Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

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The main theme of “Up the Bare Stairs” is the relationship between individuality and (to use a neutral term) “background”—perhaps a more loaded and revealing term might be “culture.” The relationship is dealt with problematically, as a tension, not schematically, as a matter to be resolved or explained away. Within a narrow framework, Seán O’Faoláin provides a dynamic series of contrasts: past and present, youth and age, personal and public history, poverty and reward, home and exile, self and community or institution, appearance and reality. These opposites confirm the tension and its continuing active presence in the protagonist’s life.

A sense of the protagonist’s context is important for an appreciation of the significance of Nugent’s rising above it. It has become commonplace to describe the political life of Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century as stagnant and degraded. (A celebrated representation of this state of affairs is James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”) As “Up the Bare Stairs” makes plain, however, there was much vivid political activity at the local, as distinct from the national, level. This activity is characterized in the story by a passionate, if unthinking, adherence to a given faction. Nugent’s father’s slavish loyalty to Redmond is presented as an inevitable counterpart to the slavery of tailoring.

It is in reaction against such subjection that Nugent immerses himself in his schoolwork. The moment of confrontation between Nugent and his parents leads to supplanting one form of coherence (the Redmondite) with a more authentic, self-generated one (“the work”). The result of that dedication is to give him the appearance of an Englishman. The “War Services” for which Nugent receives his knighthood have nothing to do with the Irish armed struggle for independence from the British Crown, a struggle whose linguistic repercussions, at least, leave him “indifferent.”

Despite Nugent’s scholastic brilliance, his extraordinary (perhaps even slightly incredible) success in the public realm, and his strenuous efforts to repudiate the oppressions of the past, he still remains deeply involved with his formative influences. He may have gained autonomy of action, as his war with Angelo suggests, but it remains moot as to whether he has achieved autonomy of spirit. His comprehension of and fidelity to the traditions of his people is impressively enacted in the scene of reunion with which the story closes, as well as in the reason for that scene, the decision to bury his mother in her native soil.

Rejection of the dependent relationships of his youth, both the one with his parents and the one with Angelo, is a valuable declaration of personal independence. However, to reject the anonymous traditions that animate the powerful authority articulated by parents and teacher proves to be a more difficult task, or at least a task that Nugent has not thoroughly analyzed. However, perhaps because his rebellion is a subjective one, a substitution of self-respect for pitiable dependence, the protagonist has not felt the need to explore the more general influence of communal traditions. Thus, the story’s conclusion may denote reconciliation and acquiescence as well as constraint and enclosure. Nugent, despite appearances, has remained “unmistakably a Corkonian.”

It is not merely the end of “Up the Bare Stairs” that bears witness to the continuing presence of the past in the present. There are numerous subtle instances of this relationship during the course of the story. A case in point is the marked contrast between how little Nugent divulges of his present elevated position or of the career that led to it and the seemingly total recall he possesses of his days at West Abbey. Another representation of the emotional force and unexpected vitality of Nugent’s memories is the fact that once he embarks on his recollections, the anonymous narrator becomes merely an auditor, a pretext for the past.

The narrator, despite his temporary obliteration and the reader’s ignorance of him, is a crucial feature of the story’s coherence. In a number of ways he embodies the unmediated present. It may be inferred that he came of age in the new independent Ireland of which Sir Francis knows nothing. The narrator’s encounter with the great man, and his unwitting initiation of Nugent’s revelations, illustrate the availability of the present to the past and its unpredictable involvement with it. At the end of the story, the narrator does not turn his back on the scene into which his traveling companion steps.

However, the present exists in the story passively. The two narrators’ companionship and the ostensibly uneventful nature of the journey facilitate a temporary suspension of the present. The past rushes in with increasing emotional vehemence to fill the apparent vacuum. Although the story’s structure of conflict has rich cultural and conceptual repercussions, because its origin is located in “the heart” (as the epigraph, the opening two lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Pity of Love,” has it), it can only be lived and relived, not alleviated or dispelled.