John McGahern McGahern, John - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

McGahern, John 1934-

Irish short story writer, novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter.

A controversial and provocative Irish literary figure, McGahern writes traditionally structured fiction in which he challenges many of his homeland's conventional social, sexual, and religious values. Focusing on protagonists for whom li in modern Ireland has become restrictive and repressive, he examines such themes as the failure of love, the erosion of marital compatibility, the difficulty of maintaining hope, and the burden of Irish parochialism and religious conservatism. Often employing religious diction, imagery, and motifs, McGahern presents a vision of contemporary Ireland characterized by symbols of death, darkness, infertility, and impotency.

Biographical Information

McGahern was born in Dublin and raised in County Ros-common in the west of Ireland. After completing his studies at University College in Dublin, he taught for seven years at a National Boys School in Clontarf. In 1963 McGahern published his novel The Barracks to critical acclaim. His next novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish Censorship Board in 1965, and when all legal action appealing the ban of the novel failed, McGahern left Ireland temporarily, visiting various cities and universities in continental Europe, England, and the United States. He currently lives on a farm in Leister, Ireland.

Major Works of Short Fiction

McGahern has published four volumes of short fiction. His stories are often populated with characters unable to find respite from the unrelenting demands of everyday life. In his first collection, Nightlines, the recurring cycle of birth, love, and death is portrayed as a disappointing pattern. The stories in Getting Through display guarded optimism in the human spirit, although the dominant mood remains bleak. High Ground denotes McGahern's concern with father and son relationships, the banality of conformity and compromise, and sexual and religious conflicts. McGahern's thematic and stylistic development as a short fiction writer is evident in Collected Stories, which was published in 1993.

Critical Reception

Although McGahern has been faulted by those who consider his portrayal of characters dominated by rural values a misrepresentation of contemporary Ireland's more cosmopolitan identity, critics generally commend his incisive delineation of Irish parochialism and his commentary on the vacuousness of much of modern life. McGahern is often compared with a broad range of other writers, especially James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Anton Chekhov; yet, he is consistently praised by commentators for the singularity of his narrative voice and vision. As Patricia Boyle Haberstroh maintains: "McGahern's position as not only one of Ireland's most important novelists but also as one of the best contemporary writers of English prose derives ultimately from the originality and uniqueness of his fiction."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Nightlines 1970

Getting Through 1978

High Ground 1985

Collected Stories 1993

Other Major Works

The Barracks (novel) 1963

The Dark (novel) 1965

The Leavetaking (novel) 1974

The Pornographer (novel) 1979

Amongst Women (novel) 1990

David Pryce-Jones (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Country of the Aged and the Sad," in The New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1971, p. 30.

[Pryce-Jones is an Austrian-born English novelist, biographer, and critic. In the following review, he discusses the bleak vision presented in the short fiction of Nightlines.]

The Ireland of John McGahern's stories is not the country other Irish writers describe. Here, to be sure, are the Shannon and Oakport and the hill of Howth—but only as accidents of geography, as parts of a setting into which people have blundered and where they no longer belong, if they ever did. Mr. McGahern is free from the emerald sentiments that have been invested in his native land. He is his own master, and his stories owe nothing to anybody.

If this is an Ireland virtually without a past, it is without a future too. The opening story in Nightlines has a young man returning from London to come to terms with his old father, who has remarried. All he can do is to go away again from this country of the aged and the sad.

In their unwisdom and smallness, those who are left behind in Mr. McGahern's Ireland cannot be awakened from themselves, since there is nothing to awaken them to. Their very occupations (like farming and fishing) are coming to an end. Some who persist, such as a country policeman, lose their reason. A carpenter like Lavin, in a poignant story of that title, goes crazy with unfulfilled sexuality before he is taken off to the poorhouse. For his characters, the author uses a narrow range of names. One of them is Moran—repeated, one feels, because it sounds so close to moron.

