Irish Long Fiction Analysis

The eighteenth century

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Irish writers are recognized for their contributions to poetry and drama, Irish writers beginning in the eighteenth century contributed also to the rise of the English novel. Irish writers also played a large role in the evolution of the English novel throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Very little eighteenth century Irish fiction deals with Irish subject matter. On the contrary, Irish fiction deals with humor, the sense of the grotesque and fantasy, the significance of anecdote, and the importance of the storyteller, all of which categorize the constructs of the Irish novel.

Irish long fiction took root in the eighteenth century with the writings of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). His exuberant use of humor and fantasy, as well as his expansive imagination, demonstrates the deep influence of Ireland on his psyche and firmly distinguishes him as an Irish writer. Recognized as the foremost prose satirist in the English language, Swift spent much of his life trying to escape Ireland, which was considered then as a place of exile from England. However, politics dictated that he spend the bulk of his life as dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican cathedral in Dublin.

Although Swift penned verse early in his life, his true genius did not surface until he turned to prose satire. His A Tale of a Tub, published anonymously in 1704, is a satire against religion and education. The book isolated Swift as a genius of satiric wit. His greatest novel, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), assured his permanent place in literary history. The ironic tension Swift creates prompts questions about the author’s views on humankind. In each of the novel’s four books, Lemuel Gulliver sets sail on a voyage and ends up in a strange land. In book 1, Gulliver finds himself a giant prisoner of the six-inch-high Lilliputians, whom he saves from invasion from the neighboring Blefuscu. He escapes when he is charged with treason.

In book 2, the hero travels to Brobdingnag, where he finds himself as tiny as a toy in a world of giants. Although loved and pampered as a pet, in fear for his life he manages to escape in the talons of a large bird. In book 3, Gulliver visits the floating island of Laputa, where the islanders are so obsessed with scientific activity, particularly those in the Academy of Lagado (a parody of England’s Royal Society), that they are blind to commonplace hazards. Book 4 finds Gulliver in the utopian land of the admirable, enlightened, rational horses, the Houyhnhnms, and the degraded, filthy humans, the Yahoos. Although first accepted as a curiosity by the gentle creatures, Gulliver is soon ousted as despicable because of his human physical characteristics. Although, at the end of his fourth voyage, he returns to England, he finds himself no longer able to tolerate human company and lives out his days in the company of horses.

Swift’s ironic novel has no clear-cut explanation. Swift utilizes the various places his hero visits to satirize the folly of humankind. Of the human beings he encounters, the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians are impractical and mean-spirited, and the intellectuals in book 3 lack any wisdom, if they are not outright mad. The humanlike Yahoos are contemptible and powerless...

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The nineteenth century

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The nineteenth century saw progress from sentimentalism to sensationalism with the development of the Irish gothic tradition, which made use of gothic architecture, convoluted plot, emotional intensity, and supernatural agency. The Irish gothic was popularized by Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824), author of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), which was set inside seventeenth century madhouses, and by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), author of The House by the Churchyard (1863), a tale of a ghostly hand that taps on windows.

Undoubtedly, however, the most popular Irish gothic writer is Bram Stoker (1847-1912), the author of the horror tale Dracula (1897), the subject of many films. Told principally through multiple diary entries, the tale features the unforgettable undead vampire Count Dracula, who travels to England and victimizes young Lucy Westerna. Dr. Van Helsing and the young solicitor Jonathan Harker attempt to overpower Dracula and keep him from Mina, Harker’s fiancé. After his return to Transylvania, Dracula crumbles to dust after he is beheaded and stabbed through the heart by his captors. Stoker is also the author of the lesser-known The Snake’s Pass (1890), The Mystery of the Sea (1902), The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), and The Lady of the Shroud (1909).

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), another renowned Irish writer better known as a dramatist (Lady Windermere’s...

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The twentieth century

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While the twentieth century Irish Literary Revival encouraged the publication of poetry, drama, and folklore, Ireland continued producing long-fiction writers. James Joyce (1882-1941), arguably one of Ireland’s best novelists, is highly celebrated for his experimental use of language. In 1904, in the company of a young girl named Nora Barnacle, Joyce left his native Dublin for the European continent to begin his writing career in earnest. His early stories, and all his later works, feature the city of Dublin—socially frozen and inanimate—and deal almost exclusively with Irish subject matter. Concerned with both the Symbolist and realist literary movements, Joyce integrated both styles, utilizing every word he composed to provide meaning. His autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (serial 1914-1915, book 1916), sketches the development of young Stephen Dedalus, who ultimately leaves Dublin for Paris to dedicate his life to art.

