To Kill a Mockingbird – Characters, Themes, and Motifs

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern reinterpretation of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.  We are given a glimpse of modern American society through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl called Scout.  Even she can see the injustice and yet the adults fail to see the criminal miscarriage of justice and toxic levels of racial prejudice that lie at the heart of the novel.

The novel is a classic bildungsroman where Scout, the central character and narrator, is taken from a state of innocence and brought to a state of enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures that are recounted in the novel.  A classic bildungsroman forces the young character at its heart to grow up and face harsh adult realities long before he or she should normally have to cope with life’s harsh lessons.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is, therefore, a novel that deceives the reader with its apparent simplicity.  Beneath the surface, however, there exist a number of complex and very important themes and motifs.  Rather than its being simply a novel that explores and exploits the topic of racial prejudice in a small town in the Deep South, it makes Maycomb, Alabama, a microcosm of American society in the 1930’s.

I want to focus for a little while on the setting of both of Harper Lee’s novels, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.  It is clear to me that the real-life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightning bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’.

To Kill a Mockingbird is dominated by two very contrasting characters and our first task is to explore in some detail the part played by Scout and Atticus in conveying the difficult and often divisive subject matter to the reader.

SCOUT

Scout is the narrator of the story, and the impressions we get of all the other characters must, therefore, be filtered through her point of view.  All the activities and opinions in the novel are expressed through the mind of this innocent child who does not always understand the significance of the events she is narrating and, as a result, much of the comedy in the book comes from her misunderstandings.  Typical of the central character in a bildungsroman novel Scout changes and matures and gains greater insight as the novel progresses and she learns – as do her readers, young and old – a great deal from her experiences.

She is a very open-minded and clever girl who accepts the people around her at face value.  For example, she is able to go to Calpurnia’s church without making any social distinctions.  Furthermore, she accepts people like the Cunninghams and the Ewells as equal, but during the course of the novel, she learns to make a distinction between these two groups of people.  Ironically, the distinctions that she has to learn involve the differences between different types of whites such as the Cunninghams and the Ewells, and do not involve any judgements about the Negro race.  Eventually, however, she learns not only about the complex white social relationships, but she also learns about the prejudices harboured by the white man for the Negro.

Throughout the novel, we watch Scout as a character change from a belligerent young girl who is always ready to fight her corner to a person with a certain degree of understanding for those around her.  For example, at the beginning of the novel she is willing to play any type of prank on Boo Radley, but by novel’s end she walks him back to his house and she realises that things look the same from Boo Radley’s porch as they do from hers.  She also has the insight to see that Sheriff Heck Tate is right in not charging Boo with the murder of Bob Ewell.  In her view, it would be like killing a mockingbird and at that stage in the novel, one dead mockingbird (Tom Robinson) is enough.  This is one of the many valuable lessons learned by Scout in the course of the novel.

Scout is a very clever girl and she can read and write before she goes to school.  She tends to react emotionally to events, ready to fight first and think later.  As the novel opens she accepts people as they appear on the surface, but later she learns that society is complex and that people can be very prejudiced.  Her own upbringing and personality give her an appreciation of justice, but Tom Robinson’s trial shows her that others are not so fair-minded.  The self-control she has to exercise at this time helps her to mature.  She feels that she would be letting her father down if she were to lose her temper.

She is naturally warm and friendly.  She wants to visit Calpurnia in her home, she rushes in to talk to Mr. Cunningham outside the jail and tries to be polite and put him at his ease even though he is part of a mob.  She can be very sensitive to other people’s feelings.  She feels guilty about the games the children played on Boo Radley and she takes great care to treat Boo with courtesy and dignity when they finally meet.  Because she is a girl, Scout is expected to behave in a way that she finds constricting.  She is more comfortable in her overalls than in a pretty dress, but as she matures she learns that it can take courage to be a real lady.  This is brought home to her at Aunt Alexandra’s tea party on the day of Tom Robinson’s death.

At novel’s end, we see just how sensitive to other people Scout has become.  She realises that Boo Radley is a shy man and that to draw any more unwelcome attention to him would be like killing a mockingbird.  She has also learned how to see things from another person’s point of view.

