At Weddings and Wakes

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The opening sentence of At Weddings and Wakes, a densely detailed 127-word description of a woman shutting the front door of her house and going out with her three children, serves notice that this is no conventional work of bare-bones realism. Instead, it is a family novel as prose poem, depending for its effects not on the piling up of quotidian detail, not even on plot in the conventional sense, but on finely articulated language, the cumulative effect of image patterns, a structure which at first may seem random but which in fact is intricately ordered. Everything is significant. The door Lucy Dailey closes in the opening sentence, for example, forms the “back- drop for every Easter, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and graduation photo in the family album.” The novel itself is like a series of photographs, artistic revelations of nuances of light and shadow, of a family whose life is deeply colored by Roman Catholicism. Lucy is described as giving “a brief but accurate imitation of a desperate housebreaker” as she wrenches the door shut; indeed, she has hardly more place in the emotional life of her family than does a burglar. Unlike a burglar, she is breaking out of the house, not into it, a symbolic act which has no counterpart in her real life.

Lucy’s birth family is far more real to her—painfully, destructively real—than the one brought about by her marriage to Bob Dailey and the birth of her children. In fact, the children, through whose eyes a good part of the action unfolds, are rarely even referred to by name; her relationship with them, lightly touched on, seems superficial and distant, poisoned by her bitter discontent. It is to visit her sisters and the aunt who reared them, an obsessive twice-weekly summer ritual, that she is leaving her house in Long Island and journeying to Brooklyn at the beginning of the novel. Although crucial details remain to be revealed, this journey and visit, events which in the minds of the children take on a darkly inchoate mythic significance, establish the mood that the rest of the story goes on to elaborate.

Essentially it is a journey into the hell this death-haunted family has created for itself. The simplest action reveals Lucy’s isolation: for example, her “subtle, sneaky way of finishing a smoke.” She moves with “stunned hopelessness,” aware of “time draining itself from the scene in a slow leak.” When they pass a cemetery, a place littered with “ice-cream wrappers, soda cans, cigarette butts, and yellowed athletic socks,” the children feel “the eternal disappointment of the people whose markers l[ie] so near the road”: There is no peace even in death. A stonecutter’s yard seems “in its chaos to indicate a backlog of orders, a hectic rate of demand.” They get out of a bus “suddenly grown taller and louder and far more dangerous” and enter “an exotic and dangerous realm”—a subway station—through “bars, prison bars, a wall of bars, and, even more fantastically, a wall of revolving doors all made of black iron bars.” At different times on this journey (in effect, it is all one journey) they have seen midgets; a woman with skin “as splotched as a leopard’s”; the blind and the deaf; “toothless old crones straight out of nightmares, women with claws for hands and mournful, repetitive coos for speech.” To the children, the journey has something of the deliciously terrifying flavor of a ride through a carnival spook house. In another sense it is all real, and it threatens them, given the life-lessons taught them year in and year out by their mother and aunts, in ways they cannot begin to understand.

As they approach the aunt’s apartment, Lucy is “as happy…as she’d ever be,” but again the signs are dark: She is eating “the kind of bread…that Christ ate at the Last Supper,” an image picked up later by the death of another character on Good Friday. Nor, as the story circles through the year, is there any corresponding image of Easter. Rather, the unbroken pattern of anger and recrimination more closely suggests the circles of Dante’s Inferno—the work, not coincidentally, of the greatest of Catholic poets. When Lucy’s son rings the bell to the apartment building, one of his aunts drops the key from the fourth-story window, an action that echoes fairy-tale princesses imprisoned in towers and reiterates the prison image from the scene in the subway.

