This novel is set in Ireland during the 1920’s in a period when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was dormant after its civil conflict with the Free State. Several isolated bands of rebels—units of the IRA and communists—still waged a quasi-war. Gypo Nolan belongs to one of these communist groups, but this is not a story about Irish politics or about the way rebels deal with informers. Liam O’Flaherty keeps Gypo’s politics vague partly because Gypo himself understands them so vaguely and partly because the author wishes to focus his attention, and the reader’s, on the fact of Gypo’s abandonment. The novel focuses on the nature and progress of Gypo’s torment.
O’Flaherty is recognized as one of the central figures of the literary movement called the Irish Renaissance. Seán O’Faoláin believed that O’Flaherty shared center stage in this period with James Joyce. One of his claims to this honor is The Informer, which some critics consider the most universal and least provincial of O’Flaherty’s novels. More than any other of his works, it is a novel about humanity and the human condition.
O’Flaherty focuses on the condition of anxiety. The fact that Gypo is an informer is less important than the fact that he is cut off from human society, which O’Flaherty considers to be the state of all people to a greater or lesser degree. In this novel, he explores the pain of this condition and describes it from the point of view of an observer, one outside the soul. The same existential loneliness is described internally, as it were from inside the soul, in one of O’Flaherty’s earlier novels, The Black Soul (1924), which is the most autobiographical of all his works. He put a great deal of his own loneliness and suffering into the characterizations of that work, to which The Informer can best be understood as a companion piece. The two novels explore the same problem in different ways.
O’Flaherty skillfully describes things to create atmosphere, and he deepens the reader’s understanding of loneliness by showing the misery of Gypo’s surroundings. With deft strokes, O’Flaherty paints the environment in which Gypo, Dan Gallagher, and the other characters operate. By using vivid words, he is able to make settings, rooms, household objects, trolley tracks, and paper packages speak volumes. Not only does the writer conjure up the scenes in the mind’s eye of the reader, but also he uses the same scenes to illuminate the lives, thoughts, and very souls of the characters. It has been said that O’Flaherty writes more for the eye than for the ear, and this may be evident in the success of film versions of the novel. In the motion pictures, as in the book, inanimate objects and scenes of action serve to intensify and illuminate the spiritual lives of the main characters. That Gypo is a miserable man becomes clearer when he is shown moving in his miserable world, a world O’Flaherty brings alive for the reader.
One of the underlying themes in the book, which operates on several levels, is that of parallels with the New Testament. Gypo can be understood in these terms as a Judas figure. This is explicit in the final scene, when Gypo, dying, asks Francis McPhillip’s mother to forgive him. She does so because he did not know what he was doing. Gypo turns in his friend to the authorities for a sum of money, and, like Judas, he learns that this betrayal cuts him off from human society. The betrayal does not bring any sort of happiness: both Gypo and Judas throw the...
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money away and die.
O’Flaherty implies that no one can find happiness when cut off from humanity. This is the tragedy of Gypo, Judas Iscariot, and everyone who by his or her actions severs connections to others. Gypo manages to do some good with the money, but in the end he wastes it all and is left with only loneliness.
Gypo’s lack of intelligence is the immediate cause of his downfall, although on a deeper level it is his human nature that causes him to be separated from society. In an amazing example of literary skill, O’Flaherty creates sympathy for the informer in the course of the novel by allowing the reader to understand gradually that Gypo is only a child, making childish and inexperienced choices. Gypo is only incidentally a traitor; he is primarily Everyman. O’Flaherty makes this clear by depicting Gypo in his humanity, a literary achievement that is one of the great strengths of O’Flaherty’s art.