Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826
Joseph and Kate Ruttledge, advertising executives from London, renounce urban life and move to Ireland seeking quiet and repose. Ruttledge’s uncle, the Shah, a self-made success and resident Croesus, arranges their purchase of a twenty-acre farm on the edge of a lake. The novel details the Ruttledges’ involvement in the lives of a small circle of local inhabitants as they are repeatedly drawn into their domestic and business affairs and asked to intervene in their minor complications.
Much of the narrative focuses on Jamesie and Mary Murphy, an amusing couple who have lived their lives at the lake and stand as models of people who have perfectly accommodated themselves to the rhythms of rural life. As community gossip, Jamesie is full of stories, history, and hearsay, somehow insinuating his way into everyone’s affairs. He constantly visits the Ruttledge house as he and Joe Ruttledge form an endearing bond. Attention shifts to Patrick Ryan, an itinerant handyman who sporadically appears and builds a shed with Ruttledge; the Shah and his erratic attempts to sell his business; Patrick Quinn, the local lothario who works his way through a parade of wives and lovers; and Bill Evans, a spectral figure surviving an orphaned childhood and hardscrabble adulthood.
The novel is largely plotless; while events do occur, the narrative energy emerges from the extended dialogue and the complex characterizations. The novel places Joe Ruttledge at the center of this odd assemblage of personalities, acting as go- between and mediator for the misunderstandings, skirmishes, and complications that invade the tranquillity of the lake. One of the most curious events is his intervention on his uncle’s behalf in the sale of his business. The Shah would prefer not to deal with strangers, and Ruttledge recommends selling to the Shah’s long-standing colleague. However, the man and the Shah have no relationship other than labor; the Shah literally does not know how to talk to Joe Dolan. Ruttledge must intervene, bargaining a price, arranging a payment schedule, even securing the loan itself. He is furthermore called upon to save Jamesie from a seemingly intractable family problem when Murphy’s brother in England is laid off from his job and announces his intention to move back to Ireland and live with his brother. Ruttledge writes a letter suggesting the inadvisability of the plan in such a deft fashion that all parties are delighted not to have to deal with one another. Such scenes are not only humorous for their absurd complications but sharply poignant, illustrating the ties that bind as well as separate these lives.
In his capacity as mediator, Ruttledge represents a curiosity. He is a cultural anomaly, an Irishman returned from exile to live among his countrymen once more. His position is decidedly ironic—he is both insider and outsider—and as an outsider he is freed of the rigid conventions and traditions that bind these lives in tight coils. Like an ancient Celtic poet, Ruttledge has complete freedom of passage and is admitted into all the characters’ lives, even those who have grudges or enmities and no longer deal with one another.
The lake, the geographical presence that defines and informs all these lives, plays as strong a role as any of the characters. For everyone, it represents a timeless presence, an image of stasis amidst change. The novel charts the events in a year’s time, and that temporal span is conveyed through the changing descriptions of the lake’s appearance and ecosystem. The seasons begin with summer and cycle through to autumn, when Ruttledge looks across its expanse and sees “Jamesie and Mary . . . framed in the light. . . . They heard coughing and scolding and laughter as Mary, and then Jamesie, disappeared from the sky.” The lake accentuates the predictability and timeless rhythms of the life lived on its edges, and most of the book’s most luminous passages are devoted to its description.
The ground had become soft and unpleasant for walking and they did not go further than the hanging hill above the inner lake from where they were able to count the sheep. Several swans were sailing on the lake amid dark clutches of wildfowl. The occasional lone heron flew between the island and the bog. Nothing was sharp. The lanes of watery light that pierced the low cloud from time to time seemed to illuminate nothing but mist and cloud and water. The sedge of Gloria Bog and the little birches had no color. The mountains were hidden.
The lake not only defines difference or recaptures the past, but for its residents it also provides all their material and spiritual needs. What these folks know of life and its stimulations are found at the lake. They constantly journey out to walk its shores or fish its depths; it acts as the ultimate form of entertainment and a powerful source of instruction. Jamesie has never ventured more than a few miles away, and at the novel’s close he reflects, only partly ironically, “‘I may not have traveled far but I know the whole world,’ he said with a wide sweep of his arm. ‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said, ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’”
McGahern’s treatment of the lake represents a modern continuation of a deep and abiding strain in Irish literature extending back to the ancient bardic poets. One of medieval Ireland’s most important works is a cycle of poems called “The Madness of Sweeney,” in which the hero, a warrior named Sweeney who has been cursed for injuring a saint’s acolyte, spends his days leaping from treetop to treetop about Ireland, admiring the countryside and giving loving testimony to the majesty of the natural landscape. McGahern’s lake provides the same consolations, as well as life-affirming rituals that create order, purpose, and harmony among its inhabitants.
