William Trevor Trevor, William (Vol. 116) - Essay

William Trevor Cox


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Trevor 1928–

(Full name William Trevor Cox) Irish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.

The following entry presents an overview of Trevor's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 9, 14, 25, and 71.

Considered one of the premier writers in English alive today, Trevor has earned the highest praise from critics who compare him to fellow Irishman James Joyce. Trevor is known for his skill in describing the lives of unhappy, unloved, self-delusional characters, and evoking sympathy and humor rather than pity or ridicule for his misfits. Although his short stories and novels are not widely known outside Britain, Trevor has consistently won numerous awards and has enjoyed a prolific career.

Biographical Information

Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland on May 24, 1928. Born into a Protestant family in a predominantly Catholic area, Trevor moved frequently as a result of his father's job. Attending thirteen schools throughout his youth, Trevor claims that he felt like an outsider and this gave him a greater ability to observe others, a talent he would later use in his writing. He attended Sandford Park School in Dublin and St. Columbia's College in Dublin before receiving a B.A. in history from Trinity College in 1950. In the early 1950s Trevor took a number of teaching posts in Northern Ireland and England while also pursuing a successful career as a sculptor. He married Jane Ryan in 1952, with whom he had two sons, Patrick and Dominic. After becoming disillusioned with sculpting, he published his first novel, A Standard Behaviour, in 1958. Through the early 1960s he worked as a advertising copywriter while simultaneously pursuing his writing career. He quit the advertising job to pursue writing full time in 1965, the same year he won the Hawthornden Prize for literature for his second novel Old Boys (1964). Since then, he has won the Benson Medal in 1975 for Angles at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975), an Allied Irish Bank Prize for Literature in 1976, the Heinemann Award for fiction in 1976, the Whitbread Prize in 1978 for The Children of Dynmouth (1976) and again in 1983 for Fools of Fortune (1983), the Irish community Prize in 1979 and the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award in 1994 for Felicia's Journey (1994). In addition, he was awarded honorary doctorates of literature from University of Exeter; Trinity College, Dublin; Queens University, Belfast, and National University of Ireland, Cork, as well as being awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Many of Trevor's works have been adapted into popular and award winning television movies and radio and theater plays. He continues to live and write in England.

Major Works

Trevor is known for his short stories and novels about people on the fringe of society, living in old boarding houses and hotels, who are unhappy and lonely. Set in England, novels such as The Boarding House (1965), Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969), and The Children of Dynmouth (1976) as well as his early short story collections deal with "the theme of loneliness and hunger for love …" to quote Julian Gitzen. In his novels and stories his characters search for the truth, although not all of them are willing to accept it. Particularly well known, Trevor's story "The Ballroom of Romance" recounts a young woman's decision to accept her fate and marry an alcoholic bachelor rather than continue to dream of a better life. In the 1980s Trevor turned his attention to Ireland and the political turmoil there. Setting many of his works in the past, he focused on themes of retribution, forgiveness, conflict, and isolation. Fools of Fortune (1983) centers upon a man living in self-imposed exile in Italy after the death of his family in the Anglo-Irish war. The novel links the importance of history, both personal and national, in shaping destiny, as well as the ways in which people create their own isolation. Stories in his collections The News from Ireland (1986) and Beyond the Pule, and Other Stories (1981) such as "Attracta", "Beyond the Pale", "Another Christmas," and "The News From Ireland" explore the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, arguing that while the past cannot be forgotten, forgiveness can bring restitution. After Rain (1996), a collection of short stories, and Felicia's Journey (1994) constitute Trevor's later works. The former centers on revelations of truth in twelve stories which are thematically connected, while the latter focuses on the destruction of a young unwed pregnant Irish girl and the forces who prey upon her.

