Irish Short Fiction Analysis

Maria Edgeworth

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The importance of the anecdote and the voice of the teller to the development of Irish short narrative can be seen most readily in a single work of fiction credited with beginning Irish literature in English—Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800. Although usually characterized as a novel, the work is actually a novella focused more on regional particularities than on the social generalities that held together the heftier English novel. A number of critics have noted that the distinctive feature of Castle Rackrent is its imitation of a speaking voice telling a tale. What was new about Castle Rackrent was the colloquial voice of the teller of the story, the trusted retainer Thady Quirk, whose natural flow of talk created an ambiguous mixture of self-deception and self-revelation unmatched in England and not to be equaled in America until Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Although ostensibly Castle Rackrent is the history of four generations of the Rackrent family as told by the servant Thady, Edgeworth announces in the preface that her interest is not in epic history but on anecdotal revelation. She notes that although the public taste for anecdote has been ridiculed by critics, if considered properly, such a taste reflects the profound good sense of the times. However, in spite of Edgeworth’s insistence that her storyteller is an illiterate but honest and innocent old retainer who tells the history of the drunken Sir Patrick, the litigious Sir Murtagh, the fighting Sir Kit, and the slovenly Sir Condy, many readers have always suspected that Thady is artful, shrewd, and calculating. By making Thady Quirk such an ambiguous point of view, Edgeworth created a new technique of fiction.

William Carleton

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Prominent Irish literature critic Declan Kiberd has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a “vibrant oral culture” was challenged by the “onset of a sophisticated literature tradition”; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a “fusion” between the folktale and modern literature. William Carleton is the most important Irish mediator between the folktale and the modern realistic story because of his attention to detail and his creation of the personality of the teller. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830-1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story. The purpose of the first-person narrator in romantic short fiction, as Carleton, and later Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne knew, is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated but also to transform the event from an objective description to an individual perspective.

Critics of Irish fiction generally agree that Carleton’s story “Wildgoose Lodge,”with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is his best, similar to the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne in America. “Wildgoose Lodge” recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a Catholic secret society. Although ostensibly merely an eye-witness report by a former member of the society, the structure of the story reflects a self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story. A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, “Wildgoose Lodge” is a classic example of how romantic short-story writers developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without using allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot.

What makes “Wildgoose lodge” a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and self-consciously aware at once. Moreover, the story’s selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment—the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish—shift the emphasis in this story from a mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure. It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Critic Harold Orel has suggested that by the time Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu appears in the 1850’s, the oral tradition “has receded into the background,” for the emphasis of La Fanu’s stories is on a shaped fiction. Although Le Fanu did not create the horror story, says Orel, he developed ways to transform this popular narrative genre into “an artistically finished production, one worthy of the time of serious readers.” In his best-known story, “Green Tea,” first published in 1869 and reprinted in his collection In a Glass Darkly in 1872, Le Fanu blurs the line between the physical and the mental and in his narrator, Dr. Martin Hesselius, a “medical philosopher,” creates a kind of psychoanalytic detective. On hearing the narrative of the Rev. Jennings, who is plagued by the appearance of an hallucinatory monkey, Hesselius seeks to solve the mystery and cure Jennings by applying his own theory about the nature of dual reality. The central focus of Hesselius’s theory is that the natural world is only the expression of the spiritual world.

The monkey is the subject of most of the commentary on the story, with various critics calling it a Freudian animal or a manifestation of schizophrenia and repressed sexual desires and others suggesting that it is purposely open-ended to leave readers mystified and to create a Kafkaesque sense of generalized guilt. Hesselius’s attributing the hallucination of the monkey to Rev. Jennings’s drinking of green tea is not, most readers suspect, the true cause of the monkey’s appearance. The actual details of the story suggest that the appearance of the creature results from Jennings’s living alone and writing a book on the religious metaphysics of the ancients. Jennings says he was always thinking and writing on the subject and that it thoroughly “infected” him, drawing him into a purely mental world detached from physical reality. Indeed, Jennings’s disease is not a physical one but rather an “artistic” one that can be cured only “critically.” It represents the central problem that dominates the nineteenth century short story—the blurring of the lines between the psychical and the physical so that the psychical is projected outward and then responded to as if it were real.

George Moore

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Many critics of the short story have suggested that the modern Irish short story begins in 1903 with the publication of George Moore’s The Untilled Field, thus agreeing with Moore’s own typically immodest assessment that the collection was a “frontier book, between the new and the old style” of fiction. Moore felt that The Untilled Field was his best work, boasting that he wrote the stories to be models for young Irish writers in the future. Indeed, as critics have suggested, the book had a significant effect on the collection of short stories that has become one of the most influential short- story collections in the twentieth century—James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914).

In combining the coarse subject matter of the French naturalists with the polished style of the fin-de-siècle aesthetes, the stories in The Untilled Field seem unique for their time. However, they still maintain an allegiance to the folktale form and to the importance of story as a means of understanding reality. Moore’s adherence to the folk tale form and the need to understand reality by means of story can be clearly seen in one of his best-known and most anthologized stories from The Untilled Field—“Julia Cahill’s Curse.” The story-within-the-story, told by a cart driver to the first-person narrator, recounts an event that took place twenty years earlier when a priest named Father Madden had Julia put out of the parish for what he considered unseemly behavior; in retaliation, Julia put a curse on the parish, prophesying that every year a roof would fall in and a family would go to America. The basic conflict in the tale is between Julia, who in her dancing and courting, represents free pagan values, and the priest, who, in his desire to restrain her, represents church restrictions.