ATTICUS

Atticus Finch represents the rational man in a world of highly emotional people.  Atticus is a stable and mature figure who is able to cope with the unreasonable and highly emotional element of the town.  He can handle the prejudiced white people and still deal justly with the underprivileged Negro population.  He is one of the few people in Maycomb who understands the individual worth of a person regardless of the color of their skin.  He is able to defend Tom Robinson solely on the basis of justice and does not allow the colour of Tom’s skin to prejudice him against Tom’s case.

It is necessary to have a man with a high and ideal view of justice defending Tom Robinson because even Atticus knows that the case is hopelessly lost before it begins.  He is wise enough to know that the prejudices of the Deep South will never allow justice to be done, but at the same time, he is determined that the truth will be told so that those who convict Tom will be aware that they are convicting an innocent man.

Atticus is also Harper Lee’s spokesman of the moral philosophy of the novel.  He teaches his children that they must learn to be compassionate and understanding of the problems and conditions of life faced by other people.  He frequently advises Scout that she must be able to step into the shoes of others such as the Ewells, Boo Radley, and the Cunninghams.  Consequently, he will not allow the children to torment Boo Radley and wants Scout to try to see things from Boo’s point of view.

Atticus’ relationship with his children is very important in understanding his character.  He has an outstanding rapport with his children because he treats them as mature adults and tries to explain to them how to meet the problems that are presented to them in an adult world.  All of Atticus’s relatives feel that he is bringing up his children incorrectly, and they challenge his methods of handling the children.  However, the incident with Uncle Jack illustrates that his methods are for the best.  Uncle Jack punishes Scout without listening to her side of the story, whereas Atticus always gives her the opportunity to explain her point of view.  As a parent, therefore, he is easy-going but wise, not worrying about petty things, but instead teaching his children important values.

He teaches them to be sensitive to other people like Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley and above all to be able to step into other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view.  He teaches by example and his children learn kindness, tolerance, courage, self-control, and forgiveness from observing their father.  He listens to them, has patience with them and always tells them the truth.  They respond by loving and respecting him; they worry about him when he is tired or troubled and try their best not to cause him grief.

Therefore, Atticus is the voice of reason and justice in the novel whether he is dealing with the grim ingrained prejudices in Maycomb or whether he is trying to handle a minor problem of discipline with his own children.  He is portrayed by Harper Lee as a responsible citizen, a loving parent, and a true Christian.  He is a just man who deals fairly and sensitively with all people and he is completely lacking in prejudice.  His physical courage is seen when he shoots the rabid dog and also when he faces down the mob outside the jail, while his moral courage becomes obvious in his sincere defense of Tom Robinson, even when he knows he is unlikely to win the case.

He gives us his own powerful definition of courage: ‘It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what’.  He hopes that although they will not admit it, the people of Maycomb will realise that they are convicting an innocent man.  He is modest and never boasts about his talents and even his own children are unaware that he is an exceptional marksman until he is called upon by Sheriff Tate to shoot the rabid dog.  Scout also realises his bravery when she sees how he deals with Mrs. Dubose: ‘It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived’.

‘I do my best to love everybody’, Atticus tells Scout and Miss Maudie recognizes that he is a real Christian.  She says of him: ‘We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us’.  He treats all people with respect and as equals: Mrs. Dubose at her most contrary, young Walter Cunningham when he is a guest in the house, Mayella Ewell on the witness stand.  His kindness and consideration never fail and even in an emergency he is thoughtful; he remembers to rescue Miss Maudie’s favourite chair from the fire that engulfs her home.  His character is such that he may, with some justification, be considered the hero of the novel.

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MAJOR THEMES AND MOTIFS IN THE NOVEL

Several themes and motifs run through the novel and serve to underscore the basic reality of prejudice in both Maycomb and in the rest of America during the 1930’s.

THE MOCKINGBIRD MOTIF

(A motif is a recurring idea or thought that acts as a unifying device in a novel and sometimes develops as a commentary on characterisation or on the action of the novel).

The mockingbird motif, in this case, gives the novel its name.  It represents innocence in the novel and both Miss Maudie and Atticus feel that it would be a great sin to kill a mockingbird because this bird only sings a beautiful song and does not harm anyone.  When Atticus gives the children air rifles for their Christmas presents, he reminds them again that it would be dreadful to kill such an innocent bird:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said.

This motif is also the device by which the two plot elements are unified in the novel by Harper Lee.  The first part of the novel is concerned with the Boo Radley mystery and the second part is concerned with the Tom Robinson trial.  Both of these characters can be viewed as being mockingbirds: both are harmless members of society and both are innocent people, yet in some way, both are persecuted by society.