Critical Reception

Critics of Trevor's work contend that he is among the greatest short story writers of the late twentieth century. Compared with James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Henry James, and Samuel Beckett, Trevor is praised for his dark humor, his intimate portraits of sad, delusional characters, and his skill at evoking commonplace but lonely settings. Gary Krist writes that Trevor is "arguably the English-speaking world's premier practitioner of a certain brand of artistically distanced fiction …" and Stephen Schiff contends that "Trevor is probably the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language…." Suzanne Morrow Paulson holds that not enough attention has been paid to Trevor's novels. She and other critics assert that within his novels Trevor perfects his character development and merges the tragic and comic. However, others argue that Trevor's work is uneven. James Lasden states: "A faltering muse seems to preside over [Trevor's] work, with the habit of bestowing superb openings, then disappearing, sometimes to return at the last moment, sometimes not." Other critics of Trevor's Collected Stories agree that the quality of his work fluctuates and that some of his characters fail to capture Trevor's interest and falter. However, Lasden concludes that "(w)hat Trevor does have … is something approaching genius for conveying ordinary human unhappiness."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Standard of Behaviour (novel) 1958
The Old Boys (novel) 1964; (play) 1971
The Boarding House (novel) 1965
The Love Department (novel) 1966
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (short stories) 1967
Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (novel) 1969
Miss Gomez and the Brethren (novel) 1971
The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
Going Home (play) 1972
Elizabeth Alone (novel) 1973
The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (play) 1973
A Perfect Relationship (play) 1973
Marriages (play) 1974
Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (short stories) 1975
The Children of Dynmouth (novel) 1976
Old School Ties (short stories) 1976
Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
The Distant Past and Other Stories (short stories) 1979
Other People's Worlds (novel) 1980
Beyond the Pale and Other Stories (short stories) 1981
Scenes from an Album (play) 1981
Fools of Fortune (novel) 1983
The Stories of William Trevor (short stories) 1983
A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature (nonfiction) 1984
The News from Ireland and Other Stories (short stories) 1986
Nights at the Alexandra (short stories) 1987
The Silence in the Garden (novel) 1988
Family Sins and Other Stories (short stories) 1990
Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria (novellas) 1991
The Collected Stories (short stories) 1992
Excursions in the Real World: Autobiographical Essays (autobiography) 1994
Felicia's Journey (novel) 1994
Ireland: Selected Stories (short stories) 1995
After Rain (short stories) 1996

Julian Gitzen (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Truth-Tellers of William Trevor," in Critique, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1979, pp. 59-72.

[In the following essay, Gitzen explores the themes of loneliness and self-delusion in Trevor's work.]

Since the appearance of his first novel, A Standard of Behavior (1958), William Trevor has published a total of eleven volumes of fiction. Despite the popularity of The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965), and The Ballroom of Romance (1972), extensive analysis of his writing is as yet in short supply. Reviewers, on the other hand, have neither ignored Trevor nor hesitated to classify him. With virtual unanimity, they have labeled him a comic...

(The entire section is 5301 words.)

Robert E. Rhodes (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Trevor's Stories of Trouble," in Contemporary Irish Writing, edited by James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter, Iona College Press, 1983, pp. 95-114.

[In the essay below, Rhodes examines five of Trevor's short stories concerning the Irish troubles and finds that they share similar characters and themes.]

William Trevor was born Trevor Cox in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, spent his boyhood in provincial Ireland, and was educated at St. Columba's and Trinity College, Dublin. Since 1958—and mostly since 1964—he has been the author of nine novels, five collections of short stories, and a number of radio and television dramas as well as plays for...

(The entire section is 9065 words.)

Robert Towers (review date 17 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Satisfactions," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVII, No. 8, May 17, 1990, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review Towers argues that while some of the stories in Family Sins are skillfully told, the collection does not measure up to Trevor's earlier work.]

Readers of William Trevor's earlier story collections, six in all, will find in Family Sins, as before, that the Irish settings—mucky farms, shabby genteel boarding houses, schools, convents, hotel barrooms where more than a few drinks are taken—are coolly but sympathetically observed. So are his characters—foolish, blustering, guilty, touching in their various predicaments....

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Max Deen Larsen (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saints of the Ascendancy: William Trevor's Big-House Novels," in Ancestral Voices: The Big House in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Otto Rauchbauer, Lilliput Press, 1992, pp. 257-72.

[In the following essay, Larsen explores shared themes in Trevor's two novels Fools of Fortune and The Silence in the Garden.]

With the spatial awareness of a sometime sculptor, William Trevor has from the start shaped the physical environment in his fictional worlds as the tangible expression of intangible human concerns. In his earlier writings, hotels and boarding houses acquire distinctive symbolic significance as the favored arenas for petty power struggles among...

