Study Notes on ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan

 

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The cover photo was given to Claire Keegan by Madelaine Greene, wife of John McGahern. It was taken at a funfair in Brussels.

In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:

“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”

More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level.  Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story.  Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.

 All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition

 

About Claire Keegan

 

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Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.

Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.

Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award.  Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.

She is a member of Aosdána.[3]

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After the Rain – Repairs at Ballymore Farm, Co. Wexford.

THE STORY

The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel.  Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family.  Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family.  The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.

Blessedly, Keegan’s Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East.  The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown.  Claire Keegan explains:

“For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we’ve had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.”

Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.

“It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one’s happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I’m very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous.”

The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless.  Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is plenty of food and money to spare’. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before.

The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children.  She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home.  Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll.  By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.

Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism.  It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.

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Out to Pasture, Ballymore, Wexford by Tony Robinson on ArtClick.ie Irish

THEMES AND ISSUES

There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course.  The main themes dealt with here are:

  • Growing up/Childhood
  • The Theme of Family

 

The Theme of Growing up/Childhood

This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel.  In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so.  It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.

It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family.  She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story.  We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her.    Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella.  We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.

The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy.  As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.

As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:

The man will be her size.  He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps.  Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).

She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact.  They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6).  She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).

She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving.  She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10).  She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch.  She tells us that her mother is always busy:

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).

She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house.  Here there is room and time to think and grow.  There may even be money to spare’ (p.13).  All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home.  For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17).  Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’.  This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.

One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid.  Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21).  The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).

She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28).  It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child.  This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story.  Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact.  Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear.  They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella.  The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).

Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting.  She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion.  The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’.  She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE.  She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore.  Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).

The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:

She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting.  We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).

It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team.  Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’.  He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).

The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day.  She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever.  One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue.  As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).

Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake.  She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas.  It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house.  Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’!  The narrator  is left aghast:

I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).

When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret.  Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:

‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)

Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items.  The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school.  She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76).  Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade.  Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:

I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree.  Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).

She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also.  They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home.  Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care.  Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).

She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold.  She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold.  She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:

This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).

Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:

It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).

The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home.  She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:

Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).

The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic.  She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her.  She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’.  She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’.  Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:

‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).

This is, in effect, the climax of the story.  Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal.  However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family.  She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife.  So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment.   She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.  She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.

 

The Theme of Family

Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families.  The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family.  She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.

The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’.  He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds.  We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname.  We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister.  Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3).  He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14).  The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.

Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end.  Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing.  The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’.  He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).

In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different.  The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house.  Here there is room and time to think and grow.  There may even be money to spare’ (p.13).  All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home.  The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:

We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).

Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear.  They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella.  She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).

At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name.  We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival.  After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son.  She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end.  It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways.  She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores.  She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.

John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’.  He grows in stature as the story develops.  Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected.  There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father.  He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:

Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock.  When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver.  On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).

He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving.  He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.

He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading.  When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit.  During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly advice:

‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says.  ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do.  Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing’ (p.64).

This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel.  Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’.  It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame.  The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.

Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:

          “You must have carried me there” (p.66).

As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind.  He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.

The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel.  She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife.  So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment.   She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.

Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car.  The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’.  Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief.  After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred.  We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.

The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.

It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years.  She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:

It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).

We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!

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Lavender Farm, Coolnagloose, Inch, Co. Wexford

CULTURAL CONTEXT

The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981.  The setting is rural County Wexford.  There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time.  The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation.  The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea.  There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.

The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland.  The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there.  In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’.  In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them.  Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.

The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.

The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report.  The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.

Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.

The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess.  The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life.  Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.

Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella.  We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981.  We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations.  It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year.  The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.

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 LITERARY GENRE

This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice.  It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles.  These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.

It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect.  She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor.  In effect, this is a short story with chapters added.  The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.

As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University.  During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen.  She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books.  This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark.  She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.

All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense.  This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present.  Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families.  She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).

The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel.  This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation.  In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so.  Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.

The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me.  Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here.  For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside.  Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.

 The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator.  This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.

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 GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT

This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981.  The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood.  Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.

We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them.  One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident.  This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all.  Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.

Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism.  The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it.  The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive.  However, Kinsella will have none of it:

‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.

‘We didn’t really think – ‘

‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).

The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next.  It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad.  Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader.  There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator.  As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments.   There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl.  This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.

The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed.  Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:

.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves.  Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.

 

 

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Close Analysis of John McGahern’s ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’

(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)

 

That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community.  It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place.  I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work.  Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?

The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive.  There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller.  McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ [1]

The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun.  This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’.  The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.

In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975),  ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s),  ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s),  ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc.    However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day.  This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text.  As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write.  Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.

However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities.  The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:

‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches.  The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).

‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint.  Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side.  Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch.  Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).

In this place all news is local.  The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:

‘Have you any news?’

‘No news.  Came looking for news.’

‘You came to the wrong place.  We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).

The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything.  He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border.  What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?

A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evans’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s.  We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England.   Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:

The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish.  There were many swans on the lake.  A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore.  A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog.  A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand.  The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky.  Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).

As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place.  The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place.  Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun!  The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.

Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake.  The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:

The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes.  Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake.  The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).

They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused.  Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad.  Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes.  Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:

‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)

They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy.  From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome.  Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household.  She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake.  Her home place is described as being idyllic:

Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn.  Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).

When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves.  She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94).  Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town.  He marries and has children of his own.  He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy.  Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:

Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own.  Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change.  But how can time be gathered in and kissed?  There is only flesh (p.131-132).

Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:

‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).

Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location.  Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’.  As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:

‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said.  ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).

However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single.  The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’.  Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude.  The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel.  Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:

This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another.  ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge.  ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).

Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning.  He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna.  However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:

‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable.  They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’

‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.

‘Father Conroy is plain.  The priests had this country abulling with religion once.  It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).

Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community.  That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.

The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):

  • ‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
  • ‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
  • ‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
  • ‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
  • ‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
  • Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press.  Ask why not but never why.  Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
  • ‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
  • ‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
  • ‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
  • ‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
  • ‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
  • ‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
  • ‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
  • ‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
  • ‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
  • ‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
  • ‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
  • Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan.  Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of.  He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’.  Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life?  What does love become but care?  Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).

One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking.  This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather.  This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:

Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).

…..

Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).

…..

The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died.  The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun.  Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows.  The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).

…..

When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms.  In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).

…..

Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in.  The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore.  A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).

…..

The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore.  Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).

…..

The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat.  When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding[2] began (p.118).

…..

As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling.  The birds had gone quiet.  The hum of the insects was still.  Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows.  The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).

Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time.  Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:

Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain.  Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that.  Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake.  More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky.  When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain.  The hives were quiet.  Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).

…..

‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours.  Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths.  The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water.  Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).

…..

‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black.  Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes.  The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed.  Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot.  Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar.  For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).

Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still.  They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins.  Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings.  In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working.  In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).

…..

‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake.  On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed.  Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).

Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds.  Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air.  The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds.  The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten.  In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled.  The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).

…..

‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches.  It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).

Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree.  May came in wet and windy.  The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields.  Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded.  Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).

…..

‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).

As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum.  This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence.  The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun.  Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot.  Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides.  This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.

The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.  Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence.  This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region.  Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.

In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).

McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen.  How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238).  We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:

‘We never speak badly about people.  It’s too dangerous.  It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).

Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival.  The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter.  In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world.  As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.”  Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’

[1] Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.

[2] Tedding – turning the hay with a hay turner

McGahern (3)

Read also: Amongst Women by John McGahern

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Review

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent elevation as Nobel Laureate will surely prompt avid readers to explore his repertoire further. They could do worse than lose themselves in this offering from 2015.  The novel took me back to my undergraduate days in UCC in the 1970’s studying classics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf.  Ishiguro’s tale sets out to be a classic Arthurian fable depicting Sir Gawain himself, and others on various quests. Ishiguro exploits the avalanche of recent interest in this genre as seen in Peter Jackson’s cinematic telling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. While the novel may not lend itself to a film blockbuster, it does have all the attributes for one of those all-consuming RPG’s (an acronym I’ve just newly acquired!) in which you work your way through various adventures and levels and perils on your journey to eventually achieving your Holy Grail.

 

The novel is set at a certain indistinct time after the death of the legendary Arthur.  Britons and Saxons enjoy a fragile peace: the first tentative steps being taken to assimilate both opposing forces in villages and communities throughout the realm.  However, we soon learn that this peace is maintained only because each community is afflicted by a collective loss of memory surrounding their horrendous war-torn past.  The she-dragon Querig is said to be responsible for this collective amnesia by the spreading of a mysterious mist which envelops the countryside and the hamlets.  Indeed, the novel explores the rather vexed issue of memory, and race memory in particular, in maintaining peace in a fractured – and fractious – post-war political landscape.  This idea, of memory and its loss, is dealt with by Ishiguro on two fronts – the geopolitical and the personal.

The novel has a number of narrators, principally Axl and Beatrice – but others including Sir Gawain, Sir Wistan and the various boatmen also provide necessary insights, observations and reveries as the story unfolds.  The early chapters introduce us to Axl and Beatrice, his princess.  They are Britons who live in an underground, warren-like community, surrounded by monsters and ogres and never-ending mists blowing in from the mountains and fens.  They live ‘on the edge of a vast bog’, where ‘the past was rarely discussed’ because ‘it had faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes’.  However, they are being increasingly marginalised by their elders in the Great Chamber and eventually decide to leave to seek out their son who has left for some forgotten reason.  Thus begins the great adventure.

Early in their journey, they come upon a mysterious boatman. Their conversation with him lays the foundation for their fears that restored memory will bring disaster and a possible end to their solid, loving relationship.

We meet Sir Gawain who has been given a quest by Arthur to slay the she-dragon Querig.  He has spent his life wandering the hills getting to know her ways and her guile, so much so, that he eventually becomes her protector.  He is mocked by the women for his inactivity in fulfilling his quest, and we find him wandering the foothills on his trusted warhorse Horace, a rather pathetic figure of ridicule – a forlorn relic of a chivalrous past.

We also encounter the warrior, Wistan, and his young protégé Edwin, who it is feared has been affected by a dragon bite.   We learn that Wistan has been sent by his Saxon king in the eastern fens, to seek out Querig and slay her. The motivation behind this seems to be that once Querig has been slain and the people’s memory fully restored, the long-suppressed divisions and hatreds will resurface to aid the king in his quest to gain Saxon control over the kingdom.

Axl and Beatrice continue their journey, accompanied by Sir Gawain and the young boy Edwin.  They detour to visit the wise Father Jonus who lives in a monastery in the mountains, on the pretext of receiving a cure for Beatrice’s mysterious ailment.   The monastery, once a Saxon citadel, holds further dangers for the party as they are forced to escape through secret passages to freedom.  They continue relentlessly upward to the Giant’s Cairn, where Querig reputedly has her lair.  Once Sir Gawain and Querig have been slain by Sir Wistan, Beatrice and Axl are made aware of the tragic consequences which will follow: memory will soon be fully restored and the dogs of war loosed again, with devastating consequences. Once again Britons will be set upon by their Saxon neighbours, ushering in another period of war and unrest, the fragile peace put in place by King Arthur shattered forever.

Axl and Beatrice make their way from the dragon’s former lair and again meet another boatman. Beatrice reveals – her memory now restored – that in fact, their son is dead and is buried on a nearby offshore island.  They undergo the dreaded solitary test administered by the boatman and the novel ends in sadness, as Axl is left on the shore, while the boatman ferries the ever-weakening Beatrice to the mysterious island.

In this novel Ishiguro provides us with a  thinly veiled modern allegory – his thesis seems to be that a collective loss of memory is necessary in the various trouble spots around the world where untold savagery and genocide have been unleashed if reconciliation is to take place.  We can only imagine the difficulties that daily face communities which were once suffused with hatred and division.  The situation in Northern Ireland obviously springs to mind. We see regularly on our televisions and newspapers the efforts made to normalise peace in these communities after almost a quarter of a century of atrocity, a process which requires a near Orwellian stretching of credibility on our behalf.  In fact, we may wonder has Ishiguro’s mist been replaced there with the modern version – sterling, euro and dollar?  We may also remember other recent trouble-spots such as Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and question: how can normality be restored, how can society pick up the pieces again? Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?

As well as the geopolitical implications Ishiguro applies the same thesis to the more private area of marital love.  The touching tenderness and faithfulness exhibited by Axl and Beatrice belie the difficulties they have had to face in their long lives together. This has included a period of infidelity by Axl which has been glossed over, and also, the death of their only son.  Surely, this mysterious yet fortuitous amnesia has been a Godsend to them in maintaining their closeness and their touching intimacy. Surely their relationship would not have otherwise endured but for the benign balm of amnesia.

Consider then the gargantuan achievement of Ishiguro in The Buried Giant: it is a masterpiece about characters who all suffer from various degrees of memory loss, and yet we as readers are able to piece the story together, to read between the lines….  It is, however, an allegory in wishful thinking.  In reality, there are no quick fixes to help us cope with our post-traumatic stresses. We cannot rely on the temporary balm of forgetfulness. If anything, in our world we are left to deal with generation after generation of bequeathed toxic memory.  Atrocity on the world stage or infidelity on a personal relationship level are not so easily forgotten, nor forgiven.

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Review of ‘Boyhood – Scenes from Provincial Life’ by J.M. Coetzee

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Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him.  Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been!  On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart.  As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory.  There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn.  The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.

This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee.  Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.

School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist.  The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:

So this is what is at stake.  That is why he never makes a sound in class.  That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer.  He dare not slip.  If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.

(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)

The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.

He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic.  He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss.  He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!

Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect.  There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’  In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’,  he is asked by an impatient teacher.  From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions.  But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!

A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic.  Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead?  The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away.  The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window.  The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it.  Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.

Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work.  It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present.  In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world!  I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society.  In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day?  However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware.  His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written.  Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.

 Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips.  Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner!  South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty.  Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa.  His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order.  Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime.  Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!

 For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’.  But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him.  The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother.  Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself.  The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’

He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother.  He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’.  He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’  By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’

However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother.  She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe.  He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’

On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment.  He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is.  The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure.  His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’.  He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’  He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’

Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision.  Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison.  Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother.  This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world.  But Boyhood is more than this.  However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’  The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection.  No hope is offered.  There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother.  If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.

Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, The Family: Love it and Leave it.  This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes.  He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can.  Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed?  Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.

About the Author….

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John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.

 

 

 

An Analysis of the Character of Christopher Boone

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century.  Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies.  He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school.  However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.

Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism.  Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up.  His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother.  She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope.  She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad.  He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member.  It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.

Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.

This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.

The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.

Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.

I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on.  Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free.  As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail.  This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired.  Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington.  “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”

Christopher is quite good at puzzles.

****

His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery.  His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London.  Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.

Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.

Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!

Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages.  At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s  father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.

***

The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind.  So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated.  With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’.  By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.

“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.

Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.

***

“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.

One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.

If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.

And I said, “What does single or return mean?”

And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”

And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”

And he said, “For how long?”

And I said, “Until I go to university.”

And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”

Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!

****

When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.

Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.

***

And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.

***

“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author  Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”

Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one.  He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey.  Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.

The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations.  And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer.  And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist.  ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’

 

 

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Contemporary Aspects of the Novel ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

 

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Hard Times is unusual in several respects. It is by far the shortest of Dickens’ novels, barely a quarter of the length of those written immediately before and after it.[1] Also, unlike all but one of his other novels, Hard Times has neither a preface nor illustrations. Moreover, it is his only novel not to have scenes set in London.[2] Instead, the story is set in the fictitious Victorian industrial Coketown, a generic Northern English mill town, in some ways similar to Manchester, though smaller. Coketown may be partially based on 19th-century Preston.

While the novel is neither gripping nor memorable it is interesting to examine it from a 21st-century standpoint.  And as we try to fathom the political manoeuvrings of  Mr Trump (a very Dickensian character!) and Lady May (another one!) we begin to realise that the more things change the more they stay the same!  The family theme is a perennial one as is education.  Everyone has problems with them and there are always controversial views about them which lead to much debate. The Environment and the workplace are central to modern life.  We are all too aware that some of our world leaders today are in denial about such issues as global warming and climate change – and you know what they say: ‘De Nile is not just a river in Egypt’!  Industrialisation and its effects were seen as major problems in Dickens’ time, as they still are today.  Trade Unions are still an important force in our modern workplaces. Teenagers are big business today and a central core of modern society.   In Louisa and Sissy Jupe we can recognise the first faint traces of the modern teenager, with minds of their own, rebellious attitudes and a power of expression.  Marriage breakdown is certainly one of the major social problems in our modern world.  Louisa’s tragic and arranged marriage foundered on the rock of incompatibility, which is the most frequently cited reason for the breakdown of marriage in the modern divorce court.

The Gradgrind family, around whom the story evolves, are no more curious than any comparable family in the present era.  While the imagination and the spiritual side is stifled they are well-fed, as well-educated as the narrow curriculum and method permitted and live in a comfortable house.  The father, Mr Gradgrind, is an authoritarian figure to his teenage son and daughter.  Yet halfway through the story, he is there when his daughter needs him.  He is willing to support and harbour her in her hour of need.  He also learns from his mistakes and is ready to admit them.  I think he is a very good father.  He is basically a very good human being.  Professionally he is stifled by the constraints of a utilitarian system of education.  Is he any different from today’s teacher who cajoles, pushes, and encourages students towards those elusive points for College entrance?   Is he any different from today’s ambitious parents who make great sacrifices to give their offspring a good start in life?  He is, in a sense, a ‘single’ parent due to his wife’s inability to function as a normal mother.  She is a pitiful hypochondriac who seems to derive no pleasure whatsoever from life.  Mr Gradgrind is a gentleman and a patient one.  He seems to have the patience of Job.  He gets on with his job and provides for his family.  He rarely raises his voice to his offspring and certainly never his hand, which we must admit is a curious and admirable situation, certainly in a Victorian household.  One of the most contemporary aspects of Mr Gradgrind is his very generous fostering of Sissy.  He has a sense of responsibility towards young people.  He is prepared to take Sissy into his home and provide her with education and sustenance and a family life.

In the opening chapters of Hard Times, the education system is hammered home.  Facts alone count.  The imagination cannot be given free rein.  It must be stifled.  The education system is not child-centred, but facts-centred.  Before we proclaim our horror let us scrutinise the modern day pressures of imparting knowledge.  Are students today still considered to be ‘vessels’ into which teachers pour the main points of novels, poems, and drama?  Now and again teachers dream of being inspirational but then the grim shadow of the curriculum hovers (and visions of A’s, B’s and C’s) and their dreams of emancipating the shackled student fade into oblivion.  If we sat for awhile and compared and contrasted the square classroom where facts predominated with its modern counterpart we might end up concluding that very little indeed had changed.

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Louisa, a teenager in the beginning of the novel who bears a remarkable resemblance to her modern counterpart.  Louisa emerges as a real live girl of the 19th. Century.  She is a bright girl who has an imaginative and spiritual side despite attempts to suppress it both at home and at school.  The friendship that develops between her and Sissy is solid.  They have little in common financially, socially or intellectually, but both have kind hearts.

There is a nice balance of giving and receiving in the friendship.  It is mutually advantageous.  In the earlier section of the novel, Louisa listens to, encourages and comforts Sissy when she confides in her over her learning difficulties at school.  The two teenagers closeted together in the study is a nice touch.  As talent and ability continue to vary in every age surely similar scenes are replicated today in many a home and classroom.  Later in the novel, Sissy Jupe will amply repay her loyal friend.  As young women now, Sissy will become a tower of strength to Louisa in her emotional turmoil.  The teenage friendship has matured.  It will last a lifetime.  Many a modern woman must find solace in the comfort and chat of a woman friend, when life strikes at them, when they are experiencing difficulties with the opposite sex, be it husband, fiancé, partner or friend.  The urge to confide is intrinsic to the human psyche.  It is an enduring trait.

Recent times have seen marriage under attack on all sides.  Louisa’s leaving her husband is a prelude to the modern dilemma of marriage breakdown.  There are thousands of solutions put forward.  Marriage guidance counselling is available and yet we are no nearer to resolving the situation than Louisa was on that terrible night of her life, when confused and desperate, she returns to her father’s house.

Work is a major part of life throughout the ages.  There have always been problems associated with work and labour.  The gruelling conditions of the workers in the factories are in sharp contrast to working conditions today.  Yet there are some echoes from the Dickensian age in our world today.  Air pollution is still a problem in many industrial areas today.   All around, even in some rural areas, there are chilling reminders that the problems of environmental pollution are far from solved.  When we see the murky waters of our major cities and the inevitable accompanying stench we can wonder if we are any different from the grim industrial smoke-filled Coketown.  The workers had practically no rights in the Victorian age.  The small beginnings of a Trade Union, whose principles were orchestrated by Slackbridge, have gathered such momentum over the intervening years that the clout and power of the Trade Union movement is a dominant feature of modern society.  Yet we only have to look at some recent disputes such as between Ryanair and its ‘baggage-handlers’ to realise that there are still employers who would refuse their workers what modern society considers a basic right – the right to be represented by a Trade Union.

To conclude, maybe we begin to realise, having read the Hard Times, that the more things change the more they stay the same!  Our world still revolves around the home, the school and the workplace.  Environmental influences are as important and far-reaching then as now and the stifling of the imagination and the emotions can often set in train a chain of tragic circumstances from which there is no escape.

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Stoner by John Williams – A Belated Review

 

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Better late than never I suppose!  But then it seems I’m in good company!  My son suggested Stoner as part of my required reading on a recent week of rest and relaxation, good food and daily rambles by the sea.  His only comments were that it was achingly sad and that it came with a glowing imprimatur from John McGahern.  He was right – it is a stunning page-turner of a book, depicting the life, and indeed the death, of William Stoner, who lived his life in the quad and in the rooms and classrooms adjacent to Jesse Hall in Columbia University, Missouri.  Stoner’s time at the fledgling University, as student and as instructor and finally professor, spans a half century from 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War until the mid-nineteen fifties when another war, the Korean War, threatens to thin the ranks in Columbia’s hallowed halls for a third time in the one century.

John Williams’ novel is a deceptive masterpiece of writing – he manages by inference and sustained inner dialogue and by being confessional to evoke an era and to allow us close as he suffers the slings and arrows of a life which has been enriched by the study of literature.  His lack of confidence in his own ability as a teacher, his constant self-doubt and soul-searching in his own ability, struck a resonant chord with me – the hours of preparation, the repetition of courses, the grading of tests, the hours of mentoring and supervising post grads as they finalise their dissertations and theses, all necessary but removing him from his own specialisation, Renaissance Literature.

William Stoner is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, toils manfully teaching sophomores and freshmen, year in year out, as his parents before him toiled in the arid, unproductive soil of their Missouri farmholding. Then he dies and is forgotten: a failure, an anti-hero.

A feature of the novel for me was the seamless continuity, the effortless move from one life period to the next as the story unfolds. We pass from Great War to The Roaring Twenties to the Wall Street Crash to Depression to World War as the backdrop to a humdrum life lived well.  Stoner’s life is ordinary, he doesn’t achieve a great deal, nor is he remembered often by his students or colleagues. Stoner isn’t a novel about a man achieving great heights or altering the world, it’s far more personal than that. The novel examines the quiet moments of a person’s life, their small victories and crushing defeats. A life may seem unremarkable on paper, but look a little closer and you will always find hidden depths. John Williams is, in effect, exploring the concept of heroism in twentieth century America.

As we read we find ourselves, then, to use Heaney’s phrase, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ as the story unfolds, or to use Stoner’s phrase, we become aware of, “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” I can only vouch for the fact that there are moments in its reading when the hairs on the nape of my neck stood on edge and I was transported to glimpse eternity through the darkening view from an office window on a winter’s evening as the shades of night come down.

 The novel’s values seem old-fashioned, and William Stoner is cocooned within the university milieu, cloistered would probably be a better description.  He finds his calling and labours conscientiously with little acclaim or recognition.  There are echoes of C.S. Lewis’s work in Oxford here and I also find echoes of Steinbeck and Salinger in John Williams’s depiction of a world view which no longer exists but is attractive for its simplicity and old world charm.

At times in my reading, I was left with the nagging suspicion that the novel is autobiographical and depicts and mirrors Williams’s own academic odyssey. I don’t know enough about John Williams’s life to support or refute this theory but if true his wife, his ‘Edith’, must be glad that the novel has remained obscure and neglected!  It definitely is a paean to his idea of a university and he extols the virtues of university life, a life sharply juxtaposed with the shortcomings and periodic savagery of the world outside the hallowed halls. I am also reminded of Heaney’s beautiful ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’, commissioned for the three-hundredth anniversary of Harvard University, which evokes the pioneering work of the founder of that great university:

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,

The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,

The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The novel is a kind of masterclass in creative writing.  At times it is subtle and at other times – in its structure, for example – it can be almost brutal, cruelly juxtaposing characters, indeed at times tending to caricature rather than characterise.   For me, the craftsmanship is reminiscent of George Eliot or Dickens.  The juxtaposition of the two women in Willaim Stoner’s life is a very good example of this.  There are no shades of grey here!  Edith and Katherine Driscoll are cruelly juxtaposed as in a melodrama. Edith, has been raised in an emotional vacuum, taught only useless ornamental skills, sheltered as wholly as possible from reality, and “her moral training … was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual” – effectively cultivated to become a brittle, conniving hysteric. Also, to add to the unsubtlety of the novel’s structure, two of Stoner’s antagonists are disfigured and maimed: Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s bête noir and academic adversary and Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker.

Stoner isn’t an easy read – not because it’s dense or abstruse but because, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s so painful and achingly sad. In a vengeful act, Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate campaign to separate him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, Katherine Driscoll, his intellectual equal – and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. At the university, his superior, Hollis Lomax, contrives to make his teaching life a hell, a horrendous endurance test, a battle of wills.  Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. Here again, there are echoes of Silas Marner and it all feels grindingly inevitable, like the notion of the gods in Tennyson’s ‘Lotus Eaters’ or a Greek tragedy.

Part of the novel’s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair. The confessional inner dialogue is sustained and Stoner realises at the last that he found what he sought at the university not in books but in his love and study of them. His life has not been in vain, he has had a Pauline conversion and has discovered the joys of literature and he has also loved and lost in his relationships with his parents, his wife, Edith, his daughter, Grace, and his lover, Katherine. The book’s conclusion, such as it is, is that there is nothing better in this life. The line, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial,” in reference to his own published text on Renaissance Literature, could be seen as the novel’s own epitaph. As he slips quietly towards oblivion he gives us one of the most beautiful sentences in the novel, as his book falls from lifeless fingers into silence:

“The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across his still body and fell into the silence of the room.”

 Every word is perfect.

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After finishing Stoner, my son thrust the Vintage copy into my hands and told me I just had to read it straight away.  Now, days later having finished it myself, I sit here at my laptop desperately trying to find the right words to describe how John Williams’ novel Stoner has affected me.  I’m speechless, I’m in awe,  I’m wide awake, and all I know for sure is that my head is buzzing way too much for me to get to sleep.

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Confirmation in Clouncagh 1963

The accompanying film clip records the parishioners from Knockaderry and Clouncagh gathering for the Confirmation ceremony which took place in St. Mary’s Church in Clouncagh in 1963.  The ceremony was conducted by the Very Rev. Henry Murphy, Bishop of Limerick and he was assisted by Rev. Fr. Costello P.P.

The occasion was filmed by John Joe Harrold and we are grateful to jdtvideo for uploading the very historic footage to You Tube for our enjoyment.

 

 

Girls Confirmation Photo 1963

Included in photo is Bishop Henry Murphy, Bishop of Limerick, and Canon Costelloe.  The teachers are Miss Margaret Droney and Mrs. Eilish Hickey.

Back row: (left to right): Marie Sheehy, Eileen Lynch, Mary Cregan, Ann Quaid, Margaret Cregan, Violet Hennessy, Kathleen Chawke.

Front Row: Nora O’Gorman, Bridget Downes, Bridie Chawke, Catherine Butler, Jacinta Scanlan, Margaret Sheehy, Christina Quaid, Mary Curtin, Mary Noonan, Mary Chawke.

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Boys Confirmation Photo 1963

Canon Costelloe is at the left at the back, Bishop Murphy is in the centre at the back and on the extreme right is Master Micheál de Búrca.

Back row: (left to right): John Guiry (R.I.P.), John Wall, Patsy Downes, John Collum, David Noonan (R.I.P.), William Hickey, Michael Moloney, Donie O’Sullivan, Michael Dowling.

Third row: David Downes, Jack Hennessy, Eddie Liston, John O’Gorman, Paddy Curtin, Philip Hickey, Liam O’Sullivan, William O’Connor, Jerry Hennessy, Eddie O’Connor.

Second row: Ted O’Gorman (R.I.P.), Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Paddy Walsh, David Guiry (R.I.P.), Bernard Mackessy, Jimmy Dowling, Eddie Dillon, Harry Maune, Gerard Moloney (R.I.P.), Tom Scanlan.

Front row: Michael Cunningham, Thomas Butler, Michael Dowling, Liam Doherty, Noel O’Gorman, David Collum, Joe Dowling, Christopher McCabe.

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Sources: Knockaderry Clouncagh Christmas Annual 1986 and Kno0ckaderry Clouncagh Annual 1990.  Thanks to jdtvideo for making footage available on You Tube.

A Room With a View

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THE HISTORICAL/LITERARY BACKGROUND

This review and notes are based on the Merchant Ivory Film of A Room with a View, which  was directed by James Ivory and produced in 1986.  It is based on the novel of the same name, which was written by E.M. Forster in the early 1900s and set in 1907, at the end of the Edwardian era.  This was a moment in British history when Britain was still an imperial power.  It is an old love story with a happy ending (much like Pride and Prejudice).  The film was shot on location in Tonbridge Wells, Kent and in Florence, Italy.  In 1987 the film won three Oscars (and a further six nominations) and also won five BAFTA Awards and one Golden Globe.

THE STORY

Lucy Honeychurch, a young English lady, is on a visit to Florence in Italy, chaperoned by her cousin Miss Charlotte Bartlett.  They had been led to believe that they would have a wonderful view at the Pensione Bertolini, but this is not the case when they arrive.  Another couple, a father and son, overhear them when they express their dissatisfaction and they promptly offer to exchange rooms.  Charlotte is offended at this presumption for her young cousin’s sake, especially when the young man is dangerously attractive.  However, the Reverend Beebe, the rector of Lucy’s parish at home in England, happens to be staying there as well.  He offers to act as an intermediary and the rooms are exchanged without further ado.

The next morning, Charlotte tours the city with Eleanor Lavish, a lady novelist whom she had met at dinner the night before.  Lucy goes for a walk alone and she witnesses a violent street fight where a young man is seriously injured.  She becomes weak and faints from the shock.  Luckily, George Emerson, the young man she had met in the Pensione, is there to help her back to her room.

The following day, the visitors in the Pensione arrange to go sightseeing as a group and the Emersons also are part of the group.  George and Lucy become separated from the others and he kisses her in a cornfield.  Charlotte witnesses what happened between them and after they return to the city she arranges for them to leave their rooms the next day.  The women agree not to tell anyone what has happened to Lucy.

Back in England, Lucy accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr. Cecil Vyse, who is a rather pompous, arrogant snob.  By a chance arrangement, the Emersons take a house in the area, close to the Honeychurch residence.  Lucy’s brother Freddy, and the Rector, Mr. Beebe, invite George to go swimming in a nearby ‘lake’ on his first day in Summer Street.  The men are quite spirited, and they chase each other around the lake for fun.  Unfortunately, this occurs at the same time as the ladies are taking their afternoon walk in the woods and they see the men in all their naked glory!

Now that George has arrived and Freddy befriends him, he is invited to the Honeychurch home regularly to play tennis.  Lucy is perturbed by George’s renewed proximity.  The contrast between George and the stuffy Cecil is very obvious and this unsettles Lucy.

When Charlotte comes to stay with the family, she is very concerned for Lucy in case the presence of George will do harm to her engagement to Cecil.  One day, Cecil is reading and criticising what he considers to be a dreadful novel and both Lucy and George are listening.  The book happens to be by Eleanor Lavish, the woman who stayed in the same pensione in Florence as they did.  The novel is set in Florence and Cecil reads a paragraph describing exactly where and when George kissed Lucy.  On the way back into the house, George kisses Lucy again out of sight of the others.

Lucy is upset by this and hurt that Charlotte has told Eleanor Lavish after they had agreed not to tell anyone about what had occurred in Italy.  Lucy asks George in the presence of Charlotte to leave.  George gives a passionate account of his love for her and tries to make her see that Cecil only cares for her as he would a prize possession.  Lucy denies the fact that she may love George, but all the same, she breaks off her engagement with Cecil soon after this.

When George sees that Lucy will not have him, he decides to leave Summer Street because he cannot bear to be near her.  Lucy is surprised and shocked to see the furniture being removed from the house.  Mr. Emerson talks to her and makes a heartfelt plea to her to stop denying the truth.  Realisation dawns on her that she does love George after all and the film ends with the two lovers on their honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence.  They kiss passionately at the window of A Room with a View.

THEMES 

The themes which we will consider and touch on here are: Love versus hatred, The importance of social class and self-deception and self-realisation.

A Room with a View, deals with the discovery that real love is a powerful and regenerative force: essentially it is a love story with a happy ending.  In the film, Lucy Honeychurch experiences a transition from a superficial understanding of love to a full understanding of its power and potential.  The film uses many devices to illustrate this change:

  • The language of the characters
  • Their actions and gestures
  • The symbolic use of landscape and flowers
  • The metaphor of a room with a view.

Unlike a play and a novel, which rely heavily on the reader’s ability to interpret the subtlety and significance of images or references made in the texts, A Room with a View can guide the viewer to their meaning by using effective cinematography.

In the opening sequence of the film, the courtyard view which Lucy has from her window is very disappointing.  She was expecting a spectacular view of Florence and this indicates to the viewer Lucy’s desire for new experiences.  The room with a view becomes a metaphor for Lucy’s desire to live an exciting and full life.

Lucy’s disappointment with the restricted view is captured by the close-up camera shot of her face.  This is intensified by her costume and by the incessant chatter of her cousin Charlotte.

In the dinner sequence, the camera focuses on a large question mark which George Emerson has arranged with the food on his plate.  He deliberately shows this question mark to Lucy so that it becomes a symbolic representation for the viewer of their quest to find a meaningful and passionate existence.

The film clearly shows, even in the opening sequences, that the conventions which govern English society are useless in Italy.  This is reflected in the open and direct manner of Mr. Emerson who offers Lucy and Charlotte the opportunity to change rooms.  Mr. Emerson’s passionate plea that they should have a view indicates his emotional nature and affinity with the workings of the human heart: ‘I don’t care what I see outside.  My vision is within.  Here is where the birds sing; here is where the sky is blue.’

To emphasise Emerson’s passionate nature even further, the camera focuses on his face, which changes from a look of congeniality when he first suggests the switch, to a rising colour in his cheeks and a pleading look in his eyes.  The shot also captures his emphatic gesture of beating his chest with his fork as he speaks, to indicate that his heart is where he feels life most powerfully.

The dialogue between Lucy, Charlotte, Mr. Beebe and the Misses Alan, as they discuss Mr. Emerson’s proposal, illustrates the conflict between the dictates of society and individual free will.  Miss Catherine Alan’s opinion, that things which are indelicate can sometimes be beautiful, is a philosophy which Lucy adopts for her stay in Italy.

When Charlotte accepts the Emerson’s offer, she takes the larger of the two rooms for herself, explaining to Lucy that it belonged to George: ‘In my small way I am a woman of this world and I know where things can lead to.’

The ambiguity of this statement is apparent and hints at the physical attraction which exists between Lucy and George.  It is also quite a pathetic statement, and though the viewer is not prone to like Charlotte at this stage in the film because of her ramrod stature, her severe hairstyle and her irritating personality, it does evoke a sense of empathy with her for her repressed emotions.

This shot is followed by the image of Lucy lying on the bed the next morning with a vertical strip of sunlight partly illuminating her face and body.  This sensual image is enhanced when she rises from the bed and opens the window onto a panoramic view of Florence.

These images of Lucy along with her passionate piano playing indicate her desire to be free to experience all aspects of life and also to be free from the constraints and petty rules of society.

The sequence of shots in Santa Croce illustrates the Emersons rejection of social norms and the religious hypocrisy of people like the Rev. Cuthbert Eager.  Mr. Emerson even makes fun of Giotto’s frescoes because he sees no truth in them.  While this statement might appear like ignorance to art historians or religious zealots, it is not meant to be blasphemous; rather it reflects his belief that spirituality alone, faith without emotion, cannot sustain the human heart.

 The close-up camera shots which move rapidly from fresco to fresco illustrates their disproportion to real life figures.  These shots can be contrasted with the opening of this sequence where, through a high camera angle, Lucy wanders through the vast space of the church on her own.  This contrast emphasises Lucy’s individualistic nature, which instinctively reacts against society’s expectations.  This point is also highlighted in her dialogue with Mr. Emerson who pleads with her to help his son to stop brooding: ‘I don’t require you to fall in love with my boy but please try to help him’.

The ambiguity of this exchange is further emphasised by Mr. Emerson’s reference to the ‘everlasting why’ which he says George is trying to answer and also to his belief that there is ‘a yes and a yes and a yes’ which lies at the side of the everlasting why.  These statements reflect an inner sensibility in Emerson to recognise an openness to love and passion in his son and most importantly a recognition of these qualities when he finds them in Lucy.  Emerson’s riddles are comparable to the cryptic language of the Fool in King Lear, the purpose of which is to provoke deep, soul-searching contemplation and honest interaction between characters.

While the Santa Croce sequence is taking place, Miss Lavish is leading Charlotte on a tour of the ‘real’ Italy.  The camera follows them down little alleys and side streets, soaking up the atmosphere of Florence.  As they pass down one side street, three local Italian men try to catch their attention.  The individual responses of the women are interesting.  Miss Lavish seems to be oblivious to them but the camera focuses on Charlotte’s face, which reflects a sense of repulsion and scorn.  This reaction illustrates Charlotte’s inability to cope with raw passion and desire.  Miss Lavish, on the other hand, seems to have a rather lax attitude towards the rules which govern society.  They both try to be individualistic, self-sufficient and daring and both are opinionated and headstrong.  There is, however, a sense of innocence about them, as though they know the theory about love but have little actual experience of it.  This is illustrated by the over-sentimentalised love story which Miss Lavish writes, using Lucy and George as her protagonists.  Her philosophy that ‘one has always to be open, wide open to physical sensation’, is applied to Lucy when she describes her as a ‘young English girl transfigured by Italy’.

