Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The structure of “The Beginning of an Idea” is based on a parallel between a fictionalized life and an actual life. John McGahern initiates this parallel first by including as a story-within-a-story practically a complete translation of the Chekhov story “Oysters,” which Eva plans as an opening to her imaginative or fictionalized life of Chekhov. However, the only two sentences she has written are her beginning sentences: “The word Oysters was chalked on the wagon that carried Chekhov’s body to Moscow for burial. The coffin was carried in the oyster wagon because of the fierce heat of early July.” Repeated five times throughout the story, almost like an obsessive mantra, the two sentences are indeed the “beginning of an idea” that gives the story its title.

Throughout the story, McGahern alternates accounts of Eva’s actual life—her breakup with her lover, her trip to Spain, her encounter with the two police officers—with references to her idealized or “imaginary” life of Chekhov. Just as she never succeeds in translating her ideas into actuality by writing the life of Chekhov, she never really succeeds in creating her own life. Instead, she takes the path of least resistance, translating instead of creating, giving in to the rapists instead of resisting them.

The story ends with Eva’s final romantic effort to equate the meaninglessness of her own experience with what she considers to be the significance of the life of Chekhov. By looking out the train window to see if there is a wagon with the word “oysters” chalked on the side, she hopes to identify with Chekhov. However, she never succeeds in creating an imaginary Chekhov, nor does she succeed in giving meaningful order to her own life. The final parallel between her own life and her projected life of Chekhov is that she too returns home, having suffered a kind of death and an ironic reduction.

As is typical of McGahern’s short fiction specifically and of the modern Joycean tradition generally, “The Beginning of an Idea” is both realistic and lyrical at once, pushing mere description of the material to unobtrusive symbolic significance. Like McGahern’s other stories, this one has a clear social context; however, he is not interested in confronting his characters with the abstractions of social limitations but rather exploring the universal challenge of responsibility, commitment, and guilt.