William Trevor Trevor, William (Vol. 21) - Essay

William Trevor Cox


(Short Story Criticism)

Trevor, William 1928-

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

Trevor is acknowledged as one of Ireland's finest contemporary short story writers. Often compared to James Joyce and Frank O'Connor, he skillfully blends humor and pathos to portray the lives of people living on the fringe of society. While many of his early works are set in England, his most recent fiction incorporates the history and social milieu of his native Ireland. In works such as The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories, Trevor explores the importance of personal and national history as he focuses on lonely individuals burdened by the past.

Biographical Information

Born in Country Cork to Protestant parents, Trevor moved frequently while growing up and attended thirteen different schools before entering St. Columba's College in Dublin in 1942. Shortly after graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, he left Ireland to accept a position teaching art in England, where he currently resides. While he was in his mid-thirties, he abandoned a successful career as a sculptor to pursue writing full-time. His first novel, A Standard of Behaviour, was generally dismissed as imitative and pretentious. The Old Boys, proved significantly more successful, winning the Hawthornden Prize for literature in 1964. In the years that followed, Trevor continued to write novels and also produced a number of well-received plays. However, it is as a writer of short fiction that he has received the most critical and commercial attention. The publication of his first collection of short stories, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, was soon followed by the highly popular works The Ballroom of Romance and Angels at the Ritz, and Other Stories. One story in particular—"The Ballroom of Romance"—established Trevor's reputation as a talented short fiction writer, inviting comparisons to works by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark. Trevor's most recent short fiction collections, The News from Ireland, and Other Stories, Family Sins, and Other Stories and Two Lives: Reading Turgenev; My House in Umbria continue to generate popular and critical acclaim.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In his works Trevor typically focuses on eccentric individuals isolated from mainstream society. For example, in "The General's Day" a retired British army officer living in a shabby apartment falls victim to his housekeeper who exploits his loneliness and steals from him. Many of Trevor's characters are imprisoned by the past, such as the title character of the short story, "In Love with Ariadne" who cannot bear the shame of her father's suicide and rumors of his pedophilia. As a result, she enters the convent, refusing a future with a man who loves her. Other Trevor characters, dissatisfied with their present lives, relive the past. In "Virgins," two women who are unhappy in their marriages recall their youth when they fell in love with the same man, while the protagonist of My House in Umbria confuses memories from her past with the present. Trevor's recent short fiction incorporates these thematic concerns with the history and political turmoils of Ireland. Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories and The News from Ireland, and Other Stories address more directly the troubles in Ireland and its tenuous relationship with England. For instance, in the title story of Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories English tourists are exposed to terrorist violence while staying at an isolated resort in Northern Ireland. While initially rationalizing the event, the vacationers are eventually forced to confront their own roles in perpetuating the Anglo-Irish conflict.

Critical Reception

While some critics have praised Trevor's emphasis on the past, others have found his subject matter tiresome. Anatole Broyard lamented: "Too many of Trevor's characters are haunted by the past. After a while, when I grew tired of them, they reminded me of the sort of people who sentimentalize in attics. Although nothing demands deftness so much as nostalgia, Mr. Trevor is sometimes content just to shamble around it." Despite the often bleak tone of his work, Trevor has been lauded for his compassionate characterizations; in particular, many commentators have noted and commended his sensitive treatment of female characters. Trevor's restrained writing style and subtle humor have also received favorable attention. The last few years have seen the publication of several full-length studies of Trevor, expanding critical analysis of his work to include such topics as gender relations, religious symbolism and the context of Irish literature.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, and Other Stories 1967

The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories 1972

Angels at the Ritz, and Other Stories 1975

Old School Ties (short stories and memoirs) 1976

Lovers of Their Times, and Other Stories 1978

The Distant Past, and Other Stories 1979

Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories 1981

The Stories of William Trevor 1983

The News from Ireland, and Other Stories 1986

Nights at the Alexandra (novella) 1987

Family Sins, and Other Stories 1990

Two Lives: Reading Turgenev; My House in Umbria (novellas) 1991

The Collected Stories 1992

Other Major Works

A Standard of Behaviour (novel) 1958

The Old Boys (novel) 1964

The Boarding House (novel) 1965

The Love Department (novel) 1966

Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neills Hotel (novel) 1969

Miss Gomez and the Brethren (novel) 1971

* The Old Boys (play) 1971

Going Home (play) 1972

Elizabeth Alone (novel) 1973

The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (play) 1973

A Perfect Relationship (play) 1973

Marriages (play) 1974

The Children of Dynmouth (novel) 1976

Other People's Worlds (novel) 1980

Scenes from an Album (play) 1981

Fools of Fortune (novel) 1983

A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature (nonfiction) 1984

The Silence in the Garden (novel) 1988

Excursions in the Real World (memoirs) 1994

Felicia's Journey (novel) 1994

Juliet's Story (juvenilia) 1994

*Adapted from Trevor's novel The Old Boys.

