O'Flaherty, Liam

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O'Flaherty, Liam 1896–

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O'Flaherty is an Irish realistic novelist and short story writer.

For many years O'Flaherty was classified with Joyce and O'Casey as a realist, although this label indicates chiefly a reaction to the writing of Yeats, Synge, and A.E. Yet O'Flaherty's novels still possess a depth and range that deserve reexamination. From the standpoint of literary history, O'Flaherty examines in his novels major shifts in the Irish psyche in the first half of the twentieth century; he describes in detail the effect of social and economic change on the peasant or country man; futhermore, his protagonists fit into significant psychological and existential patterns.

In general, O'Flaherty writes a realistic novel with readily recognized settings and characters, but the theme and plot revolve around a neoromantic protagonist. Although O'Flaherty has naturalistic leanings, he never makes the meticulous examination of environment of a Zola or Dreiser, in part because in his work environment does not control the protagonist. Instead, O'Flaherty's chief characters, often driven by obsessions, plunge into disaster. At times these protagonists have a Nietzschean will, but they are generally limited in intellect and judgment. As a group, O'Flaherty's novels deal with the dominant images affecting modern Ireland…. Historically, O'Flaherty's novels study the Irish psyche from the famine of 1846–47, through the land war of the 1870s, through the revolution of 1916–23, and into the new Irish Free State that was struggling to establish its own social and political forms. But generally O'Flaherty does not attempt to depict historical attitudes with precision; with some exceptions, his peasants, rebels, landlords, priests, and shopkeepers speak for similar values, whether in the 1840s or the 1920s. (pp. 36-7)

In his … novels O'Flaherty does not experiment with the role of the narrator…. O'Flaherty seems untouched by the work of Henry James and Conrad. Almost always O'Flaherty's narrator is the classic third person omniscient narrator, a persona excited by strong protagonists and unusual events. As an observer of modern man, he attends closely to the instinctive and passionate reactions; he is sensitive to man's crippling obsessions and alert to man's tendency to blunder into nets from which he cannot extricate himself. But his narrator seldom shirks his duties as storyteller; he advances the narration rapidly; he idles only briefly, if at all, for comment; he avoids with a clean narrative outline the bypaths of reminiscence or speculation. While the narrator generally explores sympathetically only the protagonist, he rests with a common-sense view of the conflicts within secondary figures. Despite his well-established views on Communism and the Church, he seldom promotes Marxism or anticlericalism in his novels. On occasion he develops a scene at two levels, mainly to show the confused mind of a protagonist. In The Neighbour's Wife, for example, Father McMahon listens to the simple confessions of the peasants as he torments himself with doubts about the teachings of the Church; in The Puritan Francis Ferriter similarly tries to explain a murder he has committed to a priest as he relives in memory a host of associations with his suppressed love for the whore whom he killed.

O'Flaherty avoids poetic devices in his prose, although an occasional epic simile recalls his training in the classics. So intent is O'Flaherty on raw experience that he emphasizes man's suffering and turmoil at the expense of precision of expression. At times the narrator rushes along, dropping clichés, awkward phrases, and sentences that ring hollow. Frequently he fails to exploit ironies inherent in the situation of the protagonist. Whether the narrator's directness derives from de Maupassant, the Gaelic storytellers, or other influences, he respects the visible,...

(The entire section contains 2559 words.)

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