Against the constancy of the lake are pitted these few lives, and the novel often meditates on the meaning of human existence. At one point a power broker from London arrives to offer Kate her old job back. The temptation of a generous salary and professional challenges is formidable, yet she ultimately declines, choosing the lake’s durable presence over the unreality of urban stimulation. While the characters all respond to the sacredness of life, there is a mournful recognition of its fragility and fleetingness. Mary Murphy, thinking of her brother- in-law living in exile, remarks, “People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead. . . . We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake.” Similarly, the Shah, reflecting on turning over the reigns of his business, concludes, “The rain comes down. Grass grows. Children get old . . . . That’s it. We all know. We know full well and can’t even whisper it out loud.”
Against this seeming fatalism, the novel explores what existence may mean. Ruttledge, for instance, cannot believe in an afterlife: “I don’t know from what source life comes, other than out of nature, or for what purpose. I suppose it’s not unreasonable to think that we go back into whatever meaning we came from.” The characters all struggle stoically with their private sorrows—the Ruttledges that they do not have children, the Murphys that their one son lives far away in Dublin and even further from the sensibilities of his parents—yet the novel also ponders the consolations of existence. Human contact, friendships, shared work, love of spouse—all these provide an abiding sweetness for these seemingly backward lives. However, it is the concept of happiness that lies behind the novel’s quietly profound meditations. Leo Tolstoy, at the beginning of Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), offers the famous observation, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” McGahern challenges this idea; happiness for his characters is individual and defining, an abstraction that nevertheless proves elusive yet compelling.
When asked at one point if he is happy, Ruttledge can only answer that he is not unhappy, a response that suggests that happiness has no substance of its own. Yet, when listening to his friends talking and recalling the pleasures of another simple day passed,
with a rush of feeling [Ruttledge] felt that this must be happiness. As soon as the thought came to him, he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech: Happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.
Happiness, like the lake, is transitory and evanescent, a fleeting essence that cannot bear too much scrutiny. This idea is as much a pleasure savored in its own right as a form of self- protection, yet Ruttledge is willing to confront its enigma directly. Later he concludes that sometime in the future, when he looks back on these tranquil moments, they will reveal the essence of happiness itself, “all that life could give of contentment and peace.” Modern novels rarely concern themselves with such a candid consideration of pleasure itself, yet such consideration is precisely McGahern’s challenge to the reader in By the Lake.
In an understated way, the novel is quintessentially Irish, concerning itself with classic Irish themes of emigration, exile, colonial oppression, and the yearning for freedom. Indeed, there is an Irish Republican Army man in the town, but his role in the novel is radically limited and he holds almost no influence over Ruttledge and life at the lake. Characters brood on the separation of Northern Ireland from the Republic, and Johnny Murphy’s life in England leads Jamesie to one of his few dark pronouncements,
These people forced into England through no fault of their own were often looked down on—most unjustly looked down upon—by some whose only good was that they managed to remain at home with little cause to look down on anybody. It’s always the meanest and poorest sorts who have the need to look down.
As Ireland enjoys the economic advantages of participation in the European Union, the rural life of the lake is quickly passing from view. Ruttledge has seen this future while living in London and he wants none of it. Thus, the novel stands as a paean to a rapidly vanishing Ireland.
By the Lake is McGahern’s first novel in twelve years and a triumph. It is by turns subtle, poetic, and delicately nuanced. John McGahern is a writer of remarkable grace and skill, and one unashamed of exploring the territory ignored by other writers.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (February 15, 2002): 993.
Europe, May, 2002, p. 31.
Library Journal 127 (April 1, 2002): 141.
The New Leader 85 (March/April, 2002): 26.
The New York Review of Books 49 (May 23, 2002): 10.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 17, 2002): 9.
The New Yorker 78 (May 6, 2002): 135.
Newsweek 139 (April 29, 2002): 16.
Publishers Weekly 249 (January 28, 2002): 268.
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