Michael Standen (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, in Stand, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1967, p. 56.

[In the following mixed review, Standen discusses the uneven quality of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake.]

William Trevor's The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, comes in a jacket so swinging and irrelevant that one is eventually forced to the conclusion that there was a muddle in Bodley Head's design cloakroom. Mr. Trevor's characters are in fact mostly ageing and/or lonely—certainly characters of England before the Flood. There are twelve stories of middle-class life—nearly all the private tragedies of people who would expect to keep up appearances but whose lives have dipped wildly and uncontrollably beneath the surface.

Often objects (an antique table, the furnishings of a luxury penthouse) play a crucial part and this may be generally true of the short story form which forces a writer to coalesce rather than develop his characters. [Yukio] Mishima does the same thing, using thermos flasks, a wardrobe, a pearl. Objects (and 'servants') are part of the trap that William Trevor's characters live in. His method is clinical although he is less truly detached than the Japanese writer—in fact it is those stories where his sympathy breaks through which are the best. Of the twelve "The General's Day" is probably the most satisfying and "A School Story" is finely done. The overall impression though is one of unevenness. In "In at the Birth" for example a lady who goes to babysit for a couple, who are in fact childless, ends up herself in a cot—the child they never had. Here there is not much of sympathy and too much of formula. One is left wondering if William Trevor isn't working a very narrow seam.

Auberon Waugh (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brief Cases," in The Spectator, May 13, 1972, pp. 733-34.

[Waugh is an English novelist, journalist, and nonfiction writer. In the following laudatory assessment of The Ballroom of Romance, he examines the characters in Trevor's short stories, asserting that characters "who in ordinary life would merely be depressing suddenly become objects of compassion, and as such afford keen enjoyment. "]

All Mr Trevor's characters are people whom any sane man would wish to avoid. The English have an admirable convention that we never talk to strangers—in railway carriages, bars or anywhere else—unless to request or convey precise information. The reason for...

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Paul Theroux (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Miseries and Splendours of the Short Story," in Encounter, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, September, 1972, pp. 69-75.

[Theroux is an American fiction writer, critic, and travel writer who, since 1963, has lived outside the United States, first traveling to Africa with the Peace Corps and later settling in England. Many of his novels and short stories have foreign settingsKenya in Fong and the Indians (1968), Malawi in Girls at Play (1969) and Jungle Lovers (1971), Singapore in Saint Jack (1973)and feature characters whose conflicting cultural backgrounds, as well as their personal conflicts, provide the substance of the story. Critics often find...

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Peter Ackroyd (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Angels at the Ritz, in The Spectator, Vol. 235, No. 7689, November 8, 1975, pp. 604-05.

[An English biographer, critic, nonfiction writer, poet, and editor, Ackroyd is known for his novels that focus upon the interaction between artifice and reality and emphasize the ways in which contemporary art and life are profoundly influenced by events and creations of the past. In the following excerpt, he offers a positive assessment of the stories comprising Angels at the Ritz.]

Angels at the Ritz is one of the most imaginative and substantial books I have read this year; the fact that it is a volume of short stories is probably beside the...

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V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Explosions of Conscience," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 26, No. 6, April 19, 1979, p. 8.

[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, he considers the "obscure dignity" of characters in Lovers of Their Time, and Other Stories.]

The excellent short story depends so much on alerting immediate doubts and acute expectations; we are alerted by a distinctive style and self; yet there are one or two writers who cunningly insinuate an abeyance of the self, a quiet in the inquiry that, for the moment,...

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Julian Gitzen (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: 'The Truth Tellers of William Trevor," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1979, pp. 59-72.

[In the following excerpt, Gitzen offers a thematic analysis of Trevor's early short stories. ]

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...

(The entire section is 1943 words.)

William Trevor with Mira Stout (interview date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Paris Review, Vol. 31, No. 110, Spring, 1989, pp. 118-51.

[In the following interview, Trevor discusses his background, the creative process, and the influences on and major themes of his fiction. ]

[Stout]: What did you do after leaving university?

[Trevor]: When I left Trinity Dublin, I tried to get a job, and it was very difficult in those days—in the 1950s in Ireland. Eventually I found an advertisement in a newspaper that said someone's child needed to be taught. "Would suit a nun" it suggested at the end of it, which was interesting, and I actually got that job. So I used to leave Dublin every day on the bus,...

