Liam O'Flaherty O'Flaherty, Liam - Essay

Liam O’Flaherty

O'Flaherty, Liam

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

O'Flaherty, Liam 1896–

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, physical world. His narrator is consumed with the necessity for sketching the immediate situation and laying bare at once the feelings of the characters. The reader is never in doubt about external circumstances. (pp. 54-5)

A serious flaw in O'Flaherty's novels is his frequent failure to distinguish between scene and summary, between drama and exposition—that is, he lacks the gift of the skilled novelist to select and treat background expeditiously and to concentrate on the development of simple or complex scenes. In Skerrett, for instance, the author leaves many scenes half-developed or only touched upon…. O'Flaherty's consummate skill in the stories of sketching in people and places often fails him in the novels where the context requires extended dramatization.

As a novelist, O'Flaherty has weaknesses in vision and technique that prevent his work from attracting widespread attention, but in works like The Black Soul and Skerrett he treats problems of the modern temper with a raw vitality appropriate to the experience of his protagonists. O'Flaherty must be accounted a perceptive observer of the dominant images of his countrymen and of western man. He probes the void, the emptiness of men whose faith has been broken, whose imaginations have been twisted by the social, political, or economic demands of the age. Often brusque in presentation, O'Flaherty nevertheless pursues the unassimilated experience of modern life, projecting it in novels that have been too readily neglected by critics and ordinary readers. (pp. 56-7)

Despite O'Flaherty's reputation as the novelist of the Irish Revolution, only two of his fourteen novels have settings during the period of 1916–23: The Martyr (1923) and Insurrection (1950). Two other novels, however, may be included in a group of war novels, The Informer (1925) and The Assassin (1928), for The Informer deals with gunmen and a revolutionary cell, and The Assassin studies the split mentality of a gunman, though in a postwar period. In dramatizing man's recourse to violence O'Flaherty preferred the small intense world of Ireland to the larger world he knew from military service and travel. Somehow his love-hate relation to Ireland fired his imagination. But despite his Irish settings O'Flaherty is a close student of the modern temper….

Even a brief discussion of O'Flaherty's war novels, however, should include comment on The Return of the Brute (1929). This crudely and evidently hastily written novel hardly rises above a conventional protest against the horror of trench warfare. In The Return of the Brute, O'Flaherty reinforces his theme with repeated references to the bestiality of man. (pp. 58-9)

In the short stories … O'Flaherty builds in deceptively simple stories vivid images of the basic instincts of man. Somehow by stripping away the covering of civilization and the superstructures of reason, he penetrated to a bedrock of experience. It is indeed a complex critical problem to account for the simplicity and directness of his best short stories. To O'Flaherty these stories were secondary to the larger themes and characters of his novels; in fact, the stories sometimes resemble vignettes that could be extracted from his novels on the Aran Islands and the west of Ireland. (p. 93)

Through contemplating simple people and animals and the relatively uncomplicated forces of nature O'Flaherty may have hoped to present an instinctive response to a life that had been mangled or smothered by industrialization, cities, and wars.

This search for an accurate rendering of man's instinctive life marks both his short stories and his novels. In the novels, oversized Dostoevskian figures dominate the work; their dreams of perfection, twisted and fanatic as they generally are, represent man's upward movement to a perfection implicit in the evolutionary process. In the short stories O'Flaherty falls back on peasants, animals, and children; the setting is that of farm, sea, or village…. In both novels and short stories, a Gaelic influence is manifest in the directness of narrative, the simplicity of language, and an elemental concern with primary emotions. One of the most noticeable differences between novels and short stories, however, lies in the use of melodrama, which is employed in the novels mainly in the interest of psychological realism. Melodrama seems to be his technique for showing the explosive emotions of his protagonists; for O'Flaherty it is a means to express a heightened level of intensity. The short stories, however, seem to be born in a different literary climate. Sean O'Faolain … questions the melodrama in the novels but praises the composure of the short stories. Among novelists, he says, O'Flaherty is a Don Quixote, an inverted romantic in search for an ideal beauty, hard to define because of the fury with which he rushes against his enemies. But the short stories have a different ambience: "In those lovely short stories, however, he is at rest. There he has found something that bears resemblance to his ideal, not in men, but in birds and animals; and often men are seen as cruel creatures who hunt and torment these dumb things." (pp. 94-5)

O'Flaherty's prevailing concern, [in fact], is not with war, but with peasants and animals, or as one critic states, with the land. His purpose is not to present a realistic or naturalistic view of the Irish peasant; his stories lack the harsh objectivity and ironies of Chekhov's story "Peasants," a severe indictment of the ignorance, drunkenness and brutality of the peasant, and a more severe indictment of the masters permitting this suffering. Instead, O'Flaherty generally uses the simplicity of peasant life to depict elemental reactions and instincts. Although he does not ignore cruelty, ignorance, or the sporadic eruptions of rage or madness among the peasants, he uses character and event to dramatize the uncluttered working out of creative and destructive forces in man and nature. He prizes feats of strength, unexpected moments of joy and grief, those dramatic interstices in man's struggle against social and natural forces that may injure or annihilate him. (pp. 96-7)