The present, then, is existing in the middle of nothing and its standstill very much interests Mr. McGahern. One of the finest stories in this collection is "Korea," in which a boy is about to leave home, to break the immobilization of his life. For the last time, he is helping his father to fish the nightlines that give this book its title—on the stretch of river from which...

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Michael Irwin (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sorrowful Pipings," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3976, June 16, 1978, p. 663.

[Below, Irwin explores the somber tone that permeates the short stories of Getting Through.]

Most of these graceful, melancholy tales are set in Ireland. They deal in love, frustrated or misplaced, and in intimations of mortality. A lonely aging man advertises for a wife, but panics and runs away when the chosen woman suffers a heart attack. A priest, reminded by a trick of the sunlight of a funeral he attended thirty years before, confronts the prospect of his own end. In two of the stories the main character is James Sharkey, a schoolteacher, who appeared briefly in John McGahern's novel The Leavetaking. Here, as there, he is a sorrowful man, crossed in love, who sees his premature baldness as a first hint of death, and so wears a hat continually, outdoors, indoors, and even in church. In "Faith, Hope and Charity" he has to tell the family of one of his former pupils that the young man has been killed in an accident. In "All Sorts of Impossible Things", perhaps the best-balanced and most moving story in the collection, he is desolated by the death of an old friend.

John McGahern writes with unobtrusive concision. So much of his skill lies in selection, or rather in omission, that his terse narrative seems free and full. He has the Irish gift of being able to move fluently and unselfconsciously between a simple and a heightened style. There are ten stories in this narrow volume, but in each of them he finds scope to create both a situation and an atmosphere. Pace and proportion seem effortlessly adjusted: there is no sense of expository strain. "Swallows", for example, begins like this:

The wind blew the stinging rain from the Gut, where earlier in the bright weather of the summer the Sergeant had sat in the tarred boat, anchored by a rope to an old Ford radiator that clung to the weeds outside the rushes, and watched taut line after taut line...

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Terence Brown (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "John McGahern's Nightlines: Tone, Technique and Symbol," in The Irish Short Story, edited by Patrick Rafroidi and Terence Brown, Colin Smythe Ltd., 1979, pp. 289-301.

Thomas Kilroy, playwright and novelist, provided the critic of Irish fiction with one of those clarifying and organising generalizations which illumine much that one has almost unconsciously accepted, when he wrote [in the Times Literary Supplement, March 17, 1972]:

At the centre of Irish fiction is the anecdote. The distinctive characteristic of our "first novel", Castle Rackrent, that which makes it what it is, is not so much its idea, revolutionary as that may...

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Anatole Broyard (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Getting Through in The New York Times, July 12, 1980, p. 15.

[Broyard is an American essayist and critic. In the following mixed review, he provides a thematic analysis of the short stories in Getting Through.]

In the first story in John McGahern's Getting Through collection, a young woman who wants to write is obsessed by a Chekhov story called "Oysters." She keeps reconstructing it in her mind, altering it to her taste. As she sees it, an 8-year-old boy and his father are starving in the streets of Moscow, too refined to beg. The boy sees a sign in front of a restaurant that says, "oysters."

He asks his father what...

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Joel Conarroe (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Strong Women, Dreamy Men," in The New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1987, p. 9.

[Conarroe is an American critic and educator. In the following favorable review of High Ground, he compares McGahern's short stories to the work of several highly accomplished modern authors. ]

John McGahern, the author of such highly regarded novels as The Pornographer and The Leavetaking, has been called an Irish Chekhov, and one does find in his understated prose a fusion of high seriousness and low comedy, of heartbreak and heartburn, reminiscent of the Russian master. Other writers are brought to mind too by his fine new book, High Ground, a...

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Antoinette Quinn (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Varieties of Disenchantment: Narrative Technique in John McGahern's Short Stories," in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 13, Autumn, 1989, pp. 77-89.

Nightlines, the title of John McGahern's first collection of stories, (1970), promises a series of sombre narratives; Getting Through, the title of his second, (1978), connects communication with strategies of survival; High Ground, (1986), his most recent collection, hints at elevations of theme or perspective, but a perusal of the title-story reveals the ironies of eminence. John McGahern's short fictions are studies in disillusionment and its apathetic after-math, in alienated authenticity and the sad...

