Thursday, May 28, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--George Moore, "Julia Cahill's Curse" and "Homesickness"

In Ireland, the beginnings of the modern short story is credited to George Moore.  Such critics of the short story as H. E. Bates and Frank O'Connor have both suggested that the modern Irish short story begins with Moore, particularly in l903 with the publication of The Untilled Field.  Many critics have agreed with Moore's own typically immodest assessment that the book was a "frontier book, between the new and the old style" of fiction. Letter of March l, l9l5, to Edmund Gosse.  Moore felt that The Untilled Field was his best work, boasting that he wrote the stories to be models for young Irish writers in the future.        
And indeed as many critics have suggested, the book had an influence on the collection of short stories that has become perhaps the most influential short story collection in the 20th century, James Joyce's Dubliners.  As Graham Hough has suggested, although no writer has carried farther than Joyce "a dual allegiance to an exhaustive naturalism on the one hand and a complex aesthetic symbolism on the other.... Dubliners has an obvious ancestor in Moore's stories in The Untilled Field.
However, no one has really looked very carefully at the nature of Moore's short stories, especially in such a way as to suggest how they are so typical of the short story genre.  One can certainly agree with Hough and others that the stories seem unique for their time in combining the content of French naturalism with the concern for style of the fin de siecle aesthetics; however, this does not really give us a means by which to approach the individual stories.  For there is another important element about Moore's short stories which contributes to their story nature--that is, their allegiance to the folk tale form.  "Art begins in the irresponsible imaginations of the people," said Moore in Avowals, and "as literature rises out of speech it must always retain the accent of speech."
Moreover, no one has looked very closely at another aspect of Moore's view of story, that is, his notion that reality itself must be understood by means of story.  In "Recollections" and "Thoughts" about Moore, both John Eglinton and  W. B Yeats suggest that Moore felt he could understand a subject if he could see it as "story." Eglinton says that Moore felt he possessed a special faculty of this sort that distinguished him from others, and Yeats adds that he would do anything to make "his audience believe that the story running in his head at the moment had happened, had only just happened."
This allegiance to the folk tale form, the primal origins of story itself, and this need to understand reality by means of story can be clearly seen in one of Moore's best-known and most anthologized stories from The Untilled Field--"Julia Cahill's Curse."  "Julia Cahill's Curse" is a slight piece, but a fairly clear example of Moore's effort to use the folk tale mode as a means to understand social reality.  The basic situation is that of a story being told by a driver to the first-person narrator, who hearing the name, Julia Cahill, urges the driver to tell him her story.  The story, which indeed constitutes the bulk of "Julia Cahill's Curse," is of an event that took place twenty years previous when the Priest Father Madden had Julia put out of the parish, and consequently Julia put a curse on the parish that every year a roof would fall in and a family would go to America.  The basic conflict in the tale is between Julia, who in her dancing and courting, represents free pagan values, and the Priest, who, in his desire to restrain Julia, represents church control of such freedom.        
After preaching in church that Julia is the evil spirit that makes men mad, Father Madden threatens to change Julia's father into a rabbit if he does not turn her out.  The teller of the tale has no verification of the Priest's words, since all those who were in church that day have either died or gone to America, nor does he have anything more than hearsay that Julia was seen raising her arms to the sky to curse the village;  however, as the teller and listener near the village itself and the listener sees the ruins of the houses, the listener reflects, "I could see he believed the story, and for the moment I, too, believed in an outcast Venus becoming the evil spirit of a village that would not accept her as divine."      
