Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
Mary Lavin’s “The Will” is set in rural Ireland; in such a rural locale, the people tend to be excessively concerned about respectability and to be afflicted with a meanness of spirit. The story begins soon after the mother’s will has been read by a solicitor. The four children then discuss the consequences of the mother’s cutting Lally out of the will. What follows is a series of contrasts, and some conflicts: between the children who remained in the rural Irish town—Kate, Matthew, and Nonny—and Lally, who left home at an early age for the city and marriage.
The first contrast is between the practical, and socially respectable, desire of the other children to provide Lally with some of the money taken away from her by the will and Lally’s steadfast refusal to violate her mother’s wishes. Kate takes the lead and prods Matthew to suggest that each of them will contribute to Lally a part of the money they received. Their concern seems, for the most part, to be for what people will say rather than for their sister. Matthew says, “We won’t let it be said by anyone that we’d see you in want, Lally.” Lally, however, resists their attempt to circumvent their mother’s will; she believes that such a plan would be in violation of her mother’s wishes and that, if her mother did not wish her to have the money, she should not have it. Lally has a sense of fairness and justice that contrasts with the others’ attempt to preserve respectability.
Such a contrast can also be seen in her reaction to the next proposal by Matthew. Matthew offers to pool their resources and purchase a hotel in the city for Lally to run. In his eyes, a hotel would be more respectable than the boardinghouse that Lally now has: “It would be in the interests of the family,” he tells Lally, “if you were to give up keeping lodgers.” Lally rejects this proposal as well. She thinks of her departed husband rather than respectability. “I’d hate to be making a lot of money and Robert gone where he couldn’t profit by it.” She is interested in fulfilling people’s desires and does not worry about what people think.
Another contrast is that Lally, although an exile from the house, is the only one to display any feeling for her mother’s death. She cries when she remembers her mother and their relationship before she left home, “but the tears upset the others, who felt no inclination to cry.” She also cries when she hears that her mother’s last words were “blue feathers”—Lally had worn those blue feathers the day she left home to go to the city. It is obvious that the mother felt much affection for Lally. She could not, however, rise above her social prejudices. Kate says that the mother “might have forgiven your marriage in time, but she couldn’t forgive you for lowering yourself in keeping lodgers.” In contrast, Lally overcomes her mother’s attitude and continues to love her.
The next contrast is that all the family members except Lally treat appearance(s) as reality; Lally consistently refuses to do so. Nonny is worried that people will think that the family has quarreled about the will, but Lally responds, “What does it matter what they say, as long as we know it isn’t true.” Appearances mean nothing to Lally; what matters is what people know. Both Matthew and Kate, on the other hand, take their stand for, as Kate says, “keeping up appearances.” The others also have a “grudge” against Lally for her run-down appearance, which reminds them of what they, too, will someday be. Kate says, “You’re disgusting to look at.” Nonny joins in, “I’d be ashamed to be seen talking to you.” Lally does not answer them or even acknowledge their insults; she has things to do in the city and must go. The others oppose her leaving on the same day of the burial, but this is more for appearance’s sake than Lally’s: All of them, even the maid servant who was clearing away the tray, were agreed that it was bad enough for people to know she was going back the very night that her mother was lowered into the clay, without adding to the scandal by giving people a chance to say that her brother, Matthew, wouldn’t drive her to the train in his car, and it pouring rain.
The story shifts its focus from the conflict between Lally and her family to Lally’s own thoughts as she leaves the house to return to the city. She recalls her earlier dream of escaping from the town and finding “the mystery of life.” Now she realizes that she was not changed by marriage, or her life in the city, or by keeping a boardinghouse: “You were yourself always, no matter where you went or what you did.” Lally does, however, believe in one change: The change of death and what happens after death is the mystery. She begins to remember tales of souls being tortured from the catechism and suddenly becomes troubled by the state of her mother’s soul. She rushes into a church and asks the priest to say some masses for her mother’s soul. She tells the priest, “She was very bitter against me all the time, and she died without forgiving me. I’m afraid for her soul.” The priest tells her that Mrs. Conroy has left three hundred pounds for masses, but Lally believes that “it’s the masses that other people have said for you that count.” What is needed is a sacrifice by one person for another, not the performance of a ritual.
She rushes to catch the train, but her thoughts are still with her mother as she sits in the train. She thinks that she may have some money left after buying food for herself and her children, and this money will be used for ten masses and to light some candles at the Convent of Perpetual Reparation. Lally is confused, even feverish, but what is important is the contrast between her feelings and concern for her mother and the coldness of the others. Even Mrs. Conroy is cold and calculating, with her three hundred pounds for masses, while her daughter lives in poverty. Only Lally cares.
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