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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274

Cal tells the story of a young Catholic man from Northern Ireland during "The Troubles." He participates in some crimes that benefit the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and harm the Loyalist cause, and the most personally upsetting one was the murder of a Protestant cop, Robert Morton. Cal's mom died when he was younger, and he doesn't have a great relationship with his father, Shamie. It doesn't seem like Cal's self-esteem was ever through the roof, but the absence of his mother and the presence of this new source of shame and guilt has caused him to become depressed. The narrative focuses, to a large extent, on Cal's guilt and the effects that it has on his present state.

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His obsession with Marcella Morton, Robert's widow, is inextricably linked to his guilt over her husband's death. It's as though he is called to their house, pulled there by his horrible guilt. Sleeping with her only intensifies his guilt; it seems that all he wants to do is get closer and closer to her, but their closeness and her ignorance of his role in Robert's murder is also the thing that causes him the most intense pain. Cal is relieved, in the end, when the cops finally come to pick him up. He had, early on, been scared of losing his dignity if he were beaten, but now he feels "grateful that at last someone was going to beat him to within an inch of his life." His guilt has affected and influenced every action or thought he has had, and so he is happy to finally get the chance to purge himself of it.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2166

Obsession and guilt are the two forces that clash head-on in Bernard MacLaverty’s second novel, Cal. His characters, many of whom have been stripped of their humanity, exemplify the human tragedy of Ireland’s violent history. In Cal, MacLaverty continues to explore the subjects of loneliness, sin, freedom, and responsibility that preoccupied him in his critically acclaimed first novel, Lamb (1980) and his short-story collections Secrets and Other Stories (1977) and A Time to Dance and Other Stories (1982). Conflicts between sin and forgiveness, loyalty and betrayal, crime and punishment, violence and justice, maturity and responsibility permeate his works. In Cal, MacLaverty takes a particular family, and through them depicts the real victims of Ireland’s struggle.

Cal, nineteen years old and unemployed, lives at home with his father; they are the only Catholics in a Protestant neighborhood. As the novel begins, Cal is besieged by guilt for helping in a murder and obsessed with desire for the woman he helped to make a widow. Guilt and desire combine to make Cal a psychological cripple. As his character unfolds in flashbacks, it is clear that he is a passive, sensitive youth, easily intimidated and manipulated by others. Although he is railroaded into rallying behind the Irish Republican Army (IRA), he cannot understand the hatred between Irish Catholics and Protestants. “It was the idea of people whose faces he did not know hating him that made his skin crawl,” the omniscient narrator observes. “To be hated not for yourself but for what you were”: this Cal cannot comprehend. Because he is easily manipulated, Cal is vulnerable to the likes of Crilly and Skeffington, two IRA supporters who enlist his aid. The consequences of his passive behavior are enormous and tragic. Overwhelmed by Skeffington’s cold, cruel reasoning and intimidated by Crilly, a street thug, Cal agrees to assist in armed robberies to gain money for the IRA. Initially wavering, Cal finally succumbs to Skeffington’s logic: “think of the issues, not the people.” To Skeffington, who believes that sacrifices must be made for the movement, death and human suffering mean nothing. “The problem with this kind of thing,” he lectures Cal, “is that people get hurt. But compared with conventional war the numbers are small.” Initially, Cal’s capitulation requires him only to drive the getaway car for several burglaries, but ultimately it means driving the getaway car for a murder. In one terrible moment of weakness, Cal sacrifices a human life for the sake of the issues.

The novel begins a year after the murder, with Cal trying to fill his empty days by strumming his guitar, going to the library, cooking for his working father, Shamie, fearing the Irish Protestant threats, and attempting to rid himself of guilt. Conflicts converge on him from all sides. His environment, an all-Protestant suburb of Belfast where hatred and violence are a way of life, poses daily threats. Both his friends and enemies intimidate him. Skeffington and Crilly threaten reprisal if he fails to assist in IRA-backed crimes, while Protestant youths threaten to firebomb his home. Finally, his psychological torment over killing reserve police officer Robert Morton gradually destroys his mental stability. To make matters worse, Cal is unemployed, providing more time for guilt to fester. Even his unemployment is a consequence of his guilt. He has quit his job at the abattoir where his father works because he does not have a “strong enough stomach.” In short, he cannot stand the sight of blood pouring from the slaughtered beasts. This repulsion emerges as the first hint of guilt that continues to plague him throughout the novel. The blood as well as the “tumble of purple and green and grey steaming innards” falling to the ground “from the raised carcase” makes Cal sick. In contrast, Crilly, the thug who meticulously planned and executed the murder, has no trouble working at the abattoir and thus takes Cal’s job.

Cal’s guilt keeps him mentally imprisoned even though he is physically free. Images and dreams haunt him—above all the image of Robert Morton “genuflecting” as he called out to his wife, Marcella, after the first of three bullets tore through his skull at point-blank range.

Cal, whose name has obvious Catholic connotations, continues to attend Mass but not confession; “the thing he had done was now a background to his life, permanently there, like the hiss that echoed from the event which began the Universe.” During one particular Mass, a priest’s sermon suggests to Cal that he must experience pain to achieve forgiveness. The priest tells the story of Matt Talbot, a drunken derelict for ten years, who sought atonement for his decade of debauchery by wearing a chain around his waist so tight that it grew into his flesh. The sermon, like the recurring image of Robert Morton “genuflecting” as he falls from Crilly’s bullets, haunts Cal. Physical pain Cal has not yet experienced; psychological pain is his constant companion.

On one of Cal’s frequent trips to the library to borrow musical tapes, he sees a new librarian to whom he becomes attached before he learns her name: Marcella Morton. Although he realizes that she is the wife of the man he helped to murder, he becomes obsessed with her; he “couldn’t get close enough to her.” Constantly he feels the “enormous pull of her,” but he knows that “because of what he had done, they would never come together.”

In time, Cal discovers ways to do small favors for Marcella. He wants to get closer to her even though his guilt-ridden conscience tells him to stay away. This split is clearly imaged in a scene in which Cal is splitting wood for the Mortons. He says, as Marcella watches him, “Give me a big enough wedge and I’ll split the world.” His world, unfortunately, is split. He loves Marcella, “the one woman in the world who was forbidden him,” but he hates what he has done to her and knows that “by his action he had outlawed himself from her. She was an unattainable idea because he had helped kill her husband.” Just as Ireland is split between the Protestants and Catholics in a seemingly never-ending tragic struggle, so Cal is split, and his split widens after he is hired on at the Morton farm.

When the Protestant youths who have threatened to set his house ablaze make good their threat, Cal moves into a dilapidated farmhouse with no running water and no plumbing. This move provides an escape from the clutches of Crilly and Skeffington and the violence of Ulster; Cal is sure that the two IRA supporters will “never guess where he is.” The move also brings him closer to Marcella; he becomes increasingly obsessed with his effort to “right the wrong he has done her.” Starved for human affection and companionship, alienated from people, Marcella begins to reciprocate Cal’s interest, and when her in-laws leave for a week, she and Cal become lovers. As their love develops, however, Cal’s guilt intensifies.

Although Cal believes that he is safe from Crilly and Skeffington when he is on the farm, he fears encountering them while visiting his father. He knows that his disappearance and refusal to help them in the movement will be interpreted as betrayal, and betrayal in their minds demands reprisal. Finally, on a trip to the library, the inevitable happens. Cal meets Crilly, who is setting a bomb in one of the books, and Crilly insists that Cal come with him to talk with Skeffington. Although Cal initially refuses, Crilly’s domineering attitude wears him down. He goes with Crilly to meet Skeffington, and the three of them are talking about loyalty and betrayal when the police knock on the door. Cal escapes, while Crilly and Skeffington are apprehended. Fleeing the area, Cal fulfills Skeffington’s prophecy, anonymously notifying the police of the bomb in the library and thus becoming an informer.