The conflict between Julia and the priest is clear enough; however it is the relationship between the teller and the listener that constitutes the structural interest of the story, for what the tale focuses on is an actual event of social reality that has been mythicized by the teller and thus by the village folk both to explain and to justify the breakdown of Irish parish life in the late nineteenth century. Whereas...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

James Joyce

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most influential modern Irish short-story writer is James Joyce, although that influence is based on one slim volume, Dubliners. Joyce’s most famous contribution to the theory and technique of modern short narrative is his notion of the “epiphany,” which he defined in his early novel Steven Hero (1944): “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” In a Joyce story, an epiphany is a formulation through metaphor or symbol of some revelatory aspect of human experience, some highly significant aspect of personal reality, usually communicated by a pattern of what otherwise would be seen as trivial details and events. Joyce’s technique is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern. Two of Joyce’s best-known stories, “Eveline” and “Araby,” end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.

In “Eveline,” the reader must determine how Eveline’s thoughts of leaving in Part 1 inevitably lead to her decision to stay in Part 2. Most of the story takes place while Eveline is sitting at the window watching the evening “invade” the avenue. Nothing really “happens” in the present in the first part of the story, for her mind is on the past and the future, occupied with contrasting images of familiar/strange, duty/pleasure, earth/sea, entrapment/escape, death/life. It is the counterpoint pattern of these images that prepares the reader for the last section of the story when Eveline stands among the crowds and decides not to leave her father and Ireland.

The problem is how to understand how the first part of the story, which focuses primarily on the bleakness of Eveline’s past life at home and thus seems to suggest that she will decide to go with Frank, manages at the same time to suggest that she will decide to stay. The basic tension is between the known and the unknown. Although Eveline does not have many happy memories of her childhood and family life, at least they are familiar and comfortable. Because these events have already happened, what “used to be” is still present and a part of her. However, life with Frank, because it has not yet happened, is tinged with fear of the unknown, in spite of the fact that it holds the promise of romance and respect. Thus, at the end, when she sets her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal, with no sign of love or farewell or recognition, we realize that her decision to...

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Seumas O’Kelly, James Stephens, Daniel Corkery

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One of the most powerful post-Joycean Irish short stories, a story strikingly modern in its experimental use of a variety of stylistic modes, is Seumas O’Kelly’s “The Weaver’s Grave,” which, while largely unknown among American readers, is appreciated by many Irish critics as a masterpiece of classical perfection. Although the story centers on the seemingly simple situation of two old men helping the weaver’s young widow look for the grave plot of her recently deceased elderly husband, the symbolic structure of the story is elaborately complex. O’Kelly combines techniques of classical drama, poetry, painting, and philosophic discourse to create a story about aging, death, and rebirth that owes much to James Joyce,...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Seán O’Faoláin, Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Seán O’Faoláin has argued that the short story thrives best within a romantic framework; the more organized and established a country is, O’Faoláin claims, the less likely that the short story will flourish there. Although Ireland, a country that stubbornly sticks to its folk roots, has been a most hospitable place for the short-story form, O’Faolain seems to have constantly fought against the romanticism of the short story, yearning for the realism of the novel. Thus, his stories reveal a continual battle between his cultural predilection for the short story (with its roots in the folk and its focus on the odd and romantic slant) and his conviction that realism is the most privileged artistic convention.


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Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin, Edna O’Brien

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Of the seventy-nine stories in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1981), published from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, less than ten percent center on Ireland. Instead, Elizabeth Bowen’s best-known stories dramatize psychological states that hover somewhere between reality and hallucination. Such stories as “The Happy Autumn Fields” move so smoothly back and forth between the past and the present that distinctions between those two realms are meaningless. In “Her Table Spread,” the real social world of the drawing room is invaded by romantic fantasy to such an extent that the relative reality of the two worlds is brought into question.

Bowen’s most anthologized story, “The Demon...

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Brian Friel, John McGahern, William Trevor

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Brian Friel has been criticized by some socially minded critics for writing stories in which the conflicts are more personal than political and the past more romantic than rebellious. His collection The Saucer of Larks (1962) is his most important collection; “Foundry House” is his best-known story, primarily because the dramatic oppositions in the story derive from Irish history and reflect a clearly defined class distinction that once was known as the “Big House” system, in which English Protestants lived in the large manor homes while Irish Catholic peasants were dependant on them. Friel symbolizes the difference between the dying old way and the competent new industrial world by making the “Big House”...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Averill, Deborah M. The Irish Short Story from George Moore to Frank O’Connor. Washington: University Press of America, 1982. A helpful study of Moore, Corkery, O’Kelly, O’Flaherty, O’Faoláin, and O’Connor.

Delargy, J. H. “The Gaelic Story-Teller.” Proceedings of the British Academy 31 (1945). An important study of the early Irish oral tradition of storytelling.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. An important study of the development of Irish literature from Oscar Wilde to the present day.


(The entire section is 315 words.)