Laying out the Bones: Death and Dying in the Modern Irish Novel from James Joyce to Anne Enright, by Bridget English,s 250 pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0815635369
There are occasions when one picks up a book and finds in it an in-depth exploration of a theme that has always been a source of fascination. That was the case when I first opened Bridget English’s monograph Laying out the Bones: Death and Dying in the Modern Irish Novel, which arose out of the author’s research in the Department of English at Maynooth University. Taking one novel by each of five modernist writers – Joyce, Kate O’Brien, Beckett, McGahern and Anne Enright – English examines how central a trope death and dying is in Irish literature. As is always the case with such undertakings, there are writers that certain commentators may argue should have been included – Brian Moore being an unfortunate omission in my view – but overall it is hard to argue with the appropriateness of English’s choices. After all, with the possible exception of Anne Enright, all the novelists chosen are canonical figures (which may explain Moore’s non-inclusion) and they certainly deal with the theme in a distinctive manner.
The introduction begins by discussing the revelation on live radio in April 2008 by Nuala O’Falolain to her close friend Marian Finucane that she was dying of lung cancer and would not be having chemotherapy, which might have prolonged her life. O’Faolain was a well-known and highly regarded public figure in Ireland and the admission that she did not believe in God or an afterlife and hence was deprived of any religious consolation in her time of need evoked a visceral reaction in the millions of Irish people who were tuned in to the broadcast. Describing her death as “an inconsolable tragedy” and maintaining that the wisdom and experiences she had accumulated over her lifetime would all disappear without a trace, O’Faolain presented her plight in an enthralling manner. It is not usual to hear death spoken of in this way in Ireland. While admitting how fortunate she was to be surrounded by family and friends who would help her through the harrowing process, and to have the material wherewithal to ensure that she could die in relative comfort and free from the worst excesses of pain, listeners nevertheless were spared none of the anguish that O’Faolain felt at the approach of death. English explains the significance of the exchange in the following manner:
By opening up discussions of death to include the conventionally unmentionable aspects of the process such as gross physical suffering and the possibility of ending life without hope or meaning, O’Faolain’s interview stands as one of the most important moments in Irish cultural history in relation to death and dying.
With the waning of religious faith and practice in Ireland, the hope of eternal salvation is no longer available to a large portion of the population. This can make the prospect of death seem like a wiping out, an abrupt end to this life, with nothing to look forward to beyond the grave. English is correct in her assertion that O’Faolain forced listeners “to confront radically antagonistic conceptions of death and to attempt to reconcile the Catholic promise of heaven with a liberal-humanist emphasis on human life and religious hope”. If this life is all there is, one should surely maximise the possibilities of pleasure by living without any fear of sin or shame at self-indulgence. Such a hedonistic approach does not necessarily rule out living an ethical life: it just means that the emphasis is on this world and not on the next.
An interesting aspect of Irish culture is the extent to which the rituals of death are closely aligned to pagan traditions going back centuries. The famous Irish wake, so well-described by a writer like McGahern, was as much an opportunity for the living to affirm their continued survival as it was a homage to the dead. The Catholic church was distrustful of the heavy drinking and inappropriate behaviour surrounding such gatherings, just as they disliked the custom of covering mirrors and stopping clocks in the house of the dead person at the exact time of death, or sitting up all night with the corpse. According to English, fiction is a fascinating medium through which to consider the changing attitudes towards death in Irish culture. The novel engages with the issues associated with existence and there is nothing more important than making sense of life and/or death. The long shadow of the Great Famine has meant that attitudes towards death in the modern period were shaped by the huge, and seemingly unnecessary, loss of life from 1845 to 1851, which inevitably left its mark, particularly on those who survived and were unable to look after the dead in a proper manner – many could not even be buried. English is aware, however, that the novel is equally never going to fulfil the role of providing historical or sociological analysis, which is why she wisely states her methodology from the outset: “The approach adopted here is one that views the novel as an elastic literary form that assimilates residual, emergent, and dominant discourses and ideas in a society and fashions these materials into plots and stories of human interest.”
Which is not to say that the novel is divorced from the culture from which it springs – far from it – but rather that the form and authorial choices it makes give the stories it recounts a relevance and human interest that can prove revealing of certain attitudes and customs.
English begins, naturally enough, with Joyce’s Ulysses, which employs “the narrative structures of Homer’s Odyssey and parts of the Catholic liturgy in order to highlight the inability of these structures to adequately order human life”. She continues: “By inserting death into the midst of life, Joyce reinvigorates narrative form, bringing the living and the dead into dialogue and submerging his readers in the infinite play of language that mediates between the actualities of lived experience and the meanings endowed upon that experience by death.” This type of condensed summary is one of the undoubted strengths of English as a critic: she shares with her readers perceptive insights that are expressed in a condensed and accessible style. Joyce’s depictions of death were heavily influenced by a Catholic upbringing which provided the apparatus to make sense of death: “While Joyce’s novel is widely thought to reject Catholicism as ideology, the religious elements in the narrative demonstrate Joyce’s admiration for the power of Catholic ritual to alleviate anxieties surrounding death and to bind communities together.” (McGahern shared this conviction, as will be seen in our discussion of his work.) Ulysses is replete with references to the Mass, the Resurrection, the sacraments, concerns surrounding sin and making contact with the dead. Ultimately, however, the great achievement of Ulysses is the melding of the religious and the literary in a manner that is transformative for both:
By fictionally inverting the rituals of the Catholic Church, Joyce attempts to revive a shared meaning attached to death. For Joyce, narrative holds the possibility of salvation through its ability to subvert old meanings. Joyce’s reinvention of the Irish novel and its previous associations with a dead tradition has profound implications for the novelists writing in his wake.
Put more simply, for Joyce art is the great saviour and in his view death can be transcended by producing work that will stand the test of time and ensure posterity. The crown for Joyce was no longer heaven as traditionally understood by those of a religious persuasion but the certitude of having produced work of the highest standard.
The action in Kate O’Brien’s The Ante-Room revolves around the impending death of Teresa Mulqueen, whose children, Agnes, Marie-Rose and the dissolute Reggie, are all undergoing private dilemmas in addition to the pain associated with losing their mother. Agnes is in love with her sister’s husband, Vincent, but ultimately refuses to sacrifice her religious faith and her love of Marie-Rose in order to know happiness. So she puts an end to her relationship with Vincent who, because of his deep unhappiness and his weakness of character, ends up committing suicide. Reggie is a source of great concern to his mother, who believes his syphilitic condition will deprive him of the comfort of marriage. In the end, she can die happy because she sees a romance develop between Nurse Cunningham and her son – one that is far from disinterested on the part of the nurse. Agnes is struck by the strange gleam that lights up Teresa’s features: “This is happiness, she thought, and wondered if even here she did not grudge it.”
Caught up in the maelstrom of her feelings for Vincent and her religious and familial duties, Agnes knows that her only path is to live a kind of death in life, depriving herself of terrestrial pleasure, while all the while wondering if she will be rewarded in the next life for her sacrifices. Agnes is theologically literate and knows that her illicit love for Vincent is impossible and sinful. Her decision to go to confession before the triduum of Masses the family decides to organise for Teresa involves a pitiless examination of conscience which leaves no room for doubt as to the path she must follow. The Jesuit priest who hears her confession fails to reassure her by claiming that human love is finite, whereas in the idea of God “there is matter for eternity”. On seeing Vincent again some hours later, her passion is reignited and her confessor’s words seem hollow.
Towards the end of her chapter on The Ante-Room, English sums up Kate O’Brien’s approach in the following manner:
O’Brien highlights the benefits of Catholic consolation, while at the same time arguing for a more liberal version of Catholicism that is more sympathetic to human failings. Thus, the author uses death and dying to force a re-examination of the social function of Catholicism in Ireland and to question how closely it is allied with its religious purpose.
I am not wholly in agreement with this assessment. It strikes me that O’Brien was influenced more by a continental form of Catholicism than by any social function it might have. It is when her characters travel abroad that they begin to see the contradictory nature of a religion of rules and obligations that fails to take into consideration the natural inclinations of the human body. Mary Lavelle’s famous comment to the woman who considers the love she feels for Mary to be sinful – “Oh, everything’s a sin!” – shows this move away from repression of desire to a more accepting embrace of its pleasures.
The very title of Beckett’s Malone Dies reveals the relevance of this novel for the title under consideration. English notes that what makes Beckett’s work relevant is Malone’s failure to narrate his own demise because of his preoccupation with imagining. The first person narration should, one would imagine, give us some key insights into the process of dying. Instead, we have the account of a man lying in a bed awaiting a death that never comes – Waiting for Godot has a similar dynamic, with its two tramps willing to do anything, even attempt suicide, to lift the tedium of their lives in the futile hope of Godot’s arrival. While the setting and plot of Beckett’s novel have nothing distinctively Irish about them, English does argue convincingly for its inclusion:
However, the vehemence of Malone’s categorical rejection of the religious structures and rituals that surround dying, the confessional aspect to his writing, the persistence of the trope of the dead mother, and his purgatorial state are all in line with Joyce’s and O’Brien’s depictions of death and dying, situating him in a similar trajectory of Irish writing about death.