Scout herself comes to realise that Boo Radley is a mockingbird figure because when he rescued her at the end of the novel, he was forced to kill Bob Ewell.  But to bring such a retiring and bashful man to trial would be just like killing a mockingbird.  It is also evident that Tom Robinson is a mockingbird figure because he is destroyed by his willingness to help Mayella Ewell.  His efforts to help her got him into trouble and finally cost him his life.

Ultimately, to kill a mockingbird is equated with performing a deliberately evil and mean act.  Atticus, at one point in the novel, thinks that there is nothing worse than a white man who will take advantage of a Negro.  Yet the entire town is partly responsible for Tom Robinson’s death, which must be viewed as a senseless act of injustice.

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THE GUN MOTIF

In a country which now sees a mass shooting on average every 60 days the time for gun control in the USA is long overdue  Many of the most notorious of these mass shootings have taken place in schools: we remember with sadness the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 where 24 were killed; Virginia Tech in 2007 where 33 were killed; Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 where 28 were killed; and Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 where 17 were shot and killed.  Recently, churches and synagogues have been easy targets for depraved gunmen with their own myopic agendas and easy access to automatic weapons.  Harper Lee, writing in what many would consider less dangerous times in the late Fifties and early Sixties thought fit to raise the issue of guns in To Kill a Mockingbird.   In the novel, guns represent false strength. According to Atticus, guns do not prove manhood or bravery, rather they come from a man’s ability to persevere and fight using his wits, his heart, and his character.  Early in the novel, we learn that Atticus does not approve of guns.  He believes that guns do not make men brave and that the children’s fascination with guns is unfounded.

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 EDUCATION

In this novel, the process of education occurs both inside and outside the classroom.  It is not limited only to the education of Scout, for it affects both adults and other children in the story.  Harper Lee’s thesis is that it is education that separates the whites from the blacks, the Cunninghams from the Ewells, and it is education which further separates the Finches from the Cunninghams.  Education – and the lack of education – are responsible for creating and re-enforcing a sort of caste system in Maycomb, a caste system which decrees that black children don’t sit in the same classroom and receive the same education as white children do.

Early in the novel, and several times later in the story, the reader is taken into the classroom with Scout to view the school system in operation.  As Jem tells Scout, the new way of teaching which Miss Caroline is practicing is one which the entire school will use eventually, and is one in which ‘ you don’t hafta learn that much out of books that way’.

And while Miss Caroline is officially the teacher, there is great irony created when we realise that it is she who must actually learn the most during her first few days at school.  The learning-by-doing approach advocated by Miss Caroline has been practiced naturally by Scout and Jem since they were very young and they learned to read by simply observing their father and by reading along with him in the evenings.  Miss Caroline ironically criticises both Scout and her father, Atticus, as having done it all wrong! Yet Atticus’ method is the very same one that she presumes to espouse!

For the children, then, learning has come not from formal teachers such as Miss Caroline and Miss Gates, but through the common-sense wisdom of Atticus, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra.  These ‘teachers’ have presented the children with real experiences that over the course of the novel, shapes their beliefs, their opinions,, and actions.  Outside of the classroom, the children enact the very methods which the formal teachers attempt to impart.

Harper Lee does not appear to be criticising education so much as she is attacking those teachers who possess erroneous, rigid beliefs about human nature.  Miss Caroline presumes to teach others, yet she herself knows next-to-nothing about getting along with other people.  Rather than attempting to blend her teaching and her classroom philosophy to suit the young people of Maycomb, she tries to change the students to fit her perceptions.  She fails miserably in her encounters with Burris Ewell and Walter Cunningham and even though Scout does feel some pity for her she won’t offer her any comfort because there has been no friendliness offered in exchange.

Miss Gates teaches the children little about life.  Theoretically, she espouses a system of democracy yet she worries about the Negroes who seem to be trying to ‘get above themselves’, and in particular, she fears that they might start marrying whites!  She is keen to point out examples of racial prejudice in Hitler’s Germany yet fails to point out the obvious prejudice closer to home in Maycomb itself.

In essence, it is Atticus who personifies the attainment of true education, in contrast to the formal schooling offered to the children.  It is left to Scout to make the final assessment of formal education.  At the end of the novel, now in third grade, Scout says, ‘… I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.’ !!!