By freeing himself from the necessity of making an intellectual gloss on objects and people, O'Flaherty concentrates on people, things, and events with his full energies devoted to expressing their intrinsic being. He takes peasantlike delight in an unfettered examination of a wave, the birth of a cow, a daughter going into exile; the object, person, or event so captivates his imagination that nothing seems to intrude between the author and the unfolding of the destiny of his subject. In this state of mind he writes with a clear-eyed intensity and immediacy that seems almost a total surrender of the author's personality to the nature of things outside of himself. (p. 97)

Collectively O'Flaherty's short stories describe two or three generations of life in the Aran Islands and the west of Ireland; perhaps they reach back even further, so little did life change in those areas until the end of the nineteenth century. In the short stories, O'Flaherty makes little effort to assign a time to the events; peasants have always fished from the cliffs, fought the sea, and tilled their fields….

Among peasants O'Flaherty has a fondness for crotchety and slovenly old people, eccentric individuals who see themselves as bearers of a tradition. Perhaps his most impressive creation of this type is Brian Kilmartin in Famine, a man who clings to his land despite the famine, knowing that bad years will be followed by good years. Often these peasants are upset by new leaders, new money, and new goods. (p. 98)

In O'Flaherty's stories there are few love scenes, and those few are not well developed, but he senses the unstated affection that unifies a family or holds individuals together in a world in which untimely death is frequent. Like Synge, O'Flaherty finds some of his most poignant stories in separation and loss. (pp. 100-01)

O'Flaherty does not escape some of the pitfalls of stories about peasants. Some yarns, possibly adapted from the oral tradition, seem to have only a surface; the author delights in too facile an exaggeration or in a comic hoax. (p. 101)

In method, O'Flaherty's stories have a simplicity that suggests Hemingway's studied effort to select specific details that create scene or character and provide at the same time the means to elicit the right emotional reaction. But O'Flaherty selects his details on a much simpler level. He is not interested in symbolism as such; he relies on an inherent rather than on an analogical symbolism. He uses the natural order as a Gaelic storyteller, because of his interest in the person or event itself; he depends on the narrative movement of the story…. O'Flaherty is most effective when he remains close to the oral tradition, when the storyteller presents events and people simply and directly. When O'Flaherty indulges in philosophy or manipulates symbolism or overstates themes, his stories tend to collapse. But … the oral tradition may also beguile O'Flaherty through ingenious situations. O'Flaherty's achievement in the short story may best be grasped, I believe, by considering two types of stories in which he excelled: the lyric sketch and the comprehensive fable. Both types, as used by O'Flaherty, have close ties with the oral tradition and O'Flaherty's search to discover or rediscover an elemental life in man.

By far the greatest number of O'Flaherty's stories are lyric sketches, with a simple narrative, a limited plot, and with scene and characterization governed by what is immediate and readily observable. O'Flaherty does not neglect the narrative, but the effect of the narrative in his shortest works is similar to that of a lyric poem; in fact … in these sketches the entire story is an epiphany. The uncomplicated plot discloses the inevitable working out of an emotion or a rhythm of nature. There is little attention to any causal arrangements of events; O'Flaherty holds tightly to the present tense; people speak and act; storms arise and fall without analysis. In the short stories, as in the novels, he does not experiment with point of view; he utilizes a reliable narrator who is clear-eyed, sane, and shrewdly alert to the forces in man, society, and nature, that maim or crush the individual. Neither does he psychoanalyze his characters; he has little use for flashbacks or the probings of memory. Similarly, O'Flaherty limits his language to ordinary words; at times he lapses into pedestrian phrases or clichés; he disdains style. In his theory the raw urgency of action and reaction should not be impeded by fastidious diction. Yet in the best of his lyric sketches, O'Flaherty places his men and women close to the earth or sea in narrative that is stark, unsophisticated, and accurate for evoking a sense of the relentless working out of man's instincts.

O'Flaherty's stories lack the breadth and complexity of those of Joyce, O'Faolain, or O'Connor, and he deals with an external world foreign to men in an industrial, urban society. Yet his simple world is perfectly attuned to the passions and instincts that he wishes to stress. Like Yeats and Lawrence, he selects his material to rediscover the well-springs of man's emotional life. Although he does not explore as widely as these writers, he acquires, as Yeats would say, an intensity through simplification. His setting, characters, and language cling to the physical order in which all men must live. (pp. 103-04)

As an artist, O'Flaherty is engaged, then, in the creation of cultural images, temporary though they may be, to supply what the civilization does not furnish—cultural images that lead to an integration of personality or, in Yeats's terms to a unity of being. Beneath O'Flaherty's absorption in the physical, external world lies a belief in the evolutionary process, of men, especially artists, finding fulfillment in the struggle for perfection. This perfection may be elusive, even nonexistent, but nevertheless it is still the highest goal for man. (p. 117)

James H. O'Brien, in his Liam O'Flaherty (© 1970 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1970.