In addition, the influence of both the Catholic and Protestant traditions on Beckett allows a merger of “Catholic concepts of confession and purgatory with Protestant concerns with self-reliance and self-scrutiny”. Beckett was particularly adept at depicting the absurdity of the human condition and the existential tenor of his work often lent itself to a description of the experience of dying, both textual and physical. For Beckett, the style often reflects the content, an undertaking that is succinctly captured by English:
Setting himself against religious and novelistic rules of dying, Malone seeks to narrate his dying process and to control the moment of his death. Yet as he soon realizes death itself is a state of formlessness, of silence, that which defies representation, Malone’s project of self-annihilation is doomed to fail. Despite his best efforts, he cannot rid himself of the compulsion to narrate or the human need for meaning.
The modernist dilemma facing Beckett is beautifully conveyed in these lines: the struggle to find a language capable of describing the indescribable, of delving into the darkest recesses of the human psyche in an attempt to find meaning, to present in a logical form experiences that are anything but logical. Death is one of those defining moments that cannot in a sense be defined. As English points out: “In the novel, death traditionally functions as a narrative limit, a way of defining the boundaries that give meaning to life.” That said, if one does not subscribe to the idea that death is in some way also the beginning of life, of a new life, then there is a completely new dynamic at play – it is here that Beckett’s originality can be best appreciated. In Malone Dies, the notion of death as the final limit is used to destroy “the rituals that hold meaning in place”. After the horrors of World War II, there was still a deep need for the consolation provided by a Christian view of existence, as well as a general rejection of the notion of an all-loving God. Malone Dies describes this metaphysical No Man’s Land very successfully. By contrasting Beckett’s radical dismantling of the novel form with McGahern’s attempts to piece it back together, English maintains that the latter “retains Beckett’s sense of hollowed-out subjectivity and meaningless rituals”. She continues: “Whereas Beckett portrays the excruciating state of inexistence and the inability to truly die as both comic and tragic, McGahern sees death as the only reality.”
This is a good way to lead into the discussion of McGahern’s remarkable first novel, The Barracks, appropriately entitled “Ritual and Denial in a World Stripped of Illusion”. The Beckettian aspect of McGahern’s work is not to be found in its form – McGahern was quite traditional in that respect, though more innovative than some critics may have noticed – but in the ambience of desperation and frustration that both writers manage to create. Illusions are not allowed to last long in the work of either writer and their characters find themselves confronted with realities that are far from savoury. In the case of Elizabeth Reegan, the middle-aged main protagonist of The Barracks, a cancer prognosis early on in the narrative causes her to reflect on a life whose preciousness and beauty had escaped her as she busily went about her daily routine, first as a nurse, and then as a wife to Reegan and mother to the children he had by a first marriage. According to English, McGahern’s account of Elizabeth’s illness is employed “to express hidden truths and unspoken emotions”. Certainly, she has to face the prospect of her imminent death alone, her husband being incapable of handling the prospect of losing a second wife. Equally, her Catholic faith is unable to disguise the stark destiny that awaits her, the departure from the material and emotional environment in which she operates. People and place assume a heightened importance when one is on the point of losing them forever.
McGahern’s writing is notable for the numerous rituals associated with death one encounters in it. The loss of his own mother when he was only ten left a void that was never adequately filled. Many commentators have remarked how unusual it was that a man in his early twenties could describe so well the anguish of a dying woman. It is clear that McGahern drew heavily on the experience of his mother’s death when dealing with that of Elizabeth Reegan. He did so to a far more obvious degree in the semi-autobiographical The Leavetaking, passages of which are reproduced word for word in Memoir. His best-known short story, “The Country Funeral”, describes how a trip to the west of Ireland to attend the funeral of his Uncle Peter transforms the life of the rather uncouth Philly, who is so impressed with the tact and support of the local community that he decides after the funeral that he will stop working on the oil rigs and take over Peter’s farm. Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun also have funerals and the issues raised by death at the core of the narrative. At the end of The Pornographer, his aunt’s funeral convinces the young protagonist that he needs to leave Dublin and start up a new life on the farm of his parents, in the West of Ireland.
But the probing into the meaning of her life by Elizabeth in The Barracks is undoubtedly revealing of how McGahern attempted to come to terms with death. His heroine is not helped by the fact that she is neither an agnostic nor a convinced Catholic. Her relationship with Halliday, a doctor in the hospital where she worked in London, exposed her to a bleak worldview. Shortly after her cancer diagnosis, Elizabeth remembers Halliday’s repeated question: “What’s all this living and dying about anyway, Elizabeth?” He clearly never came up with an adequate response, as can be gauged from his death in a car accident, which Elizabeth strongly suspects was a suicide. English remarks that the great tragedy of The Barracks is that “Elizabeth dies before fully realizing her own identity and before she has found a means to express her unique vision of reality, the terrible beauty born of her physical pain.” I am not entirely convinced that this represents a tragedy or, if it does, then it is a tragedy that confronts a large number of people who must come to terms with their mortality. Her comment “Jesus Christ!”, as she looks out at a banal winter scene and sees its beauty for the first time, is the fruit of Elizabeth’s realisation that she will soon no longer be in a position to behold this scene. Similarly, as she lies in bed and hears the comings and goings of people in the house and street below her, she comprehends that these activities will continue long after she is gone.
