Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2056
Amongst Women is John McGahern’s eighth work of fiction, and is likely to become his best-known work. A huge best-seller in Ireland, it has been nominated for numerous literary prizes and was the recipient of the lucrative and prestigious Irish Times-Aer Lingus award. All McGahern’s work has received the highest critical acclaim, and he has generally been considered the most knowing, able, and resourceful diagnostician of Irish family life in the post-Independence era. WithAmongst Women, however, he clearly touched a national nerve. In addition, this novel, which is the author’s first in thirteen years, brings to optimum expression many of the preoccupations of McGahern’s earlier works. Despite its apparent simplicity of narrative and style, therefore,Amongst Women should be regarded as a complex event in the literary and cultural life of modern Ireland.
The novel is dominated by the figure of Michael Moran, and by the fact that domination is the only style of interrelationship of which he is capable. A veteran of the civil war that won Ireland’s independence (1919-1921), which was essentially a guerrilla operation on the part of the insurgents, Moran continues to use the vigilance, sense of vulnerability, and iron discipline that were crucial to survival in more extreme times. To Moran, his survival instincts seem all the more necessary in view of the disappointments and ineptitudes of the society brought into being by the struggle for independence.
McGahern uses deft touches to reveal his material’s wider, nonfamilial resonances, such as the connection he tacitly admits between different codes of extremism. Moran is the connection’s embodiment and would-be apologist, which furnishes him with an iron-clad consistency. The use of “Daddy” by every member of the family, including his second wife Rose, is a homely but effectively ironic commentary on the cult of personality that Moran has created within this microcosm of society constituted by his family. Yet, for all of his strength and command, Moran is the character who dies. According to McGahern’s moral imagination, there is more to life than systematic consistency.
The core of the novel consists of both the representation of Moran’s formidable power and of the inevitability of resistance to it. McGahern’s chief means of representation are a loving, though strictly unsentimental, use of the rituals and repetitions of Irish rural life: meals, day trips, the saving of crops, the recitation of the Rosary, and the arrival of the mail. It is through the observance of these ceremonies that the force of Moran’s power is seen at its keenest, and—as McGahern is at pains to remind the reader—at its most ordinary. Because of the tonally flawless recollection and expert deployment of this material,Amongst Women exceeds the scope of its own ostensibly narrow concerns; it becomes a valediction for a way of life whose continuities and collectivities cannot Operate with any degree of credibility in modern Ireland.
Moran’s scrupulous insistence on the observance of the traditional pieties of Irish family life is a self-conscious attempt on his part to withstand the crude, objectionable, and commercialized aspects which he sees as contaminating influences. His resistance to change is also a failure to acknowledge difference; this failure is a source of perpetual discouragement and disappointment to him, particularly regarding his children. His critical, rejecting attitude to the world around him is also responsible for his isolation, and for his repeated claim that his family should, by following his example, consider itself above the world in which it finds itself. Understandable as Moran’s inflexible conception of independence is, it inevitably engenders resistance. McGahern handles sympathetically the sense of inevitability both in Moran’s position and in the challenge of change which his children unwittingly but ineluctably bring to it.
This responsiveness is seen to best advantage in the portrait of Rose. At once an outsider and an intimate partner in Moran’s regime, she is a lens through which the reader may form a critical perspective on the protagonist’s patriarchal comprehension of life. The way of life is observed predominantly through women. Moran’s eldest son Luke has absconded from the family home before the novel opens. When he turns up briefly late in the novel, Luke is seen to have nothing in common with his father or his family. His presence sounds an extreme note of difference, alerting the reader to the struggle for harmony which the women in the family have been obliged to carry out. This note of difference is augmented by the career of Luke’s younger brother Michael, who also refuses to reconcile himself to his father’s rule and strikes out for himself. In their vehement assertion of their own independence, both Moran boys identify themselves as their father’s sons; in order to maintain his own distinctiveness, however, Moran can never entertain such a perception of them. Nor should the principle of resistance to Moran be thought to reside exclusively in his sons. His daughters defy him by helping Michael escape to England. In one scene, Sheila asserts her independence when she and her new, unprepossessing husband forsake the haymaking—one of the novel’s most explicit moments of familial affirmation—and return to the house to make love.
Rose embodies the most comprehensive alternative response to Moran. Rather than part from him, she lives with him. Luke never returns home and has little or no contact with the family, though he does not deny such claims as his siblings may make on his time. On the other hand, Rose masterfully conciliates, compromises, and cajoles an adequatemodus vivendi from Moran for herself and the three daughters. The main narrative of Amongst Women focuses on the marriage of Rose and Moran and consists of a tissue of shared moments expertly selected and woven together by the author. Rose embodies the sense of provisionality, momentariness, and constancy forever being renewed, and she provides a vivid and vitalizing contrast to Moran’s monumentality. Rose is the river and Moran the stone.
McGahern is careful to ensure, however, that Rose is neither completely cowed by Moran nor victorious over him. These are not the terms upon which their coexistence has been premised. At key instances, particularly in the matter of the academically gifted Sheila going on to university as a result of her outstanding success in her secondary school final exams, Rose’s judgment does not hold sway. Sheila is denied her chance, a graphic illustration of the uneasy combination of prejudice and timorousness which comprise Moran’s view of the world outside the family. Rose clearly does not possess, nor is there any possibility of her acquiring, the power of a policymaker. Her role is not to countermand or to cause conflict; rather, her role is to reduce the risk of conflict, to preserve family unity. The unapologetic tenacity of Rose’s presence articulates the value of those strengths and graces which Moran himself does not possess, and perhaps vaguely fears. The dual reality of life in Great Meadow, the Moran homestead, the coexisting presence of a male and female principle and alternative conceptions and exemplifications of power, enable McGahern to lift his material to a level above the merely sociological. From this level, it is possible to appreciate the work’s numerous strata, among which the sociological, undoubtedly prominent and important as it is, is ultimately less appealing than the existential. Finally, and without diminishing or betraying its foreground in the Moran family, Amongst Women becomes a demonstration of the novelist’s preeminent gift, providing a moving annotation to life in time, to the passing of generations, to the spiritual hunger that makes characters avaricious of life, and the dubious but inevitable prospect of change.
Such a view of this novel is implied by its form. Rather than proceed in a strictly chronological fashion, the work begins by announcing Moran’s imminent end, and then proceeds effortlessly and economically to elaborate on the significance of that event. The death presaged on the opening page is finally disposed of by the obsequies at the end of the book. An effect of completeness rather than exhaustiveness is thereby achieved. This effect is reinforced by the author’s attention to ritualistic detail, and by the fact that every character who appears is significant to the point of being emblematic. The intention seems to be to accomplish by means of concentration the type of access to family-chronicle material that is usually attained by more obviously panoramic means. Rather than produce a saga, McGahern provides a tapestry, a formal reenactment which commands attention because of its skilled selectivity and accuracy. Much of the book’s best-selling success in Ireland results from the fact that so many of its urbanized readers saw their own rural upbringing in its pages and heard the dry, undramatic tone of reconciliation and regret with which one generation soberly appraises its predecessor.
McGahern’s most substantial work in the novel form has dwelt on the family as a natural (pre-social) but nevertheless problematic institution. His short fiction, on the other hand, has tended to depict individuality in a problematic light, drawing attention to its isolation, its attenuated rituals, and its self-defining lack of tradition. It is instructive to considerAmongst Women as the culmination of the author’s prolonged engagement with such preoccupations. As is the case with most of his best work, this novel is set in McGahern’s primary imaginative landscape, the riverine countryside of counties Roscommon and Leitrim in the west of Ireland. There are scenes set in Dublin and London inAmongst Women, but these are incidental. The river in this part of Ireland is the country’s major river, the Shannon, a fact from which McGahern has resolutely declined to derive any symbolic interest. Rather, the river provides rare moments of escape for the Moran children, through boating and fishing.
Amongst Women consolidates material that has been addressed much less authoritatively in earlier works. A short story entitled “Wheels,” published in McGahern’s first collection of short fiction, Nightlines(1970), deals with the difficulty of homecoming and of tensions between home and away, city and country, a son and his family (which has a stepmother named Rose), and one generation and the next. A similar scenario is presented more elaborately, with increased psychological intensity and greater sensitivity to loss, in the short story “Gold Watch,” collected in McGahern’s second volume of stories, Getting Through(1978), which also features a stepmother Rose and land known as “the Big Meadow.” The figure of the self-referring, tyrannical father and his cowed offspring is a commonplace throughout McGahern’s work. The ease and confidence with which these materials are renegotiated inAmongst Women is one of the main reasons for considering this novel his most successful and comprehensive. Unlike previous views of the omnipotent father, McGahern sees Moran as much through the character’s own eyes as he does through the eyes of his children.
In addition to marking a high point of artistic achievement in McGahern’s career, however, Amongst Women is also a significant work in the history of post-Independence Irish fiction. One of the major recurring concerns of Irish fiction during the past three-quarters of a century has been the nature and meaning of independence, whether approached from a moral, cultural; political, or religious point of view. The setting for the elaboration of such concerns has invariably been rural Ireland. Though it would be an exaggeration to claim, on the basis of Amongst Women, that this subject is now effectively exhausted, it is clear that, by virtue of its acceptance of the irresistibility of change, this novel has decisively colored this field of Irish fictional endeavor. Thus, while most readers will be sufficiently pleased and rewarded by the rich characterizations and economic narrative of Amongst Women, its historical and cultural significance are equally to be appreciated.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVI, July, 1990, p.2072.
Chicago Tribune. September 2, 1990, XIV, p.4.
Library Journal. CXV, August, 1990, p.144.
London Review of Books. XII, May 24, 1990, p.18.
New Statesman and Society. III, May 11, 1990, p.39.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, December 6, 1990, p.22.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 9, 1990, p.44.
The New Yorker. LXVI, December 24, 1990, p.99.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, June 22, 1990, p.47.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 18, 1990, p.535.
The Washington Post Book World. XX, September 30, 1990, p.7.
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