The Wave by Liam O’Flaherty Summary

Introduction

This story was included in a collection of early stories titled Spring Sowing. When O’Flaherty’s friend and mentor, the critic Edward Garnett, told him to write about those things with which he was familiar, he naturally turned to the scene of his childhood: the bleak Aran Islands. Many of his stories are graphic descriptions of the peasant life on these nearly barren rocks, as human beings grapple with the unforgiving elements of nature. There are also stories, nine of them in this collection, that have to do with animals and their treatment by human beings. In ‘‘The Wave,’’ however, there are neither human nor animal characters, but one part of nature against another.

Liam O’Flaherty became famous because of his novels, especially Famine and The Informer, but his literary reputation rests more heavily upon his short stories. Frank O’Connor, another great Irish short story writer, says in his book A Short History of Irish Literature that ‘‘the great O’Flaherty of the short stories is a man without ideals or opinions, concerned only with the ‘facts.’’’ ‘‘The Wave’’ is little more, at least on the surface, than a recitation of facts by a seemingly objective reporter. At high tide, small, disconnected waves are replaced by a giant wave that destroys a weakened cliff. There is little here on the surface that would lead us to grand conclusions about life or ‘‘universal truths.’’

Yet, if we look at the descriptive prose, we see an artist at work. The story begins with a description of the cliff, static and unmoving. It continues with a description of the sea just before high tide, violent and roiling. It ends with a description of the sea at high tide, and the single, united wave that comes crashing in, destroying the cliff. There is room for the reader to maneuver within this story. Is it the wave or the cliff that should be read as the protagonist? Is it destruction, or a natural restructuring? O’Flaherty’s stories do not propose answers but, as Anton Chekhov has said is the purpose of stories, they state the question correctly.

The Wave Summary

Although O’Flaherty does not name the setting of his story ‘‘The Wave,’’ it’s almost certainly set somewhere on the Aran Islands. The story begins with the description of an imposing cliff, two hunT dred feet high, that sits facing the sea. It is semicircular, with a twenty foot high cavern at its base, a concave area that ‘‘the sea had eaten up . . . during thousands of years of battle.’’

It is not quite high tide as the story opens. The sea is angry, and waves come ‘‘towering into the cove’’ formed by the cliff and the two reefs at each end of its semicircle. These waves are separate, and O’Flaherty uses violent language to describe them as they ‘‘[chase] one another, [climb] over one another’s backs, [spit] savage columns of green and white water vertically when their arched manes [clash].’’ They hurl themselves against the cliff, then retreat.

There is a pause as high tide is reached. The small waves dissipate, falling back from the cliff. When the sea reforms itself, it is in a single wave ‘‘from reef to reef.’’ It rises and stands ‘‘motionless, beautifully wild and immense.’’ Then, propelled from the rear by the power of the ocean, ‘‘that awful mass of water [advances] simultaneously from end to end of its length without breaking a ripple on its ice-smooth breast.’’

Suddenly it is the cliff that appears small and helpless as the great wave approaches. It reaches...

(The entire section is 336 words.)