The two guards, Mullins and Casey, retire to the nearby Protestant graveyard as Elizabeth is being interred and they feel guilty about their relief that it is she, and not they, who has died. This human reaction perhaps explains the tradition of shaking hands at a wake or funeral in Ireland – the lifeblood being transferred from one living being to another. The type of comfort that laying out of Johnny’s corpse gives in That They May Face the Rising Sun is nowhere evident in The Barracks in English’s estimation. She ends the McGahern chapter with the following analysis:
In his depictions of death and dying, McGahern attempts to reconcile the reality of human experience with its perceived meaning and significance. For McGahern, there are no easy answers to the questions these issues raise, but an acknowledgement of these mysteries can enhance the quality of an individual life. Narrative cannot solve the question of death, but, like ritual, it can assuage grief and suffering.
Anne Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering is set in Celtic Tiger Ireland and recounts the story of Veronica Hegarty, whose world is turned upside down by the suicide of her brother Liam in England. As she grieves for Liam and travels across the Channel to collect his remains, Veronica slowly begins to unravel traumas from her family’s past that ultimately led to her brother’s death, most pertinently the abuse he endured, and which she witnessed, from the sinister Lamb Nugent, who had an affair with their grandmother Ada and exerted a malevolent influence over the family’s fortunes. When Veronica caught Nugent and Liam in flagrante delicto, she didn’t know what caused her the most horror: the look of pain on Nugent’s face, as if he could not admit the attraction he felt for the boy, or Liam’s terrified grimace at what was happening between them. On realising that she is at the door, Nugent merely tells her to get lost, thus underlining his untouchability: it appears that he can do what he likes in Ada’s house and is certainly not fazed at the thought of having been seen abusing Liam by the latter’s eight-year-old sister.
Writing, for Veronica, becomes a means of both grieving the loss of Liam and of coming to terms with incidents from her childhood which she had tried to suppress. Living in what could be described as a post-Catholic Ireland, Veronica’s “confession” of what she witnessed is not made to a priest or a therapist, but takes the form of a written narrative. The damage inflicted on the family members by the secrets they shared has led to their becoming dysfunctional adults for the most part. In the end, Veronica manages to come to terms with what happened to her by “wording” it, by recording it on paper, thus putting an end to what was an unhealthy silence. The difficulty of what confronts her is evident from the following observation in the novel: “She tells herself, ‘I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden conviction that uncertainty spawns.’”
The contrast between how the British and the Irish deal with their death is brought into sharp relief by Veronica:
The British, I decide, only bury people when they are so dead, you need another word for it. The British wait so long for a funeral that people gather not so much to mourn, as to complain that the corpse is still hanging around. … They do not gather until the emotion is gone.
The Irish, on the other hand, are fascinated with the corpse and with congregating quickly around the coffin so as to provide an assessment of the life just ended before details are forgotten or before the pain of loss has eased. In The Gathering, the Irish wake is by far the better option in Veronica’s view. English concludes: “What makes Veronica feel ‘Irish’ is not any particular ritual pertaining to the burial of the dead but rather the simple act of allowing another to grieve. The denial of death seems then to be a symptom of British society.”
In her conclusion to the Enright chapter, English argues that The Gathering describes an Ireland that is at odds with itself, that wishes to move forward quickly and ignore the agonies of the past: “Death and grief have no place in this modern life with its sleek surfaces, advanced technologies, and virtual communities.” This is undoubtedly the case, and yet Liam’s death serves as a trapdoor that opens a Pandora’s Box of memories that cannot be controlled. At the end of The Gathering, in spite of confronting the ghosts of her past, Veronica’s difficulties are far from resolved. As English says: “Veronica’s past memories and her narrative of the present are joined by the bodies of the dead and the truth that lingers in their bones.” The necessity of rituals to assuage the pain of loss is highlighted, but these rituals are a strange mixture of the secular and religious. It is interesting to observe the distance we have travelled between Joyce and Enright in this regard, from a society that was supersaturated by religious ceremonies to one where religion is merely one of many mechanisms that the bereaved have available to them.
Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght and the general editor of the Reimagining Ireland series with Peter Lang, Oxford. His latest publication is The Reimagining Ireland Reader: Examining our Past, Shaping our Future, which is a selection of fifteen essays from the first fifty volumes of the series.