(The entire section is 8170 words.)

Richard Tillinghast (review date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'They Were as Good as We Were': The Stories of William Trevor," in The New Criterion, Vol. 11, No. 6, February, 1993, pp. 10-17.

[In the following review Tillinghast examines Trevor's treatment of Irish culture in The Collected Stories.]

American readers of William Trevor's fiction may find themselves at something of a loss to decide precisely what nationality or ethnic identity to assign to this acknowledged master of the short story. The usual epithet for Trevor is Anglo-Irish, which, particularly for readers unfamiliar with Ireland, roughly places him, because he was born and raised in Ireland, went to school there, attended Trinity, College, Dublin—and...

(The entire section is 5597 words.)

Reynolds Price (review date 28 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Lifetime of Tales from the Land of Broken Hearts," in New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, pp. 1, 25-7.

[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Price argues that Trevor's short story writing is consistently strong but that his novels are better.]

The voices of extraordinary writers like William Trevor are almost as quickly recognizable as those of great singers. Any lover of song will know a Pavarotti, a Leontyne Price, in an opening phrase—often in a single note. The genuinely sizable writers of fiction announce their presence almost as early. Some, like Conrad or Hemingway, speak in timbres distinctive enough to declare their...

(The entire section is 3152 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 27 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Irish Drift," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 267, August 27, 1993, pp. 40-1.

[In the review below, Craig praises Excursions in the Real World as an insightful social commentary, but argues that it is not reveal enough about Trevor.]

The real world as opposed to the world of fiction, that is; these enjoyable essays by William Trevor provide a series of glimpses into the novelist's past. He was born in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, in 1928, a Protestant in a Catholic culture, and without even the eclat that ownership of a "big house" might have conferred. His father was a bank clerk, and his childhood peripatetic: after Mitchelstown came Youghal and...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

John Hildebidle (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kilneagh and Challacombe: William Trevor's Two Nations," in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 114-29.

[In the following essay, Hildebidle contrasts Fools of Fortune to "Matilda's England" as he discusses Trevor's views on Ireland and England.]

William Trevor has baldly asserted that "There is no such thing today as an Anglo-Irish novelist," which will, among other things, come as a great shock to Molly Keane. Of the supposedly nonexistent species, Trevor himself is an apparently unequivocal example. And the question arises: can one be an Anglo-Irish writer and not, sooner or later, address the peculiar embrace which so painfully joins...

(The entire section is 6180 words.)

George Core (essay date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Belonging Nowhere, Seeing Everywhere: William Trevor and the Art of Distance," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXX, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, Core provides an overview of Trevor's work, discussing recurring themes and Trevor's critical reception.]

As a writer one doesn't belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale. Because society and people are our meat, one doesn't really belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.


(The entire section is 5039 words.)

Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "De-colleenizing Ireland: William Trevor's Family Sins," in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 5, 1993, pp. 28-33.

[In the essay below, Fitzgerald-Hoyt analyzes "Kathleen's Field" and "Events at Drimaghleen" to support of her argument that Trevor breaks typical stereotypes of Irish women.]

The identification of Ireland with female icons—Hibernia, Erin, the old woman, the colleen—has for centuries been a potent and pernicious tendency. Curiously, these stereotypes historically have been embraced by Irish and English alike: the metaphor of Ireland as oppressed woman or occasionally as militant standard-bearer fueled Irish nationalist posters and...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)

Kristin Morrison (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in William Trevor, Twayne, 1993, pp. 1-8.

[In the following excerpt, Morrison discusses Trevor's Irish nationality and recurring themes within his works.]

From some perspectives William Trevor might seem to be a British author: he lives in Devon, on the southwest coast of England; his publishers are two important British firms, Penguin and the Bodley Head; he has been awarded an honorary CBE by Queen Elizabeth II for his valuable services to literature. His work usually occupies a foot or two of shelf space in major bookshops throughout the United Kingdom. And his speech is accented by an urbane mix of various regions of Britain. Even so,...

(The entire section is 3067 words.)

Suzanne Morrow Paulson (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Preface," in William Trevor: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1993, pp. xi-xviii.