After his traitorous phone call, Cal walks back to the farmhouse and Marcella. He realizes as they make love that only if he confesses can their relationship develop, but he cannot bring himself to confess, and so they never “truly come together.” The next morning, Christmas Eve, Cal awaits arrest; in fact, he welcomes it. He is grateful “that at last someone was going to beat him within an inch of his life,” for he believes, as Matt Talbot did, that he must pay for his sins with suffering.

Cal develops from a static character who capitulates to the pressure of his Catholic friends to a dynamic character who suffers for the murder in which he has allowed himself to become involved. His escape from the violence of Ulster and from Crilly and Skeffington does not reduce his guilt. Seemingly safe in the Morton tenant house, Cal is still haunted. As MacLaverty’s omniscient narrator reveals: “Now that he felt safe from the world outside he was being attacked from within his own head.” In confronting guilt, Cal ultimately recognizes that he must accept the consequences of his actions: He must lose his freedom to truly gain it. Cal’s tragedy, like that of many Irish Catholic and Protestant youths, is that in his innocence he is easily persuaded to support and assist the IRA, just as the Protestant youths who beat him have been convinced to support their cause. Like others before him, Cal succumbs to peer pressure and forfeits his humanity. By capitulating, he takes a life and ruins his own. The destruction of his life is symbolic of the destruction of so many Irish Catholic and Protestant lives. Like all who support a cause through violence, Cal must suffer the consequences of his action, and those consequences are costly and tragic. The dream of driving a car that he cannot control, one dream among the many that plague him, is symbolic of his uncontrolled world, of the uncontrolled world which Ireland has become.

Crilly represents the violent members of society who serve misguided leaders. Skeffington uses him only when crime serves his purposes. A bully during his school years, Crilly remains a bully as an adult. In his mind, murder is acceptable “to win the war,” to justify the Irish Catholic cause. He and Cal represent two opposing Catholic forces in Ireland: one seeking resolution of national and religious conflicts via peaceful means and the other via violence. Even Skeffington recognizes Crilly’s vengeful character, but he sees Crilly as a “useful man” who you send for “if you have a war on your hands.”

Skeffington, Crilly’s sidekick, is the cold, calculating rationalist who intellectualizes the issues, the causes, and the movement, winning over others with his logic. Oppressed people, according to Skeffington’s philosophy, have a “right to insurrectional violence. ... There are no rules just eventual winners.”

In contrast to Crilly and Skeffington is Shamie, Cal’s widowed father, who lives in a world of illusions created from an overdose of Western movies. He begins to believe in the romanticized ideal depicted in those movies, where right always wins, where justice is always served. When Shamie and Cal receive a bomb threat from Protestants, Shamie accepts a gun from Crilly under the misguided belief that, like the cowboys, “he had right on his side and it was the baddies who would die.” Unfortunately, the Irish struggle is not that simplistic. When Shamie’s and Cal’s home is firebombed, no one is apprehended, and Shamie’s vision of right conquering wrong is shattered. He cannot cope with the loss of his illusions, and he suffers severe depression that soon becomes physically debilitating as well, resulting in his hospitalization.

Ireland’s struggle victimizes Marcella, too. Like Cal, she is alienated from family and friends; they both seek the warmth of human affection which they have been denied. Cal’s mother, whose name still brings “a lump to his throat,” died when he was eight. Deprived of motherly love after her death, Cal “gave himself love-bites, sucking until he tasted the coppery blood coming through his skin.” Marcella, who is from Portstewart and is of Italian descent, lost her husband to Ireland’s violence, but long before his death, she lost her love and respect for him. As she tells Cal, “He was one of those people whose company you love for an hour or so, but you’re glad you’re not married to them.” She is the object of Cal’s desire but a thorn in his conscience; her warmth and innocence intensify his psychological turmoil.

In this, MacLaverty’s second novel, his characters represent the middle-class working people of Ireland, the true victims of Ireland’s violence. Cal symbolizes the psychological devastation of his people: He can only gain freedom by losing it; he can only atone for sin through suffering. MacLaverty’s vision is clearly nonpartisan. He depicts the hopelessness of the Irish struggle in sharp and tragic detail.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

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