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Robert E. Rhodes (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rest is Silence': Secrets in Some William Trevor Stories," in New Irish Writing: Essays in Memory of Raymond J. Porter, edited by James D. Brophy and Eamon Grennan, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 35-53.

[Rhodes is an American educator and literary critic with a special interest in Irish literature. In the following excerpt, he explores the theme of secrecy in Trevor's stories, asserting that it is "a means of directing our attention to his most important fictional concern: the mystery of human personality, behind which may also preside some assumptions, conscious or otherwise, about dimensions of the Irish personality. "]

Prior to the 1986 collection The...

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Francis Doherty (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Trevor's 'A Meeting in Middle Age' and Romantic Irony," in Journal of the Short Story in English No. 16, Spring, 1991, pp. 19-28.

[In the following essay, Doherty determines the influence of James Joyce's "A Painful Case" on Trevor's "A Meeting in Middle Age."]

Many Irish writers have worked the theme of isolation, and William Trevor is one of the present masters. In his novel of 1965, The Boarding House (1968), he has his central character, Mr. Bird, the man who runs the boarding house (an analogue for the creative artist as he creates the boarding house as his own work and to suit himself), admit to a specialist's interest in loneliness:...

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Julia O'Faolain (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Saving Touch of Fantasy," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 46005, May 31, 1991, p. 21.

[O'Faolain is an English novelist and short story writer. In the following review, she examines the tension between reality and fantasy in Trevor's Two Lives.]

William Trevor's fictions swing between realism and the escape-hatch of fantasy and the process is symbiotic, for it is his characters' plausibility which earns credence for their excesses. Like real people, they can commit cartoonish follies without becoming cartoonish. Reality dogs them. Realism delivers them up to scrutiny and we, like Peeping Toms, may even feel an uneasy shiver at its verisimilitude....

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Bernard O'Donoghue (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Plain People of Ireland," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4676, November 13, 1992, p. 19.

[O'Donoghue is an Irish poet, critic and editor. In the following favorable review of The Collected Stories, he discusses the defining characteristics of Trevor's short stories.]

Graham Greene said that William Trevor's Angels at the Ritz (1975) was "one of the best collections, if not the best collection since Joyce's Dubliners". Leaving aside the extravagance of this (Greene is bound to like Trevor: the Collected's opening story, "Meeting in Middle Age", is like Greene without the metaphysics), the Dubliners...

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Bruce Allen (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Trevor and Other People's Worlds," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. CI, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 138-44.

[In the following mixed assessment of Two Lives and The Collected Stories, Allen derides the pedantic, overly-political nature of Trevor's short fiction set in and around Northern Ireland.]

Afiçionados of the contemporary short story could undoubtedly summon up a dozen or so names if asked to identify the best living practitioners of the form. For me there are three now writing in English who dominate this genre: the Canadian Alice Munro, America's Peter Taylor, and the Anglo-Irish master William Trevor. (I'm tempted to expand the list to...

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Kristin Morrison (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Garden and Trevor's 'System of Correspondence,'" in William Trevor, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 9-18.

[Morrison is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Irish literature. In the following excerpt, she analyzes "The News from Ireland" from a cosmological perspective, maintaining that Trevor attempts to connect past and present in his fiction through a complex series of mutual interrelationships.]

When Mr. Erskine, the Pulvertaft's estate manager, begins courting Miss Heddoe, the English governess, in "The News from Ireland," he invites her "to stroll about the garden" and boasts that he "reclaimed the little garden [that surrounds his...

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Suzanne Morrow Paulson (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories about Courtship: Bachelors/Spinsters, Fathers/Daughters," in William Trevor; A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 57-82.

[In the following excerpt, Paulson commends Trevor's sensitive and realistic portrayal of gender relations in "The Ballroom of Romance," "Kathleen's Field," and "The Wedding in the Garden. "]

While codes governing courtship and marriage are changing in some parts of the world, in most places feminine and masculine gender identities are governed by two antagonistic codes of behavior—purity for women, promiscuity for men. Certainly Trevor's stories about courtship—such as "The Ballroom of Romance," "Teresa's...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Broyard, Anatole. "Radical Comes from Root." The New York Times Book Review (31 October 1972): 43.

Derides the traditional style of The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories.

Craig, Patricia. "The Pressure of Events." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4530 (26 January 1990): 87.

Observes three recurrent themes in Trevor's short fiction: domestic scandals, acrimony in marriages, and recollecting the past.

Gordon, Mary. "The Luck of the Irish." The New York Review of Books (22 December 1983): 53-4.

Studies the influence of Trevor's middle class, Irish Protestant...

(The entire section is 407 words.)