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 STANDING IN ANOTHER PERSON’S SHOES – A NEW PERSPECTIVE

When Scout comes home after her first day at school she is determined never to return there, because it has been a disaster.  Atticus explains to her that she will get along much better in life if she learns to understand another person and to do this she must consider things from that person’s point of view.  He advises her to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’.

When Scout doesn’t understand Jem, Atticus encourages her to try to understand how he might be feeling.  Usually, Scout finds this advice helpful, and her attempts to gain insight into other people’s perspectives on life and the world broaden her moral education and understanding.

When Mrs. Dubose, the mean old woman who lives down the street from the Finch family yells insults at Jem and Scout on her way to town, Jem reacts by returning and cutting up all the flowers in her front yard.  His punishment is to read to Mrs. Dubose for a specific time period every day.  He complains to Atticus that she is an awful woman, but Atticus tells Jem and Scout to try to understand Mrs. Dubose’s point of view.  She is an old woman, very set in her ways, and she is entirely alone in the world.  Jem and Scout agree to visit her.  After her death, Atticus reveals that by reading to her each day, the children were helping her break her morphine addiction.  Atticus explains that she was fighting to regain control over her life even as she knew that she was dying.  Because of this, Atticus says that she is the bravest person he has ever known.  He explains this to the children to try to make them understand the terrible pain she was experiencing, and how their presence helped her to defeat her addiction.  Although she may have said some horrible things to them, Atticus encourages Jem and Scout to try to see the world from her perspective and to realise how brave and strong she was.

It is Atticus’s own ability to do this which makes him such a fair-minded, honourable man.  Even when he disagrees with them he can sympathise with other people’s feelings.  He knows how people like the Cunninghams feel, he understands Mrs. Dubose and her fight against morphine addiction and why Mayella Ewell acts as she does in accusing Tom Robinson of rape.  It is this sympathy for and empathy with other people that he tries to pass on to his children.  We know that he has been successful in doing so when we see Jem’s sensitive nature and also at the end of the novel when Scout stays for a moment on the Radley porch and stands as it were in Boo Radley’s shoes, we know that she too has absorbed Atticus’s and Harper Lee’s message.

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 ‘THE HELL PEOPLE GIVE EACH OTHER’

When Mr. Dolphus Raymond talks to Scout and Dill outside the courthouse during Tom Robinson’s trial, he understands why Dill is upset.  He talks about, ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.  Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too’.  By this, he means the cruelty people inflict on each other in their racial, social and family relations.

Racial prejudice is very clearly depicted in the novel.  Black people are discriminated against in Maycomb.  They are not treated as equals by the white community and even in a law court, they cannot expect to receive justice.  The trial of Tom Robinson illustrates this very clearly.  The teacher, Miss Gates, who is very much aware of racial prejudice in other countries, like Germany, is prejudiced herself towards black people.  Scout hears her outside the court during the Tom Robinson trial saying that she thought it was, ‘time somebody taught them a lesson, they thought they were getting way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us’.  Scout can see straight away that this statement is in clear conflict with her teaching (about Germany) in her classroom.

There are also many examples of social snobbery among Maycomb people.  Aunt Alexandra is very conscious of family backgrounds and she will not allow Scout to invite young Walter Cunningham to the house because she does not consider him to be from the proper social background.  It is also snobbery that is responsible for the Radleys’ refusal to allow their son, Arthur, to be punished in the same way as the other boys when he gets into trouble with the law as a teenager.

The novel shows us that even families can be extremely cruel places to survive.  The Radley family treat Arthur with great cruelty by keeping him locked up for fifteen years because of a minor misdemeanour he committed as a boy.  Dill’s mother and stepfather neglect him and leave him to the care of his Aunt Rachel who is a secret drinker.  The Ewell children live in squalid circumstances while their father spends his welfare money on drink.  The Ewell children are not sent to school and Mayella, the eldest girl who tries to look after the younger children is abused by her father.  This is probably the most poignant moment in the trial when we are given a horrific image of what goes on inside the Ewell family compound.  This is just one of the masterful storytelling devices used by Harper Lee. In these days when stories of sexual abuse are everywhere in our media, how salutary to come across the true barbarity of it here, revealed in one tiny phrase: ‘she never kissed a grown man before an’s she might as well kiss a nigger.  She says what her papa do to her don’t count.’