[In the following excerpt from her Preface, Paulson argues that Trevor is one of the finest modern short story writers and that he is not appreciated adequately in the United States.]

My sense of tragedy probably comes from childhood—the source, I think, of both tragedy and comedy. The struggle in Ireland—and the sorrow—is a good backdrop for a fiction writer, but it is not for me any sort of inspiration…. What seems to nudge me is something that exists between two people, or three, and if their particular happiness or distress exists for...

(The entire section is 2210 words.)

Gary Krist (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Thunder of Hooves in the Drawing Room," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 655-60.

[In the following review, Krist argues that if readers give Excursions in the Real World a careful reading, they will learn a great deal about the author.]

Any rich and active writing life creates by-products—reviews, essays, travel articles, profiles, and other occasional pieces—that accumulate in the odd corners of a writer's opus until they take on substantial heft. If the writer is good enough, these pieces, while perhaps not originally intended to appear between hard covers, may eventually be gathered into a collection and published. If the...

(The entire section is 2530 words.)

Patrick McGrath (review date 8 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Never Did Spider More Hungrily Wait," in New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1995, pp. 1, 22.

[In the following review of Felicia's Journey, McGrath praises Trevor's ability to create memorable characters and a satisfying resolution to a dramatic story.]

William Trevor is an Irishman who lives in England and writes often about the English. He is a moral realist who possesses a deliciously dry wit, a nice sense of the macabre and a warm sympathy for the flawed and suffering characters he creates with such fine psychological precision. There is a conviction implicit in all his work that people divide into predators and prey, that the human condition is...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)

James Bowman (review date 6 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Improbable Monster," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, March 6, 1995, pp. 67-8.

[In the following review, Bowman argues that despite Trevor's romantic depiction of the homeless, Felicia's Journey is well written.]

In Britain, William Trevor's 13th novel and 21st book of fiction won the Sunday Express "Book of the Year" award and the Whitbread Prize. Now published in the U.S., Felicia's Journey should be taken as stating a most persuasive case on behalf of its 67-year-old Irish author, who has long lived in England but continues to write about both his native and his adoptive countries, as one of the two or three best living writers...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)

Sara Maitland (review date 19 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Most Improbable Beauty," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII. No. 10, May 19, 1995, pp. 31-2.

[In the following review, Maitland faults the conclusion of Felicia's Journey, but still finds the work powerful and engaging.]

William Trevor is an eminent British writer, claimed—very properly—by the British literary establishment; winner of many of the most prestigious British literary awards. But importantly, Trevor is not British, but Irish—he was born in County Cork in 1928, brought up in provincial Ireland, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters. He is a very Irish writer.


(The entire section is 1135 words.)

Wendy Lesser (review date 20 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Casualties of Deception," in New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1996, p. 15.

[In the following review, Lesser considers the concepts of truth and self-knowledge in After Rain.]

The great novels draw you in entirely, it seems, so that while you are reading them you forget you ever had another life. But the great short stories, in my experience, keep you balanced in midair, suspended somewhere between the world you normally inhabit and the world briefly illuminated by the author. You see them both at once and you feel them both at once: the emotions generated in you by the story carry over instantly and applicably to the life outside the book. This is...

(The entire section is 1382 words.)

Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt (review date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wonderment and Serenity" in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1997, p. 4.

[In the following review, Fitzgerald-Hoyt agues that Trevor achieves a coherency in the twelve stories about revelations contained in the collection After Rain.]

In the title story of William Trevor's stunning new collection, After Rain, a young woman who has traveled to Italy to come to terms with a failed love affair as well as a troubled family past reflects upon a painting of the Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola:

The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor's advance. Beyond—background to the...

(The entire section is 893 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Beards, Richard D. A Review of Fools of Fortune and The Stories of William Trevor. World Literature Today 58, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 416-17.

Praises Trevor's skill as a story teller.

Bonaccorso, Richard. "Not Noticing History: Two Tales By William Trevor." Connecticut Review XVIII, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 21-7.

Considers the role of history in Trevor's short stories "Beyond the Pale" and "The News from Ireland."

Coad, David. A Review of Felicia's Journey. World Literature Today 69, No. 3 (Summer 1995): 585.


(The entire section is 277 words.)