University of Zaragoza, Spain | Published: 15 March, 2007
ISSUE 2 | Pages: 1-13 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2007-2527
2007 by Constanza del Río-Álvaro | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The purpose of this essay is to refute the fairly usual critical pronouncement that William Trevor’s view of Ireland as reflected in his Irish fictions is static, ahistorical and outdated. While acknowledging that at first glance this may be so and that other aspects of his work, such as his style, narrative techniques or literary influences, may appear to support the view of Trevor’s status as a conventional writer and as a perfect candidate to the phenomenon of “inherited dissent” discussed by Augustine Martin (1965), it is my intention to show that a close examination of one of his novels, Felicia’s Journey (1994), contrasting it with the tradition that Trevor is supposed to be uncritically repeating –in this case Joyce’s short story “Eveline” (1914)– will reveal the extent to which his fiction clearly responds to a contemporary social and artistic sensibility. In my opinion, and as I hope will come through, Trevor is not a writer weighed down by tradition but rather one still capable of puzzling the reader by offering unexpected solutions for the plights of his characters.
La intención de este artículo es la de refutar la idea, bastante difundida entre los críticos, de que la visión de Irlanda que William Trevor ofrece en su obra es estática, ahistórica y anticuada. Inicialmente se reconoce que a primera vista ésta puede ser la impresión general y que hay otros aspectos de la obra de Trevor, tales como su estilo, técnicas narrativas o influencias literarias, que parecen reforzar el carácter convencional del escritor y que lo acercan al fenómeno de “disidencia heredada” discutido por Augustine Martín (1965). Sin embargo, un estudio atento de una de sus novelas, Felicia’s Journey (1994), contrastándola con la tradición que Trevor supuestamente se limita a repetir de forma irreflexiva en su obra –concretamente una comparación con el relato de Joyce “Eveline” (1914)– revelará que la obra de Trevor responde claramente a una sensibilidad social y artística contemporánea. En mi opinión, y como espero demostrar, Trevor no es un escritor para el que la tradición es una carga sino un artista que es capaz todavía de asombrar a sus lectores y de ofrecer soluciones inesperadas para los problemas de sus personajes.
Felicia’s Journey; Eveline; William Trevor; James Joyce; Tradición; Disidencia heredada
Different critics have remarked upon William Trevor’s “peculiar” view of Ireland (Deane 1986: 226; Mackenna 1999: 133-58; Fitzgerald-Hoyt 2003: 31-53). There seems to be quite a general consensus in this respect that Trevor’s Ireland, even in short stories or novels set in contemporary times, owes more to the backward social and cultural panorama of the 1930s, 1940s or 50s than to the buoyant and liberated spirit of the 90s and early years of the new century.
That is, it would seem that Ireland became fixated in Trevor’s imagination around the experiences and realities he himself lived and knew first hand before emigrating to England for economic reasons in the late 1950s, and that his narratives are not capacious enough to accommodate the more cosmopolitan and progressive atmosphere of Celtic Tiger Ireland. According to Dolores Mackenna, for example, Trevor’s Ireland “is rural and small town Ireland, a bleak place where people endure life rather than live it; a place of loneliness, frustration and undramatic suffering. Timeless, except in its details, its moral climate remains constant whether its people live in the 1940s or the 1990s” (1999: 139).
