The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

It is a rare compliment to McGahern that he is able so persuasively to portray, on occasion, characters outside his own sex and his own age group: the fine old couple in the excellent short story “A Slip Up,” included in the collection Getting Through (1978) and Elizabeth Reegan, the complex central figure in The Barracks, are two outstanding examples. Elizabeth’s attempt to come to grips with the feeling that she is unloved, unappreciated, unneeded even, is at the core of the novel. Young Willie, himself simply unable to understand how anyone could think of forgoing a holiday trip to Dublin, brings the problem into focus when, trying to help, he blurts out with childish innocence, “We’ll be able to manage. Sure, Elizabeth, didn’t we manage for ages before you ever came?” She breaks down momentarily. Over the course of the action, McGahern shows Elizabeth coming to terms with herself and her own needs as she defines them, not as they are defined in other people or by other people—in terms, for example, of the work she does. In the family circle, the work she does is considerable; her impact on the larger work of the community from which she kept apart is less strong. Nevertheless, both worlds will continue without her; the family will go on, just as the local branch of the Legion of Mary did when she pointedly refused to join it. The questions she raises are fundamental, existential ones concerning the very nature of an...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Elizabeth Reegan

Elizabeth Reegan, a former nurse, forty years old, now married to a sergeant in the Irish police force. She is stepmother to his three children. After a nursing career in London during World War II and a passionate love affair that does not work out, Elizabeth returns to western Ireland and marries against her family’s advice. the novel covers the year during which she suspects, confirms, and fails to live through cancer. The real issue, however, is not Elizabeth’s physical cancer but the cancer of her growing conviction that life is essentially without meaning. Her confrontation with death merely confirms and emphasizes her conviction that the human condition is inherently one of isolation. Although she continues to rejoice in natural beauty and human kindness, she is sustained only by the endless routine of repetitive tasks that make up her life, repetitions echoed by the police rounds her husband makes and by the rounds of the seasons. The barracks within which the Reegans make their home is a microcosm of the world, for both barracks and world would fall into chaos without the cycles of duty and year to impose a hint of order.

Sergeant Reegan

Sergeant Reegan, Elizabeth’s husband, who is fifty years old. A member of the freedom forces that achieved Irish independence in 1921, Reegan was rewarded with a position in the newly formed police force. After thirty years as a sergeant, however, he tastes the increasing bitterness of his position. Independence has made no real change in Ireland, but it has changed his life. Without it, he would have either stayed on the farm, which he loved, or immigrated to the United States. Constantly at odds with his superintendent, he dreams and plans for the day...

(The entire section is 723 words.)