Joyce’s best-known novel, Ulysses (1922), parallels Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). The action in Ulysses takes place in Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904, which has popularly come to be known as Bloomsday. The novel features Dedalus, the hero of Joyce’s earlier novel; Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman; and his wife, Molly Bloom—all modern representations of the mythic Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Through interior monologue, or the stream-of-consciousness technique, their myriad thoughts, impressions, and feelings—rational and irrational—are revealed as they make their way through the day in Dublin.

Finnegans Wake (1939), written in a unique and extremely difficult but comic style, features the archetypal family, about whom everyone dreams, metaphorically falling and rising. The novel characterizes a Dublin tavern-keeper, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker; his wife, Mrs. Anna...

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Irish literature into the twenty-first century

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Prizewinning novelists Roddy Doyle (born 1958) and Patrick McCabe (born 1955) are two of Ireland’s finest contemporary novelists, following in the footprints of earlier Irish literary giants. Doyle’s humorous The Barrytown Trilogy (1992; includes The Commitments, 1987; The Snapper, 1990; and The Van, 1991) centers on the irrepressible working-class Rabbitte family in Dublin.

Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments, traces the everyday life of the Rabbitte family and their uproarious encounters with a group of working-class Irish teenagers who form a soul band, the Commitments. The Snapper deals hilariously with pregnancy. When nineteen-year-old Sharon Rabbitte becomes pregnant, she refuses to name the father of her “snapper.” Her father, Jimmy, Sr., at first feels embarrassed and blames his daughter but eventually takes an active part in Sharon’s pregnancy, coming to wonder at the marvels of life and loving. The Van examines male friendship. When Jimmy, Sr., loses his job, what he misses most are his evenings out at the pub with his friends. Although he joins the library and cares for his baby granddaughter, it is not until he and his best pal, Bimbo, buy a beat-up fish-and-chips van that he gains back his enthusiasm for life. All sections of the trilogy were made into successful films.

One of Doyle’s strengths is his ability to give voice to a range of characters. In his Booker Prize-winning comic novel, Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha (1993), Doyle captures the wonder and carefree days of youth through the speech patterns of childhood. Ten-year-old Padraic Clarke, or Paddy, runs wild...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Cahalan, James M. Modern Irish Literature and Culture: A Chronology. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Examines events in Irish literature and culture after 1600, connecting historical and political developments with Irish fiction, poetry, and drama.

Coughlan, Patricia, and Tina O’Toole, eds. Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2009. Questions traditional narratives of Irish studies and argues for a renegotiated study of the relations of feminism with nationalism. A good contribution to contemporary debates about Irish culture, gender, and identity.

Hogan, Robert Goode, and Zack R. Bowen. Dictionary of Irish Literature. Rev ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Through critical interpretation, the authors focus primarily on Anglo-Irish writers, especially major and later Irish writers. Discusses principal themes of Irish literature and the history of Irish writing in English.

Jeffares, A. Norman, and Peter Van de Kamp. Irish Literature: The Nineteenth Century. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006-2007. Focuses on literature of the mid-nineteenth century, and on the Great Famine and the rise of cultural nationalism.

Kelleher, Margaret, and Philip O’Leary, eds. The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. First comprehensive history of Irish literature in the Irish, English, medieval Latin, and Norman languages. Includes a chronology, maps, and suggestions for further reading.

Leerssen, Joep. Mere Irish and Fior Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development, and Literary Expression Prior to the Nineteenth Century. South Bend, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1997. Examines the idea of Irish national identity, Irish historical background, and how Ireland and fictional Irish characters are represented in English literature.

Powell, Kersi Tarien. Irish Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. Handbook designed to introduce readers to Irish fiction, explore themes common among most Irish writers, and examine key novels that have shaped the genre.

Shaffer, Brian W., ed. A Companion to the British and Irish Novel, 1945-2000. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. Collection of critical essays on the major issues, themes, writers, and works of the second half of the twentieth century.

Welch, Robert, ed. The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. 1996. Reprint. New York: Clarendon Press, 2001. More than two thousand entries cover the major works and writers, literary genres, folklore, and mythology, along with articles on Protestantism, Catholicism, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army, and the political and cultural background necessary to understand Irish literature.