The conflict between Julia and the priest is clear enough; however it is the relationship between the teller and the listener that constitutes the structural interest of the story, for what the tale is really about is the nature of story used to understand social reality.  What we have here is an actual event of social reality that has been mythicized by the teller and thus by the village folk both to explain and to justify the breakdown of Irish parish life in the late nineteenth century.  The teller of the tale believes that the desertion of the parish is due to Julia's curse.  The listener of the tale does not believe in the curse in this literal way but, as he says, for the moment he too believes it, at least in some way that is not made explicit.  It is the nature of the belief that constitutes the difference and thus the significance of the story.  Whereas the folk may believe such a tale literally, the modern listener believes it in a symbolic way.  And indeed, what Moore does here is to present a story that is responded to within the story itself in both the old way and the new way, that is, as a literal story of magic and as a symbolic story to account for the breakdown of the parish life--the tension between  pagan freedom and Church control.  Thus, "Julia Cahill's Curse" is a clear example of Moore's use of story to understand social reality.      
Frank O'Connor singles out "Home Sickness" as representative of the direction that the Irish short story would take in the twentieth century, arguing that it has the "absolute purity of the short story as opposed to the tale" (37).  Although O'Connor says that as a piece of artistic organization, "Home Sickness" is perfect, one's first impression of the story is of its structural simplicity. James Bryden, an Irish immigrant who works in a bar in the Bowery, goes back to Ireland "in search of health," and for a short time considers marrying a peasant girl and remaining there.  What unifies the story beyond its simple narrative structure is the understated but sustained tone throughout of Bryden's detachment from the reality of Irish life and his preference to live within a sort of reverie of nostalgia which he is disappointed to find unrealized in reality. He takes no interest in the life of the people and does not so much decide to marry Margaret Dirken as he passively allows the impending marriage to be announced.
Although Bryden finds himself longing for the Bowery as he contrasts the "weakness and incompetence of the people around him with the modern restlessness and cold energy of the people he left behind him," and although he blames the ignorance and primitive nature of the folk who cling to religious authority as his reason to return to America; the conclusion of the story suggests a more subtle and universal theme by unifying the detached dream-like mood of reverie that has been counterpointed throughout against Irish village reality. For the story is truly about the unbridgeable gap between restless reality and dream-like memory.        
The style of the story shifts in the penultimate paragraph from what at first seems like a straightforward realistic presentation of Bryden's detached disappointment with Irish life to a compressed summary account of his ordinary and uneventful life in America.  After his wife has died and his children are married, he sits in front of the fire, an old man, and "a vague, tender reverie" of Margaret floats up to his consciousness.  "His wife and children passed out of mind, and it seemed to him that a memory was the only real thing he possessed, and the desire to see Margaret again grew intense."
The final lyrical paragraph of the story seems in sharp contrast to the realistic style of what has preceded it, in a way that is very similar to the  contrast between realism and concluding lyricism that characterizes Joyce's "The Dead":  "There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself, and his unchanging, silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken.  The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it, and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes around it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills."
 However, as in "The Dead," the concluding lyrical style is not so much in contrast to the former style of the story as it first appears, for what Moore has accomplished is what characterizes the so-called "modern" style of Chekhov, Anderson, and Joyce.  What seems to be mere verisimilitude in the story actually is a subtle development of a unified tone of reverie and memory that dominates over the description of everyday reality.  Although the story on the surface seems to focus on external reality, the real emphasis, as is so often the case with Chekhov and Joyce, is on inner life, for which the details of external reality are significant either only by contrast or as images of subjective reality.  Although the concluding revelation of the "unchanging, silent life" of Bryden at first seems unprepared for, much as the lyrical evocation of Gabriel's life does in "The Dead," a closer look at the story reveals that the entire story is dominated by images that suggest the predominance of the subjective life of reverie and imagination over the ordinary life of the everyday.      
This typically modern theme of presenting the predominance of the inner life of imagination over that of the everyday can be seen in almost a paradigmatic form in "The Clerk's Quest." Edward Dempsey, the "obscure, clandestine, taciturn" little clerk, is the quintessential embodiment of what Frank O'Connor has called the "little man" who has predominated in the short story form since Gogol's Akakey Akakeivitch and Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener.  The story is similar to the tales of the break up of ordinary reality so favored by Chekhov as well as the stories of the lonely little man possessed by an inner secret life frequently developed by Sherwood Anderson.       

No comments: