Last Updated on September 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457
J. G. Farrell’s novel juxtaposes the singular character of a British former military officer to the group of Irish people with whom he interacts after he becomes engaged to an Irish woman and moves to Ireland. His inability to assimilate, or even to abandon his notions of superiority, plays a crucial role in driving the plot. Farrell offers a satirical treatment of a serious subject: the Irish rebellion against British rule.
Brendan Archer is a British former army major who travels to Kilnalough, Ireland, to resume his romance with Angela Spencer. Unable to put forth the effort to understand his surroundings, Archer fails to relate to the local people’s problems. After Angela’s death, he becomes involved with another woman, Sarah Devlin. He finally leaves the country after narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Sinn Fein nationalists.
Angela Spencer is a restrained, proper lady, no longer exactly young, who has agreed to marry Archer. Of mixed English and Irish heritage, Angela’s family occupies a unique niche in Kilnalough, where they own a run-down, cat-infested hotel. Once living in the same place, however, the gap between her and Archer expands. Angela’s limited social graces, Archer later learns, are a symptom of her very real health troubles. Stricken with leukemia, Angela retreats as her health declines into the solitude of her own room, where she passes away.
Ripon Spencer is Angela’s brother. A flat character, he is a stereotypical small-town Romeo. His lack of initiative and common sense make him a foil for the logically-minded Archer. His romantic escapades become serious when he marries Maire. Although he is likely swayed by her family’s wealth, Maire’s father disapproves of the match.
Edward Spencer is Angela and Ripon’s father. A one-time boxer, as evident from his face and body, Spencer owns the Majestic Hotel. His moody, violent temperament, however, makes him ill-suited for a management role. Edward is more comfortable out hunting with his dogs. Spencer’s support for English interests—symbolized by his statue of Queen Victoria—and disdain for the Irish, which includes an opposition to Irish nationalism, makes him unpopular with many local people and incenses the rebels.
The earthy, irreverent Sarah Devlin is Angela’s opposite in every way. Apparently interested in both Brendan Archer and Edward Spencer, she evades commitment while encouraging their attentions and Edward’s financial support. Her involvement with a British soldier, who abuses her, alienates her from her own Irish community.
The elderly Murphy is the hotel’s butler. As he is rabidly anti-English, he tries to mask his feelings by feigning loyalty to the Spencers until he loses all restraint and sets fire to the hotel.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
Brendan Archer is both the protagonist and the observer in the novel. As the protagonist, he is attempting to carry off a bride; as the observer, he is attempting just as desperately to understand the mad environment in which both of his prospective brides live. Much of the humor of the novel comes from the collision between the well-bred, war-shocked, proper Major Archer and the irrational characters of Kilnalough, who assume that he understands what is going on and seem to feel no compulsion to explain anything to him.
Without exception, all the characters except Archer are eccentrics. Edward Spencer is a fire-breathing landowner given to sudden enthusiasms, such as experiments in a hotel which is falling down around him. His son Ripon Spencer is a lusty, mindless young man with the manners of a peasant; his young twin daughters find amusement in dressing a boy in their dead sister’s clothes. Sarah Devlin is an unpredictable flirt, whose attitudes toward the men around her change from moment to moment but whose charm enables her to insult them with impunity. The various elderly residents are brilliantly differentiated but all somewhat out of touch with reality. Even two characters who seem to be minor prove to be complex and important: the pale tutor Evans, who exhibits his venomous hatred of the Spencers when he kills the grandmother’s cat and again when he is found by Archer slobbering his loathing of the dancers below him, and the butler Murphy, who exhibits his unsuspected antipathies when he moves through the hotel spreading gasoline over the cats, who think he is their friend, filling the shoes of the ladies he pretended to serve so loyally, and at last joyfully setting afire the place where he worked for so long. If Archer finds it difficult to understand the people of Kilnalough, at least he realizes that he does not really know them. The Anglo-Irish, like most people in a hierarchical society, mistake the pretended loyalty of their subordinates for the real thing. They believe that they know them, while they are being consistently deceived.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
Major Brendan Archer
Major Brendan Archer, the protagonist, a shy, well-bred British major who witnesses the fall of the British empire in Ireland at first hand. Tired, disoriented, and shell-shocked, Archer goes to Kilnalough to investigate his uncertain engagement to Angela. As he patiently awaits some personal response from her, he becomes fascinated by the uncertainty, decay, and general Irishness of her surroundings, and he experiences the frustrations and lunacies of Anglo-Irish life and the troubles that provide the satiric edge of the book. Valuing propriety, reason, and detachment, he is amazed at the eccentricity and the vulgar excesses of the Anglo-Irish. As he seeks to bring order to the chaos about him, he gradually takes on hotel responsibilities. He provides a liberal outsider’s view on the viciousness of reprisals and a pro-Irish perspective in debates with his host. Except for occasional rather vague sexual fantasies, he is brusque, judicious, and responsible: a peacemaker. For his trouble, the Sinn Féin bury him neck-high in sand to let him drown with the tide. Only rescue by the small, elderly ladies of the Majestic Hotel allows him to flee Ireland with his life and with the only reward for his efforts: the hotel’s much-abused statue of Venus.