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GROWING UP

As mentioned already, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird belongs to a genre of novel called Bildungsroman, or a ‘novel of maturation’.  In such a novel the central character is usually a very young person, and they are usually taken from a state of childhood innocence and brought to a state of experience and enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures which are recounted in the novel.  He or she should, thus, be ready for adulthood.  In this novel, which covers a period of three years, Scout develops from a state of childish innocence to a state of maturity.

Early in the novel, she learns the meaning of real courage as she witnesses Mrs. Dubose’s struggle to overcome her addiction to morphine.  She also learns to appreciate her father’s physical courage and skill as he saves the town from a mad dog by killing it with one shot.  Up to then she and Jem had looked on Atticus as a feeble, ageing man.

More important to her development is the moral courage her father displays in his fight for justice for Tom Robinson when the black man is accused of raping a white woman.  Most people are ready to condemn Tom because of his colour and race, but Atticus defies the majority opinion and makes every effort to see that justice is administered.  When he fails and Tom is wrongly convicted Scout has to learn that the law is not always fairly applied and that there is a great deal of prejudice in the society in which she lives.  Even her teacher, Miss Gates, who can find fault with people in other countries for being racially prejudiced, shows by her remarks outside the courthouse that she does not recognise prejudice in her own town.  As she matures Scout learns to control her emotions and to act more sensitively to other people.  At the beginning of the story, she is afraid of Boo Radley and she believes all sorts of nonsensical tales about him.  She takes part in schemes to make him ‘come out’ of his house and plays games that make fun of him.  Later she comes to see him as a real person, who not only gives her presents but who also saves both her life and Jem’s.  She even learns to stand in Boo Radley’s shoes and see the world from his point of view.

By novel’s end, she realises that it is like shooting a mockingbird to harm a person who is harmless, that it is possible to understand another person if you see things from his point of view and that ‘nothin’s real scary except in books’.

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I mentioned at the very beginning that To Kill a Mockingbird could be considered as a modern re-imagining of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.   The reason I said this is that the novel masterfully exposes the grim reality of what first appears as a sleepy old southern town.  By novel’s end Harper Lee, mainly through her precocious young narrator, reveals the true nature of the place:  she presents us with a classic tragedy of injustice, prejudice and man’s inhumanity to man.  But it is told to us matter-of-factly by a mere child, ignorant of what rape is, and in whom the ingrained teaching of an upbringing in Alabama in the 1930s has left a belief that black people are only slightly superior to farm animals.  Our greatest fear, as readers, is that Scout and Jem will feel quite differently about these subjects when they eventually grow up!!!

 

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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.

 

 

An Introduction to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

 

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This novel, first published on this day, 16th July in 1951, by the enigmatic J. D. Salinger, belongs to a category of fiction made popular by writers as diverse as Dickens and Joyce.  It is Bildungsroman, or novel about upbringing and education – a novel of maturation.  The heroes of novels of this type are invariably young people or children seeking to find their identities and roles in the big bad world.  Nineteenth-century examples are David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861), both by Charles Dickens.  The most famous twentieth-century example is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  Probably the most famous example from American fiction before Catcher in the Rye was the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Many of these novels go far beyond the treatment of the educational development of the central figure, and concern themselves with profound spiritual and moral experiences.

 The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the efforts of an adolescent American to relate to a grown-up world that he finds deeply flawed and fundamentally unsympathetic.  The central figure, Holden Caulfield, leaves his boarding school and spends a weekend in New York City.  Here he finds himself alone in what he sees as a grown-up world of corruption, unkindness and hypocrisy.  The main theme of the novel is Holden’s resistance to growing up into this kind of world, which, as he sees it, undermines youthful innocence and integrity.  The novel has no real plot.  It consists mainly of the observations of Holden on his experiences, particularly on the ‘phoniness’ of those he encounters.  His attempt to reconcile himself to the values of the adult world is a failure.  He retreats from this failure into mental illness, and writes his story while under psychiatric treatment.

Resistance to loss of innocence

The title of the novel is a glance at Holden’s dream of protecting other, younger children from the curse of maturity, of saving such innocents before the world corrupts them.  One of Robert Burns’s most famous songs has the line, ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’, Holden has misheard the words and thinks the line should go, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’.  He uses the mistaken version as a slogan for his own dream-activity.  He will catch the innocent children who play in the ryefield because they are in danger of falling over the unseen edge of a cliff.  His vision of his saving role is pathetic in its futility:

 ‘I thought it was “If a body catch a body”,’ I said.  ‘Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going.  I have to come from somewhere  and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.’