In the apartment live Lucy’s aunt Mary Towne, known as Momma, and Lucy’s unmarried sisters Agnes, May, and Veronica Towne. With its heat and heavy food, its grown-up furnishings and rituals and frustrations, it is a place of torture for the children and hardly better for the adults. Lucy speaks “in the stifled and frustrated tone she use[s] only here,” endlessly lamenting that her husband is not the man she married. She brings her discontent “to Brooklyn twice a week in every week of summer and la[ys] it like the puzzling pieces of a broken clock there on the dining-room table before” the children. Later in the day, the “sudden anger” which overcomes the four sisters is “somehow prescribed, part of the daily and necessary schedule, merely the routine.” When their father finally arrives to take them home, “the footstep on the stair [is] a fabulous promise three seconds long that burst[s] into miraculous fulfillment with their father’s familiar rap at the door.” The heightened language, followed in the paragraph by “delivered” twice repeated, gives the father’s arrival religious overtones: This is a deliverance from the land of the dead, to which, however, they must again and again return.

It is not until much later, midway through the novel, that the primary cause of all this anger is revealed; until then, the reader’s puzzlement and unease parallel the children’s. Lucy’s mother, Annie Towne—Momma’s sister—died within a day or two of the birth of Veronica; Momma then married her sister’s widower, only to have him die in turn while she was pregnant with a son who grew up alcoholic, and whom she rejected when he was twenty-one. Lucy saw how, as a result of the early deaths, “anger seemed to straighten Momma’s spine and set firm her face” and...

(The entire section is 2550 words.)

At Weddings and Wakes Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At Weddings and Wakes is composed of chapters arranged in memory rather than according to chronology. The first chapter is a breathtaking set piece that establishes tone and mood as well as pace and structure for the whole novel. The chapter is an account of a visit home made by Lucy and her three children. This is one of two weekly visits made by Lucy in the summer. At other times Lucy visits once a week, unless called upon by Momma Towne for a special reason. The trip home is a lengthy one from a suburb in Long Island to Brooklyn and an arduous one with small children in hand. There is first the ten-block walk to a bus top, where they take a bus that carries them out of suburbia to a point where they need to take a second bus which brings them into a crowded and multiethnic neighborhood different in contour and population from their ranch house. Then there is one subway and another, with attendant runs to “make” the trains. With each step bringing them closer to Brooklyn, Lucy seems to relax more, and when she reaches her neighborhood she seems to the children to be as contented and happy as Aunt May, who throws a key down from the fourth floor of an apartment building where the family has lived since the marriage of Lucy’s father and mother.

A reader must question a tie that binds a woman so closely to her childhood home. Lucy has, after all, been married for some twenty years. One might also question the constant complaints that come to be a litany, Lucy’s voice heard by the children more often than the others’ voices as she faults her husband for various actions. Strangely, although the children hear the various complaints, as a reader does, they do not seem in any way alarmed about any impending breakup, perhaps because no divorce or separation is part of their memories. Instead the children go through their own routines, reading magazines left by Agnes, walking...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

At Weddings and Wakes Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Towne women exemplify a time when women were expected to accept a primary role of wife and mother. In a Catholic family such as the Townes, a marriage to Christ was an acceptable alternative. Thus May enters a convent at a very young age. Agnes, who chooses a career path, takes herself out of the marriage market. To compensate for love, she becomes adept in the area of high culture. This interest separates her from her family too, though she continues to live at home; actually, she has no real alternative because society demanded that a single woman live at home. In addition, the Townes certainly needed some monetary support from Agnes. Veronica, handicapped from an early age by facial lesions, is not a marketable commodity as...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

At Weddings and Wakes Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Baumann, Paul. “Imperishable Identities.” Commonweal 119 (May 22, 1992): 15-16. Baumann sees the Towne women as characterized by their adherence to family, history, and intergenerational identity, all of which are shown to be permeated with loss. He praises McDermott’s meticulous attention to the details of the family’s Irish American rituals and traditions, drawn as grand weddings and wakes and as bland as the daily wheeling out of the cocktail cart. The Towne women, he asserts, find a corporate identity in their flawed family, their roots and history, far more powerful than the “contemporary promise of self-determination” in Long Island. Baumann...

(The entire section is 496 words.)