Angela Spencer, Archer’s Anglo-Irish fiancée. A straightforward mine of trivial gossip in letters, Angela is a remote, untouchable model of decorum in person. She finessed a slight acquaintance with Major Archer into an engagement, and her detailed letters provide a graspable reality at odds with the confusion left by the war. She soon disappears into her room, however, only to exit in a coffin, having slowly succumbed to leukemia. Her deathbed letter is as long-winded and embarrassing as her personal presence. It is her tenuous relationship with Archer that motivates his observations on the Anglo-Irish troubles.
Edward Spencer, Angela’s eccentric and volatile father, the owner of the Majestic Hotel. He is “a fierce man in flannels” with a stiff, craggy face, rugged brow, and clipped mustache, along with a broken nose and flattened ears that testify to his career as a boxer. The stony set to his jaw suggests his hot temper as he fights—with impatience, irascibility, and resignation—a losing battle against decay. A sportsman and dog lover, at times he is overbearing, opinionated, and tyrannical, at times weak and sentimental. He provides an Anglo-Irish view of the reprisals, of mixed marriages (religion and race), and of the Irish (a subhuman and superstitious rabble composed of criminals and fanatics). His hate-filled desire to avenge the English loss of Ireland leads him purposely to shoot a Sinn Féiner for tampering with his provocatively displayed statue of Queen Victoria. He is Archer’s opposite, his rival for Sarah, and his burden.
Ripon Spencer, Angela’s roguish brother. Compelled by his glands rather than his mind, Ripon is a lazy, ill-mannered bumpkin who spends his days tossing jackknives and romancing village women. He finally elopes with the chubby but winsome Maire, the Roman Catholic daughter of the wealthiest man in Kilnalough, to the consternation of both families.
Sarah Devlin, a temperamental Roman Catholic flirt. Charming and cruel, she becomes the second unattainable object of Archer’s affection, not only because of her youth, her gray eyes, and her attractive sunburn but also because of her sharp-tongued, aggressively Irish wiles. She is catty, rude, self-pitying, and self-deprecating, yet men continue to pay her court, even before she jettisons her wheelchair. Her biting letters of local life and her London visit lure Archer back to Ireland, while the smitten Edward Spencer pays her medical bills. She spurns them both for a brutish British soldier who scorns her race and beats her regularly. Her scandalous behavior and shocking comments suggest the irrationality of the love/hate relationship between the British and the Irish.
Evans, a prototype of Irish rage, the venomous tutor to Spencer’s two frolicsome and mischievous daughters, Faith and Charity. Evans nurses his explosive sense of outrage and injustice. Belligerent and aggressive, he deals the grandmother’s attacking cat a crippling blow and then, in an ecstasy of violence and with a “savage rictus in his white pocked face,” hurls it against the wall. Later, at the Majestic’s final ball, he displays open antipathy for guests and hosts alike.
Murphy, a prototype of Irish deceit, the sullen, two-faced, aged hotel butler. His face is wrinkled and wizened, with his few teeth discolored. Murphy hides his mad hatred of anything English and his malevolent joy at English suffering behind a façade of loyal subservience. Despite his long years of service, he abuses the defenseless and chuckles at their discomfort. Ultimately, he ignites the hotel, its multitude of cats, and himself in an orgy of hate.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support