Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627
In The Pornographer, John McGahern tells the story of one man’s encounter with the duplicitous moral nature of the world. This man, the novel’s narrator and eponym, is at once cynical and naive: He desires that his emotional life possess an uncomplicated simplicity and directness which every aspect of his emotional experience teaches him is impossible. Much of the novel’s skill is devoted to a cumulative and rather merciless detailing of the combination of blindness and insight which makes up the narrator’s moral position. The more his insights fuel his hunger for simplicity, the more he finds himself trapped in the situation which refuses to be simplified.
This situation is itself one of stark simplicity. Pleased by the quality of his sexual relations with Josephine, whom he has casually picked up at a dance, the narrator soon finds that Josephine is pregnant. Despite the narrator’s obdurate and repeated refusals to meet the situation with traditional, respectable solutions, Josephine naively keeps hoping for the best, even to the extent of jettisoning her Dublin business career and emigrating to England. Even the arrival of the child means nothing to its hard-hearted father, however, and in any case, by this time he has found another girl whom he prefers. Josephine is left to drift out of his life.
The bleakness of this tale, persuasively communicated by McGahern’s typically spare and intense style, is offset by the other major claim on the narrator’s emotional energy: his dying aunt. Here the narrator, while consistent in his behavior, reveals an alternative nature to the one elicited by the affair with Josephine. If in matters of love the narrator is dogmatic, in the face of death he is nothing if not compliant. As far as he seems to be aware, there is no relationship between the two areas of his experience. He refuses to take conventional responsibility for the complex character of his own moral nature. The quality of mercy which he extends to his aunt is precisely what he withholds from his relationship with Josephine. His willingness to attend to Aunt Mary throughout her dying days makes a provocative contrast to the abandonment of his mistress and their infant son. Such a glaring contrast, however, firmly reinforces the novel’s premise that the basis of morality is freedom of choice.
One of the numerous quiet pleasures provided by The Pornographer is the manner in which it intertwines the two areas of the protagonist’s emotional demands. The event-centered plot comprising the Josephine material is expertly contextualized and preserved from sensationalist treatment by the condition-centered material pertaining to Aunt Mary’s travail. Ultimately, the narrator, obliged to choose so that his own life may proceed, opts for condition rather than event: His aunt’s significance derives less from her individual circumstances, which no longer contain any life-enabling power, than from the way of life she represents, and which the reader finds embodied in perhaps the novel’s most lifelike character, her brother. Rooted, traditional, materialistic, this way of life attracts the narrator by its apparent definitiveness, to the extent that he even contemplates settling down in his native place with Josephine’s successor.
In any event, nothing quite so conclusive takes place, and the novel closes on an appropriately open-ended note. Such an outcome is fitting because it shows the narrator prepared, as a matter of choice, to embrace the unpredictable, multiform character of experience, rather than continue in the defensive, simplistic, and bitterly rationalistic style of his affair with Josephine. He has learned, it seems, that simplicity in the moral sphere is the idiom of pornography, production of which may be an avocation but should not be confused with the reality of the common mortal lot.
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