By the Lake Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Joseph and Kate Ruttledge, advertising executives from London, renounce urban life and move to Ireland seeking quiet and repose. Ruttledge’s uncle, the Shah, a self-made success and resident Croesus, arranges their purchase of a twenty-acre farm on the edge of a lake. The novel details the Ruttledges’ involvement in the lives of a small circle of local inhabitants as they are repeatedly drawn into their domestic and business affairs and asked to intervene in their minor complications.

Much of the narrative focuses on Jamesie and Mary Murphy, an amusing couple who have lived their lives at the lake and stand as models of people who have perfectly accommodated themselves to the rhythms of rural life. As community gossip, Jamesie is full of stories, history, and hearsay, somehow insinuating his way into everyone’s affairs. He constantly visits the Ruttledge house as he and Joe Ruttledge form an endearing bond. Attention shifts to Patrick Ryan, an itinerant handyman who sporadically appears and builds a shed with Ruttledge; the Shah and his erratic attempts to sell his business; Patrick Quinn, the local lothario who works his way through a parade of wives and lovers; and Bill Evans, a spectral figure surviving an orphaned childhood and hardscrabble adulthood.

The novel is largely plotless; while events do occur, the narrative energy emerges from the extended dialogue and the complex characterizations. The novel places Joe Ruttledge at the center of this odd assemblage of personalities, acting as go- between and mediator for the misunderstandings, skirmishes, and complications that invade the tranquillity of the lake. One of the most curious events is his intervention on his uncle’s behalf in the sale of his business. The Shah would prefer not to deal with strangers, and Ruttledge recommends selling to the Shah’s long-standing colleague. However, the man and the Shah have no relationship other than labor; the Shah literally does not know how to talk to Joe Dolan. Ruttledge must intervene, bargaining a price, arranging a payment schedule, even securing the loan itself. He is furthermore called upon to save Jamesie from a seemingly intractable family problem when Murphy’s brother in England is laid off from his job and announces his intention to move back to Ireland and live with his brother. Ruttledge writes a letter suggesting the inadvisability of the plan in such a deft fashion that all parties are delighted not to have to deal with one another. Such scenes are not only humorous for their absurd complications but sharply poignant, illustrating the ties that bind as well as separate these lives.

In his capacity as mediator, Ruttledge represents a curiosity. He is a cultural anomaly, an Irishman returned from exile to live among his countrymen once more. His position is decidedly ironic—he is both insider and outsider—and as an outsider he is freed of the rigid conventions and traditions that bind these lives in tight coils. Like an ancient Celtic poet, Ruttledge has complete freedom of passage and is admitted into all the characters’ lives, even those who have grudges or enmities and no longer deal with one another.

The lake, the geographical presence that defines and informs all these lives, plays as strong a role as any of the characters. For everyone, it represents a timeless presence, an image of stasis amidst change. The novel charts the events in a year’s time, and that temporal span is conveyed through the changing descriptions of the lake’s appearance and ecosystem. The seasons begin with summer and cycle through to autumn, when Ruttledge looks across its expanse and sees “Jamesie and Mary . . . framed in the light. . . . They heard coughing and scolding and laughter as Mary, and then Jamesie, disappeared from the sky.” The lake accentuates the predictability and timeless rhythms of the life lived on its edges, and most of the book’s most luminous passages are devoted to its description.

The ground had become soft and unpleasant for walking and they did not go further than the hanging hill above the inner lake from where they were able to count the sheep. Several swans were sailing on the lake amid dark clutches of wildfowl. The occasional lone heron flew between the island and the bog. Nothing was sharp. The lanes of watery light that pierced the low cloud from time to time seemed to illuminate nothing but mist and cloud and water. The sedge of Gloria Bog and the little birches had no color. The mountains...

(The entire section is 1826 words.)