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Nicola Bradbury (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "High Ground," in Re-reading the Short Story, edited by Clare Hanson, Macmillan Press, 1989, pp. 86-97.

[Below, Bradbury provides a thematic and stylistic overview of High Ground.]

'High Ground' is the title story of the contemporary Irish writer John McGahern's third collection—he has also written four novels. It is not the leading story of the volume, however: that one (the first) is called 'Parachutes'. These stories, and these titles, fascinate me, because they are at once (as their altitude suggests) aloof, distinct, cool and yet (as the ambiguities of the titles hint) prepared to enter into a relationship, to establish a stance or line between reader...

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D. J. Enright (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stuck in the Slot," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 19, October 8, 1992, pp. 9-10.

[Enright is an English man of letters who has spent most of his career abroad, teaching English literature at universities in Egypt, Japan, Berlin, Thailand, and Singapore, The author of critically respected works in a variety of genres, he is best known for his poetry, which is conversational in style and often reflects his humanistic values through portraits of Far Eastern life. According to William Walsh, "Enright is a poet with a bias toward light and intelligibility," and his critical essays are frequently marked by sardonic treatment of what he considers the culturally...

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Josephine Humphreys (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Lifetime of Tales from the Land of Broken Hearts," in The New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, pp. 1, 27.

[Humphreys is an American novelist and essayist. In the following positive assessment of The Collected Stories, she provides an overview of McGahern's plots and characters.]

One way to approach a story is to think of it as the writer's response to the most important question he can ask. The response is often complex, ambiguous and changeable, but the question is simple and almost always the same. The bigger the question, the riskier the fiction. In the story "Bank Holiday" in John McGahern's Collected Stories, a 50-year-old man...

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John Banville (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Big News from Small Worlds," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 7, April 8, 1993, pp. 22-4.

[Banville is an Irish novelist and critic. Below, he discusses the defining characteristics of McGahern's short fiction.]

As they were controversial, they won him a sort of fame: some thought they were serious, well made, and compulsive . . . bringing things to light that were in bad need of light; but others maintained that they were humourless, morbid, and restricted to a narrow view that was more revealing of private obsessions than any truths about life or Irish life in general.

Thus is described the...

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Eamon Grennan (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in America, Vol. 169, No. 3, July 31-August 7, 1993, pp. 20-2.

[Grennan is an Irish poet and critic. In the following review, he examines McGahern's fiction, terming it "essential reading for anyone interested in the interior life of modern Ireland, in modern fiction, in the short story, in good writing."]

The voice that tells these splendid stories—and in so many of them it seems to be the same slightly mournful but unflinching voice—wells up out of modern Irish consciousness itself, carrying with it such central issues as displacement (often from country to city), social and spiritual rupture and chronic loss. To...

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Denis Sampson (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 11-12.

[In the following review, Sampson traces the development of McGahern's short fiction.]

Nightlines. Getting Through. High Ground. In retrospect, the titles of John McGahern's three volumes of stories seem to light up the stages of his development as an artist—images which evoke the atmosphere of each book and at the same time suggest the energy and movement of a talent discovering itself and then growing towards maturity. These three volumes are reprinted with little change in The Collected Stories, and to them is added a brief, late...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Fitzgerald, Penelope. "The Great Importance of Small Things." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4671 (9 October 1992): 21.

Discusses the imagery and characters in the short fiction of The Collected Stories.

Glaister, Lesley. "Seizing the Moment." The Spectator 269, No. 8571 (17 October 1992): 31-2.

Thematic and stylistic analysis of The Collected Stories.

Jamal, Zahir. "The Rub." New Statesman 95, No. 2465 (16 June 1978): 822-23.

Favorable review of Getting Through.

Koenig, Rhoda. "Pluck of the Irish." New York 26, No. 4 (25...

(The entire section is 291 words.)