Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327
The Barracks is the story, generally told by an omniscient narrator, of Elizabeth Reegan’s last fifteen months of life. Home again in the west of Ireland, on convalescent leave from the hospital where she was a nurse and from the war-torn city of the London of the late 1940’s, she has been married for four years to the sergeant in her local village police station. Sergeant Reegan is a taciturn widower with three children. The opening pages of the novel, which describe their ritual of lighting the oil lamp and drawing the blinds against the growing darkness, set the scene for Elizabeth’s desire to understand what life is, finally, all about. She is aware of the presence of cysts in her right breast, which are soon diagnosed as malignant, so the sense of impermanence in all things which preoccupies John McGahern in much of his fiction is, in her case, graphically heightened. She is symbolically alone on death row, though the actual barracks, physically speaking, has no need for such an amenity.
The opening kitchen scene is graphically sketched in its 1940’s detail: the sparingly used wet-battery radio, the overhead clothesline on its pulleys, the hot bricks in socks for bed warmers, the turf fire, the oil lamps, and the perpetual Sacred Heart flame. Elizabeth is nothing to the children: “She had hoped when she first came into the house that they would look up to her as a second mother, but they had not.” Reegan, when he comes in wet from his bicycle patrol, seems to treat her “as if he had married a housekeeper.” The subordinate police officers as they show up hear, in turn, how their sergeant faced down Superintendent John James Quirke, whom Reegan takes to be harassing him. There is some attempt made to distinguish Ned Casey and the other two men as individuals, but in general their collective dullness is well summed up when they announce finally that they must go home, and the remark is carefully attributed to “either Brennan or Mullins.” It matters little which of them said it. In general, they but add to the boredom of the daily round, at the hearth, and in the tiny village community where there is almost no crime. The February night concludes as nights always do there, with ritual worship: “heedless fingers” on the rosary beads and, ironically, “The Dedication of the Christian Family” beginning “the last prayers, the trimmings.” Reegan kneels facing the kitchen mirror. Who he is beneath his uniformed appearance is not an unimportant puzzle in the world of the novel; it is, however, most significantly Elizabeth’s story. McGahern depicts her and her increasingly hopeless isolation most sympathetically, surrounded as she is by the ironic pieties of family, community, religion, and Nature. This foreboding setting, with all the major players in place, is most economically and realistically fixed.
Like a hind at bay, “She’d have to stand her ground here at last.” Elizabeth has no escape. She muses: “It all came round if you could manage to survive long enough.” On her way back from her visit to the doctor who has arranged for a biopsy of her cysts, she circles in a first lengthy flashback to Dr. Michael Halliday, who was a formative influence on her character and thinking. Dr. Halliday was her lover in London and opened her eyes to her own unique potential as a human being. A cultured person, he introduced her to the world of books and the arts, and to love. The lessons succeeded for Elizabeth, but Halliday himself became increasingly nihilistic and self-destructive. “What the hell is all this living and dying about anyway?” is a frequent question of his toward the end of their relationship. It is one which recurs often in Elizabeth’s mind. He had offered to marry her, not loving her; too well schooled by him, she rejected his proposal. He died soon afterward in an automobile accident. Elizabeth, for her part, never forgot his existential question, which is now her question: She has cancer.
Spring comes to the rural community, and everyone gets on with the work which is an important bond in this society. Potatoes are planted, and the turf-cutting begins in the bog—processes which McGahern describes expertly. Reegan, the frustrated freedom fighter, is in his entrepreneurial element. He willingly takes time off, however, to accompany his wife to Dublin, where she will be hospitalized for surgery. The Irish countryside is reflected in the glass of the train windows as they travel together, and Elizabeth experiences her second major flashback, to another prime influence on her character and actions. She sees again the happy scenes of her earlier life in her own family, including “the blessed ecstasy of giving and being accepted in love.” Just such an “impassioned tumult of remembering” persuaded her four years earlier that her place was with Reegan. She is filled with joy, and as their journey concludes Reegan does not understand what has come over her. He is no more engaged in feeling than is the spectator at an operetta, and valid though that melancholy may be, it is not of the same kind as Elizabeth’s response to life. Such perhaps, in McGahern’s view, is one tragedy of the human connection, and the artist’s—how far we fall short of the ideal.
The operation over and apparently a success, Elizabeth convalesces in the hospital. Formal religion is no help to her. Though she enjoyed the rituals, the spectacle, and the drama of the Church, as she traces her own curve, it is clear to her that “there was nothing to offer anyone who stumbled outside its magic circle.” Meanwhile, back at the barracks, life goes on uneventfully; work with the potatoes and the turf continues. Reegan sees freedom from the police force in the money he hopes to make from his fuel-supplying contracts. Elizabeth comes home by ambulance; recuperating, she has more time to observe those around her. Her vision is sharpened by her memories and by her illness. She wishes that she were as blind as they are. The circle is closing for her: “The road away becomes the road back.” She suffers the first of a series of heart attacks. No miracles occur.
In her weakened condition, fighting indifference, she pens and destroys a letter to a woman friend in London, in which she includes the word “beautiful” and smiles. She smiles, too, thinking of the beautiful Stations of the Cross and “the monstrous faiths of childhood.” Her vision had never been the same as Halliday’s. Nor could she now share Reegan’s work ethic (looking after her and the family has restored Teresa Casey from depression). “All real seeing grew into smiling,” she thinks, “and if it moved to speech it must be praise, all else was . . . a turning back.” Her cycle is complete. Reegan is in the bog for yet another spring when she mistakenly believes that the blinds in the bedroom are down, and dies. The women and the community take over. Reegan momentarily is shaken in his determination: “You just go out like a light in the end. And what you’ve done or didn’t do doesn’t matter a curse then....” The expenses of Elizabeth’s illness and funeral use all the money he put together for escape from the police force to his own farm. He does, however, send in his resignation anyhow, and he burns his bridge in a confrontation with Superintendent Quirke. Elizabeth dead, his restraint gone, he did what he felt he had to do. At the end of the novel, the Sacred Heart flame continues to burn; Willie lights the oil lamp; the girls pull down the blinds. The circle is complete. Life, of a sort, goes on, as complex as ever for those who think about it, in what Reegan has called, “this balls of a country.”