In the critical literature on Trevor, his classification as a portraitist of a static and outdated Ireland is coupled and seems to accord with his placement as a writer who “has not worried himself about ‘making it new’” (Allen: 1996: 54), who is frequent-ly defined as a traditionalist, as a moral realist (Bonaccorso 1997: 113) or a naturalist (Cleary 2004: 233). Indeed, Trevor is a writer whose style is characterised by extreme attention to external detail, so much so that were it not for other aspects of his work, such as psychological insight into the human condition and complexity of ethical universe, he could be labelled as a ‘materialist’ in Virginia Woolf’s understanding of the term. His prose is restrained, precise and terse, fleshing out stories that progress calmly and subtly –with the occasional surprising twist of plot in, for instance, “The Blue Dress” (1992: 772-84),1 “The Teddy-bears’ Picnic” (785-99) or Felicia’s Journey (1994) –through indirection and well-planted and spaced hints and suggestions. He frequently deals with melodramatic and gothic themes and plots, and yet, being a master of understatement, he manages to transform these excessive ingredients into stylised and restrained narratives that border on the tragic and the elegiac. Trevor approaches his creations with detachment, with an ironic distance nevertheless always balanced by compassion so that the reader can always feel the fragility and humanity of even the most evil of his characters. Unobtrusive as an author –and progressively so in his career– he also shuns limelight as a person and affirms that fashion has little to do with literature.2 In the postmodern era of high theory, flamboyant displays of verbal and narrative pyrotechnics and the cult of the celebrity author, the consistency and coherence of Trevor’s subdued position and literary career may indeed look like an oddity, or an anachronism, as Ben Howard has noted:
In Irish letters, in particular, the century that began with a publisher objecting to James Joyce’s use of ‘bloody’ in Dubliners ended with the novels of Patrick McCabe and Roddy Doyle, where immediacy, bluntness and vivacity of expression are prized more highly than subtlety or indirection. Reticence and reserve are conspicuously absent, both in content and expression, and any word is fit to print. Within this context the equable, tempered fiction of William Trevor is something of an anomaly, if not an anachronism (2001: 164).
The list of writers that Trevor reads, admires or that have influenced him denotes his apparent traditionalism as well. He has confessed that he does not read much contemporary writing and prefers to reread Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen, as well as Somerset Maugham and American short story writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, John Updike, Carson McCullers and Mary McCarthy. He also admires Graham Greene, Ivy Compton- Burnett, Anthony Powell, V. S. Pritchett, Henry Green and Evelyn Waugh. Of Irish writers, he is fond of George Moore and James Stephens, and particularly of the early Joyce (Stout 1989: 133-34). Critics have compared his narratives with the work of the “Cork realists” Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faoláin, with the contemporary novelist John McGahern, with the tradition of British realism running from Jane Austen to V. S. Pritchett (Howard 2001: 164; Sampson 2002: 287-88) and with the Russian writers Chekhov and Turgenev (Mackenna 1999: 134). However, of all these names, the most obvious and abiding influence is that of the early James Joyce and his collection of short stories Dubliners.
In terms of lived experience, both writers are Irish but look at Ireland from a physical and emotional distance. Both worry about Ireland’s moral condition although they analyse it dispassionately, with no overt intention to preach. Entrapment, paralysis, isolation, loneliness and lack of opportunities are some of their favourite themes. Authorial unobtrusiveness, skilful creation of atmospheres and psychological characterisation constitute a hallmark of Joyce’s short stories and of Trevor’s work in general. Both use naturalistic and realistic external detail as a tool to illuminate psychological and ethical scenarios and write “of human situations, in which characters move towards a revelation or epiphany which is moral, spiritual or social” (Mackenna 1999: 134). Silence, exile and cunning are Joyce’s authorial strategies, and Trevor’s as well. Besides these general common features, critics have not failed to spot multiple references, echoes and links between Trevor’s work and Joyce’s short stories. The most evident case in this respect is Trevor’s story “Two More Gallants”, a rewriting of Joyce’s “Two Gallants”, but the list is quite impressive.3
