The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

by Brian Moore
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore’s first novel, he introduces all the themes that will flower in his distinguished career. He takes a large risk by making his protagonist an unmarried, plain, narrow-minded woman over forty who is impoverished, lonely, conventionally pious, and secretly alcoholic. He is tender with her, even inviting the reader to like her as he describes in impressive detail her confused interior life. Honoré de Balzac would have made her a villain, as he did the brooding title character in La Cousine Bette (1846; Cousin Bette); Flannery O’Connor would have mocked her with gothic glee; Eudora Welty would have drawn her comically; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner would not have imagined her; Vladimir Nabokov would have disdained her.

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Joyce, though, might have joined Moore in empathizing with Judith Hearne as a loser whose fate is determined by the suffocating weight of Irish banality, hypocrisy, and empty religiosity. Hearne is an aging, long-faced Belfast music teacher with barely one hundred pounds a year to her name, in a land where a good man is almost impossible to find. Yet she longs for such a husband, and the merciless way in which her hope is broken makes for the action of Moore’s most moving novel.

Before the book’s present time, Hearne has spent years caring for her aunt, a selfish, domineering woman whose life, like that of Eveline’s mother in the Dubliners tale, lays a crazy spell on her. In dour, drab, and dreadful Belfast, spinster Hearne has been evicted from a series of boarding homes because of her drinking. She ends up in a house run by a malicious, slimy-voiced woman whose son is a Machiavellian lout. The landlady’s vulgar brother, James Patrick Madden, has returned from New York and is rumored to be rich; it turns out that the only fortune he ever made was a small sum compensating him for having been run down by a city bus. His American occupation was that of a doorman.

Madden is equally deluded about Hearne: Her air of high breeding and an expensive wristwatch given her by her aunt lead him to hope that she is wealthy and might finance his scheme to open a hamburger joint for Yankee tourists. As their mutual illusions crumble, Hearne locks herself in her room and opens her secreted cache of whiskey. Later, she beseeches God in a dark, empty church; God gives her no sign. In despair, Hearne withdraws her meager savings from the bank, checks into Belfast’s best hotel, and goes on a bitter binge.

Moore skillfully balanced Hearne’s understandable drive to fulfill her sexual and social needs with the repressive institutional forces in Belfast that deny and taunt, humiliate and defeat her. He superbly chronicled her movement from hope to despair to nihilism. Knowing the grim truth leaves her emotionally and spiritually bankrupt, hopelessly tangled in the net of her lace-curtain destiny. Hearne’s passion mounts to unrelieved suffering, too pathetic even for tragedy.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858

Judith Hearne takes a room at a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Henry Rice, a widow. It is located on Camden Street, a rundown Belfast neighborhood that was once middle class, tidy, and secure. Judith places a photograph of the dead aunt who raised her on the mantelpiece and prepares to hang a print of the Sacred Heart above the bed to make the room seem homier.

Judith visits Mrs. Rice’s quarters. There, she meets Bernard, Mrs. Rice’s adult son. Bernard is an only child, as well as an unemployed university graduate and aspiring poet. Tirelessly pampered by his seemingly devout mother, Bernard nonetheless holds subversive religious views. Judith finds him and his ideas both intriguing and repulsive. They gossip about mutual acquaintances, the pastoral temperament of the parish priest, and Mary, the country girl Mrs. Rice has hired to help around the boardinghouse. Hearne returns to her room with a borrowed hammer to hang the Sacred Heart icon and prepares for sleep without supper.

Judith wakes wondering how she will spend the coming days. As she ritualistically washes up and brushes her hair before a mirror, she considers options for cheap dining, what she will wear, and how she will conduct herself at breakfast. She daydreams about the impression her jewelry and black-and-red dress will make. Once ready, she enters the breakfast parlor and sits down among her fellow lodgers. She is disappointed to discover that breakfast consists only of toast and tea, a discovery that affects her lunch and supper plans for the foreseeable future.

Mrs. Rice introduces Judith to the other guests, including James Madden. Madden, Mrs. Rice’s brother, has recently returned from the United States, where he lived and worked for thirty years. He impresses Judith with his talk of life in New York City. Judith assumes Madden is a man of means, and she silently resolves to learn more about the storied metropolis so she will have something to discuss with him to further their acquaintance.

Judith settles into life at the boardinghouse by maintaining a regular routine of teaching piano a few days a week, going to Mass, and attending Sunday teas at the O’Neills’. Moira O’Neill attended finishing school with Judith. She married well and now has several school-age children, who mock Judith’s appearance and mannerisms before she arrives each Sunday afternoon. Judith also begins socializing with James Madden. Madden suspects Judith has money, and he is eager to go into business with her. Judith interprets his proposed venture as proof of romantic interest.

Eventually, Judith learns the truth about Madden’s working-class past and the real reasons for his attentions. In despair, she drinks a bottle of whiskey reserved for medicinal purposes and disrupts life at the boardinghouse by loudly singing in her room throughout the night. To her shame, Judith later learns of the disturbance. What remains hidden from her is the fact that Bernard has been having a sexual affair with Mary, the house girl, and that Madden has caught them together. Angered and aroused by his nephew’s dalliance, Madden rapes Mary.

Judith’s life begins to unravel as her social routine disintegrates. She loses her last piano student, Madden avoids her, and the O’Neills become distant. She drinks nightly and begins to doubt her religious beliefs. She seeks guidance from Father Quigley in the confessional, but he simply advises her to pray. She sinks deeper into depression and seeks consolation in more drink.

Mrs. Rice evicts Judith from the boardinghouse. She withdraws almost all of her savings, rents a room at a posh hotel, buys several bottles of expensive spirits, and visits Edie Marrinan, a past acquaintance who gave Judith her first drink and now lies dying in a convalescent home run by a religious order. Judith and Edie attempt to drink a bottle of gin in the ward. The nuns caring for the institutionalized women forcibly remove Judith, who then seeks solace with Moira O’Neill. During their conversation, Judith realizes that Moira’s friendship is based on pity, not fellow feeling, and she leaves to seek more genuine compassion from Father Quigley. As before, though, the priest exhibits little patience for Judith’s situation and tells her to return only after she sobers up.

Despondent and drunk, Judith enters the church next to the rectory and loudly denounces God in the sanctuary. Stunned that she has not been struck dead for her blasphemy, Judith runs to the tabernacle where the Eucharist resides and, screaming, tears at the small golden doors until her fingers bleed. She blacks out.

The O’Neills institutionalize Judith. She receives several visitors—including various O’Neills, Father Quigley, and Aunt D’Arcy’s former physician—who attempt to cheer her with offers of friendship or encourage her to seek comfort in religious practice. Mistrustful of her social connections and her faith, Judith remains despondent. Finally, told her stay needs to be extended, Judith asks one of her caretakers to display Aunt D’Arcy’s portrait and the Sacred Heart picture in her room. The book closes as it opened, with Judith contemplating these images.

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