Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

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