The present action of the story, the bishop’s journey across the bay, offers a framework for the flashback that makes up the body of “The Great Wave.” Lavin’s style and language are colored by the strong Gaelic influence of western Ireland. Dialogue is always a strength in her writing, and here she captures the lilt of the Irish voice and the sensory details of coastal life.
Lavin plants information so subtly that it is easy to misread, and to misjudge, her characters. At first impression, the bishop appears fussy, vain, and excessively proud of his gorgeous vestments. Later, it becomes clear that the bishop keeps his own counsel and that his behavior stems from reasons known only to himself. He understands that the elaborate vestments are part of the ceremony the parishioners expect of him, but he wants to spare his housekeeper the extra ironing of damp garments. He is sad that Father Kane can think only of their cost, not their beauty.
The bishop is nauseated by the boat’s movement but does not complain. Actually, his nausea is a psychological reaction to his ghastly memories of the wave. When Father Kane scorns the islanders, the bishop pities him. The bishop has truly joined the ranks of holy men as a living saint, a quiet martyr.
Ironically, what is welcomed as the richest catch of all time destroys all the islanders except the bishop. The fears raised in the story are always of the wrong things—of being left behind with no fish, of wet tar remaining on the currach bottom, of being pulled overboard by the bursting nets, of the currach sinking under its heavy load—but with no awareness of the real terror until it is on them. The utter shock of such a tidal wave in this part of the world leaves one breathless.