Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Beginnings of the Modern Irish Short Story: William Carleton

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my readers. As I have mentioned before, Ireland has always been a special place for me. My wife is Irish, and she and my daughter and I spent a year in Dublin once when I was on a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, lecturing on the American short story at University College and Trinity College. I have been back in Dublin since then, studying Joyce with students from California State University, Long Beach. Before I retired, I taught the history of the Irish Short Story at Long Beach. To commemorate St Patrick’s Day 2010 and to call attention to Ireland’s contribution to the short story form, I post the following brief essay on what I think is the first modern Irish short story.

The short story has always been a more successful narrative genre for Irish writers than the novel. The most common conjecture offered to account for this is based on the critical assumption that the novel, primarily a realistic form, demands an established society. And as the contemporary Irish short-story writer William Trevor points out, when the novel began in 18th-century bookish England, Ireland, largely a peasant society, was not really ready for it. As a result, Irish fiction remained aligned with its oral folklore, the oldest, most extensive folk tradition in Europe, throughout the 18th century and was not ready for the novel's modern mode of realism until the 19th century. Prominent Irish critic Declan Kiberd has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a "vibrant oral culture" was challenged by the "onset of a sophisticated literature tradition"; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a "fusion" between the folk-tale and modern literature.

William Carleton is often credited for being the most important Irish intermediary between the old folk style and the modern realistic one as a result of his careful attention to specific detail and his ability to create a sense of the personality of the teller. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story. The purpose of the first-person narrator in post-romantic short fiction is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated, but also to transform the event from everyday reality to an individual perspective. Carleton embodies several important elements that came together in the 19th century to create the modern short story: the involved first-person point of view, the symbolic transformation of the materials of the oral folk tale, and realism as a function of verification of the actuality of the event narrated.

Carleton's "Wildgoose Lodge," with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is typical in technique of the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne. Critics agree that Carleton probably achieved this pre-Poe success by instinct rather than by knowledge of short story models. Indeed, the tight structure, economical detail, and symbolic language of the story is not typical of Carleton's more familiar discursive, detailed, and often polemical style. Because this "tale of terror" is, as Carleton tells us in a final note, "unfortunately too true," the question it raises for students of the history of the short story is: By what means does Carleton, without previous models, transform an event based on fact into a modern symbolic narrative with thematic significance?

The story recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a group of Ribbonman, a Catholic secret society. Not a story of Irish sectarian conflict, for both the murderers and the murdered family are Catholic, the event is recounted in the horrified accents of a former Ribbonman who witnessed the murders. Originally appearing in 1830 in The Dublin Literary Gazette as "Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman," the story was retitled "Wildgoose Lodge" in the second series of Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1833). Carleton was not present at the action he describes, although he does say he once saw the body of Patrick Devann, the Captain of the Ribbonmen responsible for the murders, hanging from a gibbet in Country Louth. Thus, his choice of the first person point of view is a romantic literary device, typical of such writers as Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, to emphasize the reactions of the teller. Although ostensibly merely a report of an eye-witnessed event, the structure of the story reflects the kind of self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story.

A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, "Wildgoose Lodge" is a classic example of how the modern romantic short-story writer developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without resorting to allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot construction.

The story begins with the narrator receiving a summons to a secret meeting of the society to which he belongs. Although the summons has nothing extraordinary or startling about it, he has a premonition of approaching evil; an "undefinable feeling of anxiety pervades [his] whole spirit," very much like the undefined sense of anxiety that pervades the spirit of many of Poe's narrators, such as the unnamed narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" as he first rides into view of the ominous house. Moreover, like Poe's narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Black Cat," the narrator says he can not define the presentiment or sense of dread he feels, for it seems to be a mysterious faculty, like Poe's perverse, beyond human analysis.

Another self-conscious literary device Carleton uses is to create an atmosphere of artifice surrounding the events by describing the day as gloomy and tempestuous almost beyond anything he remember. Moreover, the fact that the meeting in which the murders are planned takes place in a church and involves ceremonies of brotherhood is perceived to be bitterly ironic to the narrator. This ironic contrast between the church and the men is further emphasized when the narrator describes the devilish malignancy of the Ribbonman captain as "demon-like," "Satanic," "supernatural," and "savage." When the captain slams his fist down on the altar bible to make the oath of the horrifying revenge murders he plans, a sound of rushing wings fills the church and a mocking echo of his words seem to resound throughout the building. Although the sound of rushing wings and the echo of the man's oath have natural explanations--doves in the rafters frightened by the leader's striking the bible so hard and natural echoes reverberating through the building--they communicate a sense of mockery of Christian values.

The actual scene of the revenge murders is also described symbolically, for the torrential rains have created a lake in the meadow where the house lies, isolating it on a small island in the middle so that the Ribbonmen have to create a human bridge over which they can travel to reach it. The narrator frequently cries out that the very memory of the horrible night fills him with revulsion, sickening him. The actual description of the murders is graphic and horrifying. When a woman leans out the window and cries for mercy, her hair aflame, she is "transfixed with a bayonet and a pike" so that the word "mercy" is divided in her mouth. When another woman tries to put her baby out the window to safety, the Ribbonman captain uses his bayonet to thrust it into the flames. The story ends with the narrator affirming that although the language of the story is partly fictitious, the facts are close to those revealed at the trial of the murderers, which resulted in between 25 and 28 men being hanged in different parts of County Louth.

What makes "Wildgoose Lodge" a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and ironically aware at once. Moreover, the story's selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment--the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish--shift the emphasis in this story from mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure. It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.


Ann Graham said...

Thanks for the great essay. I knew nothing about William Carleton before now.

Charles E. May said...

So happy that you are still following my little essays, Ann. Carleton is worth reading--every bit as important as Poe and Hawthorne, just not as well known.

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