 An uncaring adult world

Part of Holden’s depression arises from his awareness of himself as an innocent abroad in a world of phoney values, a world which, like Holden himself, needs love but does not know where to find it.  It is, in many of its manifestations, a world that believes that it can get on without love, or even without decency.  What passes for love in the adult world through which he moves is little better than selfish exploitation.  Most of those with whom he comes in contact are crudely dismissive of him and his concerns (the taxi-drivers, for example), try to exploit him for money, like the offensive pimp in the hotel, or seem ready to abuse him sexually, like Antolini, his former schoolmaster, to whom he turns in desperate need for help and advice.  It is not surprising that Holden cannot form a viable or stable relationship with adult society.  That society cannot give him the love and affection for which he craves.  These values seem to be associated in his mind with two things: death and the innocence that disappeared with the loss of childhood.

The death-motif and its association with love appear from time to time in Holden’s references to his much-loved brother, whose death from leukemia has blighted his family.  His longing to preserve innocence in a world given over to destroying it makes him the idealist who rubs obscenities off walls so that small girls will not have to see them.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, who clearly approves of his hero, raises fundamental questions about man’s inhuman treatment of his fellow-men.  What, we are forced to ask, makes New York an abode of indifferent, uncaring individuals?  Is the answer to be found in some radical flaw at the heart of human nature, or in society?  The novel suggests that human nature is not primarily to blame for the sufferings which Holden and others like him have to endure.  Salinger conveys a sense that the world is populated by fallible, foolish, pompous, careless, morally weak individuals rather than by evil ones, and that human beings are potentially loving and joyful if only society will permit them to satisfy these basic longings.  It was this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye that caused it to appeal most widely to a generation of American students in the nineteen-fifties.  As Anthony Burgess has pointed out, the novel was,

‘a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against what the adult world was doing, or failing to do’.

Holden’s depression

The Catcher in the Rye has a single unifying theme: the nervous breakdown or intensifying depression of a sixteen-year-old boy.  The progress of Holden’s psychiatric illness is chronicled not from its origins but through its critical phase.  This is done with remarkable understanding of how depression actually works, and how it affects behaviour and the processes of thought.  Salinger is particularly impressive in his handling of the correlation between depressive illness and physical symptoms.  As his depression intensifies, Holden experiences psychosomatic symptoms, which feature a morbid fear of painful death (‘I figured I’d be dead in a couple of months because I had cancer’) and much physical distress (‘The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow’).  What we learn about him from his own narrative of his life makes his depressed state comprehensible enough.  The death of his much-loved brother Allie from leukaemia is one major influence on his mental and emotional states, leaving him with a grievance against the unfairness of things.  His emotional difficulties are not eased by his relationship with his parents.  His mother has been depressed since Allie’s death, and is not a positive force in his life, while his father, preoccupied with being successful, never discusses problems with him.

Holden is thus deprived of the parental guidance every adolescent needs.  His lack of emotional stability is not surprising.  The boarding school to which he is sent is no substitute for his parents.  His primary need is for the kind of understanding and sympathy that will see him through a difficult period in his life.  Whenever he seeks this from his acquaintances he is rebuffed or ignored.   As he ruefully remarks, Stradlater is not interested in a person’s ‘lousy childhood’, while Ackley will respond only if yelled at.  Both Ackley and Stradlater make little of the few achievements that might give Holden some badly needed self-confidence and self-esteem.  When Holden puts a heartfelt question to his history instructor (‘Everybody goes through phases and all, don’t they?’), the latter cannot answer him.  His old girl-friend Sally Hayes can do no better than the others in providing the understanding he needs if he is to keep depression at bay.  Carl Luce, an ex-schoolmate now at Columbia University, responds coldly and unfeelingly to Holden’s plea for help in sorting out his mental and emotional confusion, callously advising him to see a psychiatrist.

