Brian Friel Short Fiction Analysis
Brian Friel published thirty-one stories in two collections, The Saucer of Larks and The Gold in the Sea, eighteen of which were selected and republished in The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland. He once made a distinction between the relationship between the storyteller he began as and the playwright he became. Whereas the playwright must always be concerned with using stealth to evoke a fresh response from the complacent theater audience, the storyteller mimics a personal conversation implicitly prefaced with, “Come here till I whisper in your ear.”
However, there is perhaps more similarity between Friel’s stories and his plays than there are differences. First of all, his stories are conventionally organized, built on the substructure of a relatively straightforward thematic idea that can be illustrated by moving simple characters about on a limited stage. Friel has been compared to Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev, and whereas there is a surface similarity, he lacks the character complexity found in Chekhov and Turgenev.
Friel has been criticized by some critics for writing stories that, while often situated on the politically charged boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, belie the existence of that boundary and the bloody history that stains it. The conflicts that beset his characters are not political but personal, and the past that Friel evokes is romantic rather than rebellious. Although such slighting of political rhetoric by Friel in favor of universal longings and romantic illusion may irritate social critics who want fiction to carry political freight, Friel’s short fiction is firmly within the Irish folk tradition.
“Among the Ruins”
A typical Friel story, “Among the Ruins” is structured conventionally around the main character’s discovery about the irretrievable nature of the past. Margo, Joe’s wife, arranges, for the children’s sake, to take a family day-trip to Donegal, where Joe was born and raised. Although at first he resists the idea, saying he is not sentimental and that he does not see the point in the trip, on the way he becomes excited, not because he wants to show his children where he played as a boy, but because he wants to recapture some lost magic.
However, when he tries to explain to his wife the significance of the imaginative games he once played in a secret bower with his sister, he realizes that the past is an illusion, a mirage that allows an escape from the present. When he finds his son playing his own imaginative game in the woods, he understands that the past belongs not to him, but to his son, in a long line of generations, all finding some meaning in the magic of irretrievably lost childhood. Thematically, the story suggests that the past has meaning not as something that once happened, but as something that continues to happen, repeating itself over and over again.
The Irish stereotypes of the alcoholic husband and the shamed and embarrassed wife form the basis of “The Diviner.” The twist that Friel plays on the story is that Nelly Devenny, the shamed wife, is freed from her alcoholic husband in the first paragraph of the story and, after a suitable period of mourning, decides to marry again, this time to a respectable retired man from western Ireland. The story actually begins when, three months after Nelly marries the man, he is drowned in a lake. After divers fail to find the body, a diviner is brought in, who, like a priest, can smell out the truth. The truth, which Friel saves until the end of the story, is revealed when the body is brought to the surface and two whisky bottles are found in the pocket. Nelly’s wailing, which ends the story, is not so much for the dead husband as for the respectability she almost gained but which now is lost.
“Foundry House” is Friel’s best-known and most widely respected story, primarily because it features a cast of well-balanced characters in a dramatic scene that...
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