Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Light and dark, small and large circling patterns, and a sense of the mutability of most things inform the constrictive world of this barracks—the lackadaisical bastion of law and order—this family, and this church-dominated village in the isolated west of Ireland. McGahern demonstrates that he knows intimately the area, its natural cycles, and its processes. Against this evocative, oppressive background, Elizabeth Reegan plays out her brief journey toward self-discovery, graphically supported by McGahern’s technical skill.

McGahern’s successful narrative technique is nowhere more evident than in his varied handling of Elizabeth’s thoughts. From a standard and occasionally jarringly cynical authorial narrative, the focus on her moves in, on occasion, to what has been called “indirect interior monologue,” with the author still clearly present, and then to “direct interior monologue” in which an awareness of an authorial presence is effectively suspended. Employment of such a shifting focus contributes deliberate ambiguities, as befits the theme of identity-searching. When such a procedure is coupled with occasional second-person directives, the effect of the reader being included in the mystery is even stronger: “The life you lead . . . cannot be endured without hope.” Even more graphic is Reegan’s “Do what you want to do, while you’ve still time.” Elizabeth has no more time. Her personal battle against hopelessness concludes, then, when she loses consciousness and is heard from no more. The thoughts of her stepdaughter Una take over the scene: “It couldn’t be possible that Elizabeth was trying to play tricks with her.” McGahern is writing a novel, not eschatology, and he certainly has provided the reader of The Barracks with an abundance of choices made, and still to be made, even if life is, on occasion, “an extremely limited bastard as far as satisfaction goes.”