As a final despairing gesture, Holden turns to a man he respects, his teacher Mr. Antolini.  The latter can help him no more than the others could.  He lectures him at length, but fails to notice how deeply disturbed he is.  At this stage, Holden is at breaking-point, descending to deeper levels of depression, while Antolini is telling him that an academic education will give him an idea what size of mind he has.  Salinger provides some obvious pointers to Holden’s lack of mental stability in his numerous self-contradictions.  Our hero tells Antolini, for example, that a teacher at Pencey, ‘was intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn’t have too much brains’.  He also claims that there were a couple of classes he didn’t attend for a while, but that he didn’t cut any.  The outcome of the episode with Antolini is that Holden is more depressed than ever.  Convinced that society has finally failed him, he decides to run away and pretend to be a deaf mute, so avoiding, ‘any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody’.  He will make no further efforts to gain the understanding of other people, and will renounce the ‘phoney’ world.

Phoebe, an agent of redemption

If he is to be redeemed from his hopelessly depressed state, this must now be through the voluntary, unsolicited intervention of somebody else.  His sister Phoebe becomes the agent of his redemption from total despair.  When Phoebe insists on running away with him, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot take responsibility for her, and decides that he must go home, not for his own sake, but for hers.  This gesture of submission is rewarded with a fleeting spell of intense happiness, lovingly described.  The sight of Phoebe going round and round on the carousel fills him with inexplicable joy and tranquility, although the contradictory account of how he fares in the rain is a sinister indication of his confused mental state:

‘My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway.  I didn’t care, though.  I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round.  I was damn near bawling.  I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.  I don’t know why.  It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all.  I wish you could’ve been there’.

 After his painful quest, involving disappointment, frustration, bitterness, depression and disillusionment, Holden has at last found something beautiful in a world he has so often condemned as ‘phoney’.  This does not necessarily mean that he novel has a happy ending.  We know that the carousel will have to stop, and Holden and his sister will have to return to the world from which all his instincts have been urging him to escape.  The best things that life has to offer him are the few fleeting moments of exaltation he has experienced watching Phoebe on the carousel.

Holden’s distorted view of the world.

The Catcher in the Rye is often read as a sympathetic account of a good-natured, sensitive boy confronted by a cruel, dishonest world, populated by freaks, exploiters and phoneys.  The following is typical of his view of other people:

 I was surrounded by jerks.  I’m not kidding.  At this other tiny table, right to my left, was this funny-looking guy and this funny-looking girl.

It is clear from the novel that Salinger likes Holden and expects his readers to like him, but the question must be asked, how likable is he?  Does he deserve to be taken at his own valuation as an idealist who suffers at the hands of others?  Are we to applaud his trenchant exposures of virtually all those who cross his path?

The presentation of Holden involves an obvious paradox: the childlike idealist with the vulnerable, sensitive nature can appear heartless and cruel in his comments on almost everybody else.  There is the curious fact that although he is constantly protesting against the phoniness of almost everybody else, he himself is far from exempt from this fault.  In this context, phoniness means hypocrisy, empty, insincere moralising and fraudulent attitudes and behaviour.  It is true that Holden is upset by such things; as he puts it, they cause him to ‘puke’.  The only people he can think of as being free from phoniness are his sister Phoebe, the two nuns he meets in the sandwich bar, and children in general.  Were he also to look more closely at himself, he would have to acknowledge that he shares the qualities he condemns in others.  He often tells lies, often pretends to be someone he is not, and can be quite bitter in his comments on his friends, while at the same time pleading for charity and kindness towards himself.

The key to Holden’s character is his mental confusion.  This shows itself particularly in his inability to see people and their activities in proportion.  Again, his lack of a proper sense of proportion expresses itself in an outrageously exaggerated habit of speaking.  By referring to almost everybody and everything in grossly inflated language, he can make relatively innocuous circumstances sound wicked and dangerous.

It is not enough for him to describe a woman who sits next to him at the cinema as the slightly inconsiderate person she is; he feels obliged to describe her as being ‘about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf’.  He doesn’t like Ossenburger the undertaker, and takes exception to the man’s religious inclinations.  His dislike vents itself in great crude fantasies in which Ossenburger features as a monstrous fraud who shoves corpses into a sack and dumps them in the river, who prays fervently to Jesus to send him more corpses and who bores a captive audience with ‘about fifty corny jokes’.  He describes places and their atmospheres in the same wildly exaggerated fashion, particularly when their impact on him is unfavourable.  A hotel lobby cannot seem merely stale-smelling to him; it must convey the impression of ‘fifty million dead cigars’.  No wonder Phoebe tells him, ‘You don’t like anything that’s happening.’  This is because his view of reality is hopelessly distorted; his depressed state makes him so utterly negative about experience that he cannot see that even the worst people and situations have some redeeming qualities.

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