 The irony of this statement is emphasised in the next sequence which catapults Lucy into this very ‘transfiguration’.  The camera, having cut to Lucy, follows her across the piazza, widening into a high angle shot so that the frame encompasses the width and breadth of the square and Lucy is swallowed up into the crowd.  The camera then focuses on close up shots of various sculptures of classical figures holding decapitated heads and figures bearing swords and clubs, engaged in various acts of barbarity.  These shots, accompanied by ominous background music, are indicative of the terrible violence which Lucy is about to witness.  What looks like a fist fight between two young Italian men, suddenly turns to murder when one of them is stabbed.  The stabbing indicates the evil nature of humanity when passion overrides moral judgement.  It is juxtaposed with Lucy’s discovery of real love and thus serves to contrast the struggle between the destructive power of hatred and the transforming power of love.

 After the brawl in the piazza there is a low camera angle and close up shot of the victim’s face, so that the frame encompasses his mouth which is covered in blood and his eyes which reflect the horror of his attack.  The impact of this scene on Lucy is captured in the slow camera movement which lingers on the victim’s face in a moment of tension and drama, indicated by the swell of dramatic music in the background.  It is as if the blood which drains from the young man’s body is also being drained from Lucy, and the high camera angle which captures her fainting spell illustrates the subconscious impact which the event will evoke in her.  When George Emerson rescues Lucy from the frenzied crowd, the camera cuts back and forth between the victim’s predicament and Lucy’s attempt to disengage herself, both mentally and physically, from George.  Her awkwardness at this point reflects the intimacy that has occurred between them, an intimacy which would be frowned upon by society.

Her attempt at aloofness fails because he tells her that something tremendous has happened between them.  Lucy’s notion that after the upheavals experienced by people in their lives, they return to their old life is rejected by George, who tells her that this is not so with him.  His words are graphically illustrated by their close proximity to each other on the bridge and when he throws her pictures, which are covered in the victim’s blood, into the river.  The camera follows the pictures as they are swept away by the swift flowing waters, metaphorically representing the passion which has been ignited between them.  From this moment onwards every time Lucy and George encounter each other, the viewer is aware of the attraction that lies between them.  This is evident in their gestures and interactions with each other and most particularly in the amorous eye contact made between them.  All these relationships are highly charged with dramatic tension because of their forbidden nature.  They illustrate very effectively the possibility of desire creating strong characters or contemptible individuals.

 In the sequence where the company drive out in two carriages to see a view, the theme of love versus hatred is evident.  As they drive, Rev. Eager reprimands Phaethon, the young Italian coachman, for his intimacy with the young girl who accompanies him.  Their display of affection conflicts with Eager’s clinical unemotive personality and his patronising attitude to Lucy.  Ironically, while he points out various buildings and houses which he recognises, the driver and his companion continue to caress each other and it is obvious that Lucy finds their actions much more interesting than Rev. Eager’s conversation.

 Her curiosity is illustrated when the camera focuses on her as she spies on the lovers through Miss Lavish’s binoculars.  In this interesting shot the camera allows the viewer to see Lucy’s point of view.  The frame is confined to the close-up of the lovers’ kiss.  This emphasis on Lucy’s curiosity parallels her desire to experience passion and prepares the viewer for her climactic encounter with George later on in the sequence.

Later George and Lucy encounter each other in a secluded part of the view and finally succumb to their desires and they embrace passionately.  Their abandonment of proper etiquette is reflected in the scenery, which is untamed and surrounded by luscious greenery.  Ironically, it was Phaethon, the young Italian driver, who guided Lucy to George.  The paralleling of the Italian and his lover with George and Lucy emphasises the importance of love in the film.  The comparison between the Italian’s relaxed image in the carriage when Lucy comes upon him and her sensuous image in bed at the beginning of the film, reiterates her latent desire.

When Charlotte finds George and Lucy embracing, the look of repulsion on her face symbolises her suppression of emotion but when compared to her earlier conversation with Miss Lavish about a woman marrying a lover ten years younger than her, this seems contradictory.  The tone of the lovers’ conversation infers the scandalous nature of such behaviour but it also illustrates the emptiness of Charlotte’s existence; she can only talk about such passion while Lucy actually experiences it with George.  However liberating this experience is for Lucy, it becomes a burden which she must hide from her own conscience, her family and the other guests in the pensione.

It is interesting that after this episode, Charlotte continually orders Lucy away from the window in her room, but symbolically Lucy is drawn back to it again.  It is as if having once experienced such passion she is ensnared by it and wants to explore it more fully.

The sequence which takes place in England allows the viewer to contrast the dull conventionalism of English society with the open and unpretentious society of Italy.  This contrast is reinforced by the formality of Cecil Vyse’s proposal to Lucy.  The stylised position of their bodies as he proposed illustrates the emotional distance between them and is emphasised by the camera movement out through the drawing-room window to give the viewer Mrs. Honeychurch’s point of view of the setting.  The dialogue between Lucy and Cecil cannot be heard because the dialogue Mrs. Honeychurch has with her son has precedence.  Their dialogue implies Freddy’s dislike of Cecil’s pomposity and unsuitability for Lucy.  Her acceptance of Cecil’s proposal is her attempt to purge herself of the memory of George Emerson.

Cecil’s unsuitability for Lucy is reflected very well in Mr. Beebe’s face when Cecil tells him about the engagement.  The camera holds on Mr. Beebe and the viewer witnesses the mingling of his shock and sadness.

Subconsciously Cecil is probably aware of his unsuitability for Lucy because it is inferred when he suggests that she is more comfortable with him in a room than in the open countryside.  It is most definitely evident in the way he kisses her.  This shot reflects his inexperience and sexual indifference to her, while Lucy displays an avid desire for a passionate embrace.  Lucy’s disappointment with Cecil is reflected by the close-up camera shot of Lucy’s face, which highlights her bewilderment at expressing so much unrequited passion.  It is also evident in the dissolving of this frame into the sequence in the Italian countryside where George Emerson first kissed her.

In the London sequence when Cecil and his mother talk about Lucy it is in the tone of having acquired a possession.  This attitude is highlighted when Mrs. Vyse watches the reactions of her guests to Lucy’s piano playing.  The claustrophobic room where this sequence takes place also illustrates that the acquisition of objects is more important to the Vyses than self-knowledge or real feelings.

 The shot which focuses on the faces of Cecil and his mother captures their conspiratorial gaze and also forces Mrs. Vyse to look up at Cecil while he is talking.  This inference of Cecil’s superior attitude is reflected in his dialogue about the education of his children in the future.  The sense of confined space in this frame, suggested by the vast array of ornaments in the room, is paralleled to Lucy’s encounter with Cecil on the landing before she retires to bed.  The sense of awkward anticipation in her gestures underlines her inner frustration with Cecil’s lack of passion.  Their incompatibility is carried into the next sequence which contrasts the Vyses’ home with the Honeychurch’s’ sprawling house and gardens and the horseplay of Freddy and Lucy.

 The arrival of the Emersons in Summer Street propels the theme of love into the foreground of this sleepy, contented little place.  The first suggestion of the upheaval which their arrival will bring about is the swimming sequence.  The close camera shots of Freddy, Mr. Beebe and George Emerson frolicking and carousing about the place naked is symbolic of the raw and primitive passion which exists in human beings and which must find expression.  The seclusion of the frame with the three men surrounded by bushes and trees is contrasted with the long-distance shot of Cecil, Mrs. Honeychurch and Lucy.

 When Lucy, Cecil and Mrs. Honeychurch come face to face with George and Freddy, their reactions are typical.  Only Lucy, who makes a tentative effort to shield her eyes with her umbrella, finds the episode humorous, while Cecil attempts to beat an escape route through the undergrowth with his cane, in order to avoid confrontation.

 Constantly in this film Cecil is used as a medium through which the upper classes are ridiculed and this is obvious in his self-delusion and his blindness about what is really going on around him.  He becomes a source of fun and is ridiculed.  This is illustrated in the sequence where Lucy and George embrace in the garden while Cecil reads Miss Lavish’s book about their first encounter in Italy.   Cecil is incapable of seeing things as they really are.  He is content in his delusion but outside influences force him to suffer for his ignorance.  Cecil is very pompous, dismissive and critical of other people.

 Lucy finally breaks off her engagement with Cecil.  This sequence takes place at night and Lucy’s delivery of the bad news, while she tidies the drawing room, begins politely but increases in vehemence.

The final sequence of the film reiterates the symbolic importance of a room with a view.  The close-up camera shot of George and Lucy, framed by the open window, against the backdrop of Florence in the distance, captures their love for each other.  The evils which exist in A Room with a View, therefore,  are found in the repression of society, the snobbery of class distinction and the inability to express openly the passions of the heart.

 LITERARY GENRE

This film is a classic romance, a love story with a happy ending.  Before the end, however, both Lucy and George Emerson must overcome obstacles to their love and in the end, they are happily reunited once again.

The viewer is expected to suspend disbelief concerning the numerous rather extravagant coincidences in the plot – the initial confusion over the room, meeting with George at the street fight, the great coincidence that there was a novelist present to enshrine the illicit kiss in fiction, and the even greater coincidence when that novel is read by Cecil in the presence of Lucy and George, etc. ….. !

PLOT

The plot of the film is straightforward.  The heroine and hero meet in a hotel in Florence and are attracted to one another.  The hero falls in love immediately but the heroine will not allow herself to do so.  They meet again in England and eventually marry despite their social backgrounds.

SETTING

The film is set in Florence and Summer Street in England.  It begins and ends in Florence, and it begins and ends with the view from the hotel window as the main focus.  The rest of the film is set in England.  There is only one brief visit to London when Lucy goes to stay with Cecil’s family.

VISUALS

The Florentine scene with the view as the main focus is a striking part of the film.  When the tourists go on their day trip the attractions of the Italian countryside are emphasised.  Art is an important topic and there are many shots of the architecture of Florence.  The stone carvings on the streets and the inside of a church, Santa Croce, are examined.  Pictures in the Art Gallery in London feature and Cecil compares Lucy to a Leonardo painting.  George and Lucy kiss in a beautiful cornfield and later on in a green countryside.  The colour green is evident everywhere.  The lush landscape of England is seen in the season of swimming and tennis parties.

CAMERA SHOTS/ANGLES

There is nothing unusual about the camera shots or angles: they reinforce and aid the leisurely flow of the story.  There is one flashback sequence when Cecil is clumsily venturing to kiss Lucy on the mouth and she cannot help remembering George’s passionate embrace in Italy.  This is shown briefly on screen accompanied by passionate music.  This is a very effective device as the difference between the two men is revealed and from here on in the film, the audience become alienated from Cecil.

There is clever use of camera shots in the cathedral in Florence.  An obedient crowd of tourists rotate their heads in the required direction when their guide indicates an important feature of its architecture.  The camera switches to the particular feature and back to the crowd in readiness for the next swivel of heads.  This happens a few times and it arouses the viewer’s curiosity.

When the men are bathing in the lake near Summer Street their enjoyment of the afternoon is clearly established in the viewers’ minds before the ladies and Cecil are introduced.  The camera changes from the men to the women a couple of times to heighten the suspense of the approaching discovery.

LIGHTING

There are no major changes in the lighting in the film.  Italy and England in the summer time are awash with light.  England indoors is often in shadow, this sometimes varies depending on the scene.  When Lucy is breaking up with Cecil the room is particularly dark.  Most of the shadowy lighting reflects their relationship.

MUSIC

The music varies with the scenes.  When emotional scenes are being shown, it is often subtle, and particularly romantic when Lucy and George are kissing.  There is a strong beat which heightens the drama when the fight occurs.  Near the conclusion, the music reaches a crescendo when Lucy realises who she really loves.

LANGUAGE

The accents of the actors are clearly distinguished.  Cecil Vyse, in particular, has what he considers to be a superior accent.  His speeches are in a haughty tone and this is more exaggerated when he is criticising or demeaning someone.  His affected language makes him both sound and look ridiculous.  Mr. Emerson speaks with a plain and unadorned accent to indicate a more honest character who speaks his mind.  He stands out in contrast to Cecil, and in particular to the company he meets in Florence and in England.

SYMBOLS

The piano is a key symbol in the film.  Lucy plays it regularly, expressing her strongest emotions through her playing.  It is Mr. Beebe who is struck by the fact that her personality does not match the way she plays.  He makes the point that if Lucy lives as she plays, ‘it will be very exciting for us, and for her’.  He suspects that she will break out someday and, ‘One day music and life will mingle.’

CULTURAL CONTEXT

Society is a central issue in the film.  For the Edwardians, social position was everything.   English hypocrisy and pretentiousness is highlighted here.  Social snobbery is rife.  Charlotte’s attitude towards Mr. Emerson in the pensione is a striking example of this.  The Miss Alans, an elderly couple, also illustrate this.  They both sympathise with Charlotte and Lucy for having to endure Mr. Emerson’s insistence on exchanging rooms.  Cecil is depicted as an insufferable snob, who sneers at everything that does not match his standards.  Ironically he shows how social standings and gentility do not always go together.  He is quite rude about Lucy’s brother Freddy because he is not an academic.  He also makes Lucy’s mother feel that she is not good enough for him.

Social snobbery at its worst is evident when Lucy visits Cecil’s home.  When Cecil and his mother discuss Lucy’s potential, it is as if they are discussing the potential of a new household acquisition. In the end, however, Lucy has the courage to overcome the social barriers that divide her and George and she decides to follow her instincts.  Much of the film concentrates on Lucy’s emancipation from the restrictions imposed upon her by the society that surrounds her.

The culture of England and Italy are also contrasted in the film.  The English visitors are restrained by their code of behaviour.  The Italians, who are only briefly introduced, are uninhibited, and are puzzled and slightly amused by the prudish behaviour of the English.  Charlotte Bartlett typifies this particularly English approach.  The rector, Mr. Eager, is also easily horrified at what he considers to be a blatant show of sexuality when he sees the young Italian driver embracing his girlfriend.

Therefore the viewer is presented with two very different cultures in this film: upper-class England and Florence.  England is emotionally restricted, bourgeois and staid.  Certain codes of behaviour are rigidly adhered to and women have to travel with a chaperone.  The stiffness and formality of this lifestyle is represented in the clothes of the time, manners, language and physical movement.  Florence, on the other hand, is rich, relaxed and flamboyant.  The social atmosphere is open and bright with streets full of life and endlessly fascinating.  The viewer sees the beautiful, airy streets and squares, stunning monuments and impressive architecture.

The colour and variety of the Italians engage the viewer, and the contrast between the social mores of the English visitors is marked.  The Italians chat easily to foreigners and just as easily get caught up in violent street fights.

And so, in the end, realisation dawns on Lucy that she does love George after all and the film ends with the two lovers on their honeymoon back in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence.  They kiss passionately at the window of A Room with a View – and like all good love stories, they both live happily ever after!

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The Themes of Pride and Prejudice in ‘Pride and Prejudice’

 

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The Theme of Pride

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen looks at people who are guilty of pride, and the effects it has both on their lives and the lives of others.  Everyone in the book has some degree of pride, but the key characters are often caricatures of proud people: Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg.  Darcy and Elizabeth develop as characters during the course of the novel and they are also seen to have pride as part of their personality.

Caricatured pride is shown by Austen to be obnoxious.  Lady Catherine is proud because she was born an aristocrat, raised to believe herself to be superior to others.  She is patronising, believes she has a right to know and judge everything and gives petty advice because she needs to feel useful.  She always likes to be the centre of attention, and she expects to be always obeyed.