With these credentials –ahistorical view of Ireland, traditional story-telling and enduring Joycean influence– William Trevor would seem to be the perfect example of “inherited dissent” discussed by Augustine Martin (1965); that is, he would appear to be a writer who has lost touch with his contemporary reality. Yet seeing Trevor’s view of Ireland as outdated and his narrative style as old- fashioned is, in my opinion, a harsh and cursory judgement of the life-long work of a writer who, throughout his career, has frequently circled around similar themes and scenarios yet always providing variations and approaching the same raw materials from different angles, thus giving voice to an uncommon variety of points of view. This diversity attests to his extremely complex grasp of the human condition and of how historical, social, environmental and personal circumstances may differently affect our behaviour and psyche. In this sense, and in spite of the fact that in her recent study on Trevor’s Irish fiction, Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt concurs with the idea that Trevor’s Ireland is timeless (2003: 31), she also concedes that “even when Trevor locates his provincial fiction in present times, his Ireland is not so static as it appears” (2003: 53). Similarly, she questions the critical suggestion that Trevor is out of tune with contemporary Ireland, “for his Irish fiction touches the pulse of current preoccupations with identity, how to interpret history, how to square Ireland’s past with Ireland’s future” (205). As for Trevor’s status as a conventional writer, this is what he himself has said in this respect:
I think all writing is experimental. The very obvious sort of experimental writing is not really more experimental than that of a conventional writer like myself. I experiment all the time but the experiments are hidden. Rather like abstract art: you look at an abstract picture, and then you look at a close-up of a Renaissance painting and find the same abstractions (in Stout 1989: 125).
Following Trevor’s ideas in the quotation above, it could be said that experimentation is for him a matter of distance relative to the position of the beholder. A close examination of Trevor’s fictions may reveal them as stylised scenarios where questions of choice, chance, and fate are played out. In this sense, and in my view, his work owes more to the classic genre of the morality play –although filtered through a contemporary sensitivity– than to the realistic/naturalistic tradition within which he is frequently placed.
What follows in this paper is an attempt to refute charges of outdatedness in Trevor’s fiction and to vindicate his original authorial stance. For that purpose, I will look at one of his most famous and commercially successful novels, Felicia’s Journey, in the light of Joyce’s “Eveline” (1914).4 The reason I have chosen to compare these two works is that at first glance the sociological picture of Ireland depicted in both narratives and the psychological portrait of the two female protagonists, Eveline and Felicia, seem to be quite similar, this being a concordance which would buttress the idea that Trevor is merely reproducing a received scenario that no longer holds true. Yet, a close examination of the differences between both stories, particularly the nature of the experiences that Felicia undergoes in England as well as the decision she makes at the end of the novel, will bespeak the imaginative and socio-historical distance separating Trevor from Joyce, hopefully showing that for Trevor tradition is not a burden but a convenient stepping stone in his long and prolific career.
In some way, Felicia’s Journey starts where “Eveline” ends. The nausea that grips Eveline’s body while she fervently prays, hoping for a divine intervention that would illuminate her choice and exonerate her from responsibility, materialises in Felicia’s pregnancy and sickness on the evening ferry, and Eveline’s presentiment of danger in the figure of Frank –“All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart.
- Unless otherwise stated, references to Trevor’s short stories will be to the 1992 Penguin edition William Trevor: The Collected Stories. [↩]
- In an interview with Mira Stout, Trevor declared: “Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight” (1989: 147). In the same interview he condemned the contemporary pressure of fashion in literature and affirmed: “Fashion belongs on a coat hanger. In literature –in any art– it’s destructive” (( In an interview with Mira Stout, Trevor declared: “Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight” (1989: 147). In the same interview he condemned the contemporary pressure of fashion in literature and affirmed: “Fashion belongs on a coat hanger. In literature –in any art– it’s destructive” (150). [↩]
- For a comparison and analysis of “Two Gallants” and “Two More Gallants” as explorations of the complexities of Irish identity, see Haughey (1995). Francis Doherty (1991) has read Trevor’s “A Meeting in Middle Age” as a reworking of Joyce’s “A Painful Case”, and Morrison (1993: 51-54), Mackenna (1999: 34-38) and Fitzgerald-Hoyt (2003: 16-30) provide numerous examples of Joycean touches and echoes in Trevor’s work. [↩]
- Critics have connected both “Eveline” and Felicia’s Journey with Trevor’s celebrated short story “The Ballroom of Romance” (Mackenna 1999: 136; Archibald 2002: 272). The character of Felicia indeed bears resemblance to Bridie, the protagonist of “The Ballroom of Romance”, but she also recalls many other Trevor characters –young girls or boys, Irish or English, Catholic or Protestant– trapped by circumstances and wishing to escape both literally and/or through their romantic fancies and, sometimes destructive, imagination. [↩]
- Although the ending of “Eveline” has traditionally been taken as symbolising the moral paralysis that Joyce identified with Dublin, Eveline’s final response, or rather lack of response, to Frank’s offer has also been differently interpreted. For Schwarze, for example, it signifies Eveline’s acknowledgment that her relationship to Frank is just a romantic fiction and that marriage will not liberate her from patriarchal oppression (2003: 108-10). [↩]
- Trevor’s novel encodes the language of romance and of the fairy tale, two genres having a mythical stratum. Felicia’s red coat and headscarf, the plastic bags she carries and her primordial innocence (11) transform her into a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood, lost in an industrial forest where “[f]actories seem like fortresses, their towers protecting and ancient realm of iron and wealth” (34) and where she meets the big bad wolf. Libe García Zarranz pointed out the novel’s multiple connections with fairy tales to me. Significantly, “Eveline’s” narrative structure has also been linked to fairy tales (Head 1992: 71). [↩]
- In Felicia’s Journey a sense of community life still seems to exist in the small Irish town Felicia abandons and in marginal groups within English society: the members of Miss Calligary’s religious sect and the English homeless. In contrast, mainstream English society is characterised by anonymity, individuality and isolation. [↩]
- The novel alternates Felicia’s and Hilditch’s perception, making ample use of the technique of free indirect discourse. Even in scenes where both characters are together, the kind of focalisation is singular, corresponding to either one of the two, this being a strategy that enforces the idea of lack of genuine communication and of enclosure in their respective worlds. Miss Calligary, unwilling coagent of Hilditch’s suicide, is the third character granted the privilege of internal focalisation. Occasionally, and as is customary in Trevor’s fiction, an omniscient narrative voice providing an external and distant bird’s-eye point of view intrudes in the narrative, for example, to digress on the activities and dreams of the homeless (101-02) or to give a panoramic account of life in Felicia’s town (202). These sudden pulling-backs of perception, resembling cinematic crane-shots, help to establish and maintain the balance between internal and external views of characters, sympathy and irony and intimacy and distance (Schirmer 1990: 10). At the same time, the technique “introduces ironic qualifications by forcing the specific characters and events of the novel into a large, deflating context of indifference” (25). These devices, together with Trevor’s brisk style, help to regulate the emotional load of the narrative. The The novel constantly shifts from an effective present tense for contemporary events, providing a feeling of immediacy and aloofness, to past tenses for the memories of the characters. Even in scenes where both characters are together, the kind of focalisation is singular, corresponding to either one of the two, this being a strategy that enforces the idea of lack of genuine communication and of enclosure in their respective worlds. [↩]
- Hilditch is an example of a long list of characters in Trevor’s narratives that are fabulists and fiction makers, figures whom Trevor endows “with some of his own ingenuity at plotting, narrating, and inventing characters and situations” (Tracy 2002: 295). Such figures offer indirect commentaries on the activity of fiction making, thus bringing in a metafictional dimension into the novels or short stories. [↩]
- Just when Felicia’s death at the hands of Hilditch seems imminent, there is a narrative ellipsis (156). The novel then focuses on Hilditch’s mental collapse and final suicide, leaving Felicia’s fate suspended until the last chapter. [↩]
- Trevor’s interest in the British underclass will continue in Death in Summer (1998), his next novel after Felicia’s Journey. [↩]
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