and prophetic appeal that such places should not be destroyed forever by man’s search for wealth at any price.  The poet praises the special and irreplaceable beauty of the ‘wetness and wildness’ of the world.

Hopkins wrote the poem at a time when the Industrial Revolution in England was beginning to destroy the countryside.  There was also a counter move by Victorians to set aside areas of great beauty so that people who could afford it could escape to enjoy the beauty of nature.  Victoria herself had her Scottish royal retreat at Balmoral and this is still in use to this day.  Elsewhere places of particular scenic beauty such as the Lake District in England and Killarney in Ireland were making a name for themselves as soothing spa resorts where the rich and famous came to relax and enjoy the restorative power of nature in all its glory and wildness.  Here Hopkins pleads that such places should be spared and were, in fact, essential.  He attempts in the first three stanzas to convince people of the wonder of such areas; this he does by using all his word-power to describe what he sees in an exciting way.  In the final stanza he presents his plea in repetitive and almost desperate terms.

The structure of the poem, unlike its language, is very simple.  The first three stanzas convey a lively and exciting picture in our minds.  The final stanza then is a plea that such beauty be preserved.  Each stanza contains four lines, and each line has four stresses.  Hopkins stresses the important word and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables.  This unique form of rhyming scheme he called sprung rhythm.

Hopkins is describing a river rushing and roaring down the Scottish hillside to reach Loch Lomond.  The river begins high in the hills and flows powerfully down over the rocks, then eases into lower land and flows gently into the lake.  There are many pools and eddies filled with froth so dark that they suggest despair.  Dew sparkles on the banks beside the river where wild plants grow such as heath and fern and ash trees.  The last stanza is a passionate plea to his fellow man to leave such wildness and beauty alone, and let them survive.

Hopkins language can be difficult because he is constantly experimenting.  In this poem, for instance, he is obviously infatuated by the Scottish accents all around him and we can see this in the continual use of ‘r’ alliterative sounds throughout the poem.  Hopkins tries to capture the inscape and instress of a fast flowing stream in the rural landscape of Inversnaid.  He makes use of a number of important techniques to capture the true essence and energy of the stream such as compound words, sprung rhythm and alliteration to great effect.  He also invents new words, and makes use of local colloquial and dialect words freely. 

To fully appreciate the beauty of the poem you really need to read it aloud in your best Scottish accent!  From the very beginning he sets the scene,

This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,

These lines suggest the river’s steep rush through the highlands.  The hard vowel sounds convey the rush and roar of the water over the rocks.  The essence and energy of the river (its inscape and instress) is compared in a lovely metaphor to a wild horse careering downhill at great speed.

The final two lines in the first stanza are calmer

In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam 
Flutes and low to the lake falls home. 


The poet uses alliteration to suggest a peaceful pool with foam like ‘fleece’ gently circling as in a whirlpool.  ‘Coop’ and ‘comb’, ‘fleece’ and ‘foam’ convey multiple images if we allow them in.  The energy of the river is now ‘cooped up’ in a rockpool and the water gently ‘combs’ over the rocks and falls with lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds to the lake.

shiny boulders and water stream
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

In the second stanza the focus switches to these stiller shallow pools.  The ‘fleece’ of stanza one is now a ‘windpuff-bonnet’ of ‘fawn-froth’.  These are lovely examples of compound words made up by the poet to describe the scene before him.  The poet is after all trying to describe or inscape a whirlpool and he invents a new verb to describe the motion of the pool – it ‘twindles’.  This swirling motion produces very ominous, dark emotions in the poet: the pool is now a ‘broth’, a ‘pitchblack’ soup of seething river in flood.  The darkness or shadows of the area also help induce a mood of despair – Hopkins gives it even added importance by giving it a capital ‘D’.  ‘Fell-frowning’ has many layers of meaning.  Again it is a compound word invented for the occasion: Hopkins often uses ‘fell’ in his poetry and usually it means foul or evil.  The stanza is a perfect example of sprung rhythm, a unique Hopkins invention.  (Read the stanza again – out loud – to get a feel for this rhythm).

The focus now switches to the banks of the stream and the abundance of plants and shrubs and trees that exist there.  He uses a very precise set of words to capture the essence, the inscape of the gorge through which this stream is flowing.  It is a glorious description of nature in all its wildness:

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,

Are the groins of the braes that the brook threads through,

Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,

And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

We get the sense of the river picking up speed again in the first two lines before it slows again before the stanza ends.

In the last stanza, Hopkins uses many words beginning with the letter ‘w’.  This, combined with all the repetition, conveys a mood of anxiety and pleading.  The use of the rhetorical question also gives a sense of his uncertainty.  He ends by issuing an appeal, asking us to preserve the natural landscape. Yet again, one can detect the intensity of the emotion in his pleading and in his poetry.   Hopkins finishes with a rallying cry, almost a call to arms, similar to what Greta Thunberg has done in recent times, in which he champions the natural world and pleads with us to respect it.  That call is now nearly 150 years old and, unfortunately, is more pertinent today that ever before.

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Further Study

You might like to have a read of the following blog which explains the various terms such as ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ and ‘sprung rhythm’ used in the above notes.  Just click on the link.

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

You might also be interested in the following blogs which analyse particular poems by Hopkins:

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

 

Listen as Tom O’Bedlam reads Inversnaid

 

 

Free Resources for Leaving Cert English 2021

 

 

river
The Good Old Days!

This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours!   Because of this continuous  disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on  Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.

Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.

IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!

THE SINGLE TEXT  AND A SELECTION OF TEXTS PRESCRIBED FOR THE COMPARATIVE STUDY 2021

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

King Lear (H/O)

Single Text Study Notes on King Lear

Study Notes on King Lear

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Image Patterns in King Lear

Wuthering Heights (H/O)

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

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

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Philadelphia Here I Come (O)

Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!

Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Silas Marner

Themes in Silas Marner

Imagery in Silas Marner

Silas Marner The Characters

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

 

A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2021

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

This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:

Higher Level

  • Theme or Issue
  • Cultural Context
  •  General Vision and Viewpoint

Ordinary Level

  • Theme
  • Social Setting
  • Relationships

This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison.  In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.

FYI the following  adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.

Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison.  Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.

The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).

Theme or Issue

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

Isolation and Loneliness
Relationships
Family
Childhood
Fantasy and reality

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

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

Cultural Context

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

Vision and Viewpoint

The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader  – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003

When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director.  We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text.  We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set.  We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also!  Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.

IN SUMMARY….

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

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

 

THE POETRY SECTION IN 2021

I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link.  Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021.  So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four.  In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE  poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year.  (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).

Seamus Heaney

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

Analysis of The Forge by Seamus Heaney

Analysis of The Harvest Bow by Seamus Heaney

Bogland by Seamus Heaney

 

Elizabeth Bishop

Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop: The Poets Poet

 

Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Bolands Poetry

The Beauty of Ordinary Things  In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

Child of Our Time by Eavan Boland

 

Robert Frost

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

Commentary on A Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Analysis of Spring Pools by Robert Frost

Some Personal Thoughts on The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

 

Gerard Manley hopkins

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Sylvia Plath

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

 

21036

John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne
Portrait of Donne in a great hat by unknown English artist, c1595. © Estate of Lord Lothian.   This is possibly the painting ‘taken in shadows’ to which he refers in his will.

John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’  originally published in 1921.  This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked.  Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication.  This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect.  It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead to pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.

Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends.  Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.

Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste.  As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education.  He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry.  It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day.  When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’.  One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.

The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’.  Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics.  Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.

Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works.  Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career.  The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known.  The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.

What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular? 

What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration.  Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven.  This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases.  For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

Is elder by a year now than it was

When thou and I first one another saw.

Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed.  It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.  To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

Running it never runs from us away,

But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.

His use of concentration is also very evident in The Good Morrow where we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem.  The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza.  Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction.  Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny.  Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.  Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe.  Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find.  Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”).  Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind.  Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation.  In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study.  As with The Anniversary, he proposes that the only true art is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.

A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines.  Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic.  Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare.  Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage.  Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc. 

(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement.  We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World.  Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)

This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue.  The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem.  Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments.  In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner.  He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis.  The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:

If our two loves be one, or thou and I

Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative.  What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds.  What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation.  In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.  The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155).   The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits …

All other things to their destruction draw.

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow.  He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns.  While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.

A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit.  The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English.  Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice.  The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets.  Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits.  The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’  This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere.  But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’). 

A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone.  The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge.  No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.

The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’).  Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high.  Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’).  We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry. 

This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love.  This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’.  We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker.  The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic.  The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future.  In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity. 

The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery.  Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy.  In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety.  Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of  ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.

The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.  It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).

Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem.  Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic.  Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.  Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.

Conclusions

Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).

With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity.  The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader.  At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’.  At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.

Further Reading

You might also like to read related blog posts by the same author:

An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry

An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

Works Referred to

Shakespeare’s Richard II

Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley

Works Cited

T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets“.  First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 1921.

Winny, J., A Preface to Donne, Longman, 1970.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Further Reading:

You might also like to read

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Further Reading

You might also like to read:

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

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

Silas Marner – The Characters

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SILAS MARNER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GODFREY CASS

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

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

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

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

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

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SQUIRE CASS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DUNSTAN CASS

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

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

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

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

The Rarer Pleasure of seeing Miss Nancy Lammeter

NANCY LAMMETER

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

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

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

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

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DOLLY WINTHROP

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

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

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

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

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Further Reading:

You might also like to read

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

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

Free Resources for Leaving Cert English Students 2020

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

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

THE SINGLE TEXT

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

Hamlet

Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet: The World of the Play

The Problem with Hamlet – is Hamlet

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

Hamlet’s Delay

Death and Deceit in Hamlet

The Moral Question in Hamlet

The King and Queen in Hamlet

Polonius and his family in Hamlet

Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet

Ghosts and the Supernatural in Hamlet

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Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Playboy of the Western World

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

 

THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2020

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

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

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

MODES OF COMPARISON

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

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

Two of these three will be examined in 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COMPARITIVE STUDY

EXAM HINTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Links to Notes on Comparative Texts

A Doll’s House

Study Notes on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

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

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Silas Marner

Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

Silas Marner – The Characters

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

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

The Great Gatsby

Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Spinning Heart

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

 

THE POETRY SECTION IN 2020

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

Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Boland’s Poetry

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

‘Child of Our Time’ by Eavan Boland

Emily Dickinson

An Overview of the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Robert Frost

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

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

Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

Adrienne Rich

Exploring the Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

Hidden Riches in The Poetry of Adrienne Rich

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s Poetry

Tintern Abbey – An Analysis

Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

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

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Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE WINDOW SYMBOL IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

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

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

Further Reading

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

and Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

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