Judith Hearne, a forty-year-old, unmarried, poor, and plain woman without family. She lives at Mrs. Henry (May) Rice’s boardinghouse, the latest in a series of increasingly shabby residences in Belfast. Her meager income as a piano teacher is steadily dwindling as suspicion about her secret bouts of drinking increases. Judith’s façade of middle-class gentility, imposed by an aunt tyrannical even in death and by her Roman Catholic training, is beginning to show cracks. Lonely and without the experience of love—familial, romantic, or religious—Judith is unable to assess the feelings of others toward her; hence, her disastrous misreading of James Madden’s motives and her imposition on her pitying friend Moira O’Neill. The dashing of her hopes for marriage marks the beginning of her final descent into uncontrolled alcoholism, a descent speeded by the loss of her religious faith and by her ejection from Mrs. Rice’s after a noisy two-day binge. Committed to Earnscliffe Home, a place she has always instinctively loathed, Judith is nursed by nuns of the church that has failed her. Their care is professional and largely impersonal, though kind enough. In her bare white room, Judith is consigned to a living death, a victim of Irish society, in which, despite strong middle-class morality and the dominance of the church, a single woman without family, friends, or faith can slip through the cracks, unmourned.
James Madden, the fiftyish brother of Mrs. Rice and an unpaying tenant in her boardinghouse. Recently returned to Ireland after thirty undistinguished years in the United States, Madden fits into neither the New World nor the Old. A big talker and drinker, Madden has a flashy façade that masks his sense of failure. Lamed in a tram accident in New...
(The entire section is 750 words.)