Lady Catherine is challenged by Elizabeth, who unlike everyone else, is not overawed by her. Lady Catherine is outraged when Elizabeth answers her back at Rosings and later when she barges in to Longbourn.  She tries to bully her at first, ordering her not to marry Darcy and finally insulting her by saying that accepting Darcy will pollute the shades of Pemberley.  She demands instant submission  and when this is not on offer her pride is severely dented.

Mr Collins had long been supplying this need.  He had been raised with ‘humility of manner’, but living at Hunsford has made him a mixture of ‘pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility’ and this lapdog servility makes him even more unlikeable in our eyes.  The key scene showing Collins’s pride comes with his proposal to Elizabeth, where he not only assures her he will not despise her for being without a dowry but tells her that she might as well accept him, for he is the best she can expect.

Elizabeth herself, though chiefly signifying prejudice, is guilty of the pride on which this prejudice is based.  Darcy tells her when he proposes, ‘Had not you heart been hurt … (my faults) might have been overlooked’, and in the key chapter that follows, she admits this.  She has been convinced she was right about Bingley’s treatment of Jane, Charlotte’s and Collins’s marriage, Wickham’s goodness and Darcy’s lack of worth.  She learns that her prejudice has been due to her belief in the infallibility of her own judgement.  Also, she realises her vanity has been wounded.

The distinction between pride and vanity is made early in the novel.  Mary comments that ‘pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us’.  As well as pride, Elizabeth has, therefore, been guilty of vanity.  She has been far too influenced by Wickham’s attention and Darcy’s neglect.  She admits this immediately, making an honest effort from then on to be neither proud nor vain.

The chief representative of pride in the novel is Darcy.  On his introduction in Chapter 3, he is said to be proud.  He seems withdrawn, superior and cynical.  He puts Elizabeth down coldly with a patronising comment about her looks.  Later, despite his infatuation, he feels himself superior to Elizabeth and kindly condescends to ignore her towards the end of her visit to Netherfield so that ‘nothing could elevate her with the hope’ of marrying above herself.  Pride convinces Darcy he is right to interfere in Bingley’s relationship with Jane, and pride keeps him from lowering himself and his family by disclosing Wickham’s bad nature.

By the time he makes his first blighted proposal to Elizabeth, Darcy is firmly established in our minds as the epitome of pride.  The proposal, ‘not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride’, reveals a Darcy who considers he is doing her a favour.  She is outraged and accuses him of ‘arrogance’ and ‘conceit’.  Were he a lesser character, like Mr Collins, for instance, he would have sulked and moved on to fresher pastures, but Darcy, the hero, ponders Elizabeth’s accusations, realises the truth in them and he resolves to change.  At first, we only see his outward transformation, his gentle behaviour at Pemberley, his assistance to the Bennets after the elopement.  It is only after his second and more successful proposal that we see evidence of his complete change of heart.  Loving Elizabeth has made him realise that people can be good despite their humble origins and that love is not compatible with condescension.

We must remember of course that Darcy was never all bad.  Our view of him as such is largely formed by Elizabeth’s prejudice.  His reputation for being proud largely stems from his being shy and his dislike of socialising.  He may put people down, but he also helps them, as friends and dependants.  Remember his housekeeper’s kindly comments: ‘Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw any thing of it’.

By the end of the novel, Darcy still has some pride, but with good reason.  The mature Elizabeth has learnt, as have we, that there is good pride and bad.  ‘Vanity is a weakness’, says Darcy, but with ‘superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation’.  Elizabeth, thinking he is guilty of both, smiles.  But Darcy is right.  Vanity, as seen in Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, Elizabeth, and even in Darcy himself, is wrong, but pride, while also being wrong, can be acceptable if properly controlled.  In many ways, Darcy controls his pride.   The Darcy who saves Lydia and marries Elizabeth is a well balanced mature individual.  He is master of Pemberley and Elizabeth sees this in a positive light; he has many good attributes and a capacity to help his family, tenants and friends.  She defends Darcy to her father, telling him that he is proud, but has ‘no improper pride’.

Lady Catherine and Mr Collins don’t change in the course of the novel but Elizabeth and Darcy do. Having learnt a valuable lesson they both are now ready to take up residence at Pemberley and reign supreme at the centre of Austen’s universe!

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THE THEME OF PREJUDICE

In this age of political correctness and media spin the notion of prejudice, as described in the novel, is very pertinent.  In the novel, Jane Austen talks about the idea of ‘universal acknowledgement’, where society in general takes a united (and she infers, a biased) stand, welcoming Bingley because he is an eligible bachelor, rejecting Darcy because he seems proud and favouring Wickham because he flatters and charms.

Against this background of public prejudice, Jane Austen presents several particular illustrations of people who confuse appearance with reality because of their personal bias.

Mrs Bennet is probably the most humorous example of this, seeing the world in terms of the wealth and charm of potential husbands.  Thus, she is blind to Collins’s faults, is deceived by Wickham, and yet cannot see Darcy’s real worth: ‘I hate the very sight of him’.  (Yet, worryingly, she welcomes Wickham as Lydia’s husband even though he nearly ruined her reputation and the reputation of her family).

There are many examples of social prejudice and snobbery dealt with in the novel (and this overlaps with the vice of pride).  Lady Catherine, Collins and the Bingley sisters all fail to see the real Bennets when they judge them early on.  Look at Collins’s proposal and how he constantly reminds Elizabeth of her inferior position in life, echoing the comments of Lady Catherine at Rosings.  The Bingley sisters spend several sessions judging Jane and Elizabeth on their relatives and their wealth.

Darcy, though in the main clear-sighted and intelligent in his approach to life, at first joins in this social snobbery.  His initial opinion of Elizabeth herself was formed by her lack of beauty and then compounded by her lack of connections.  This snobbery led him to influence Bingley away from Jane and to resist his own infatuation for Elizabeth.  It is only when Elizabeth points out his pride, after his first proposal to her, that he realises his mistake and he makes an honest effort to change his behaviour.  By the end of the novel, he respects Elizabeth’s family and sees only the true Elizabeth, not her social standing.

It is Elizabeth who most typifies prejudice for us.  The first time she and Darcy meet he snubs her and this turns her against him.  From then on, instead of attempting to understand him, she reacts only to his proud outer appearance and delights in fuelling her prejudice as much as possible.  At first, she can be pardoned for disliking a man who has insulted her but, as she admits, her reasons were not sound.  She wanted to score points, to seem clever, and to say something witty.

It is not until the first proposal that Elizabeth begins to doubt her judgement.  After all, she has been prejudiced against Darcy because of his insensitive remarks and in the case of Wickham, her judgement has been clouded by sexual attraction and flattery.  In the crucial Chapter 36, Elizabeth considers Darcy’s letter and there follows a careful account of how she overcomes her prejudice.  At first totally biased against Darcy, without ‘any wish of doing him justice’, she then realises that if his account is true, she must have deceived herself.  Notice how by putting the letter away she literally refuses to see the truth.  Almost immediately, however, her strength of character triumphs, she rereads the letter, and Elizabeth now sees the situation clearly.  She admits to being ‘blind, partial, prejudiced’ and achieves insight into the situation and her own character.  She admits her fault to Jane, and by letting Wickham know that she sees the difference between appearance and reality, she makes a public statement of her new self-knowledge.

She sees things in a clearer light from this point on, viewing Pemberley with unbiased eyes and meeting Darcy with an open mind.  She also begins to understand his criticisms of her family, seeing them objectively possibly for the first time in her life.  Finally, she comes to accept Darcy as an acceptable partner and she works hard to overcome her family’s prejudices against him by presenting him in his true light.

Elizabeth has learnt many valuable lessons at the end of this novel: she now knows that ‘first impressions’ are rarely sufficient and she comes to see the reality of true worth, not the appearance of it.  There may be lessons here for us as well.  Our age is obsessed with image, and spin and outward appearances and social snobbery.  Finding our own Elizabeth or Mr Darcy is not going to be easy either!