Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--William Carleton, "Wildgoose Lodge"

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 success is based on the critical assumption that the novel, primarily a realistic form, demands an established society, whereas the short story does not. 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 prepared for the novel's modern mode of realism until the 19th century. 
William Carleton's careful attention to specific detail and his ability to create a sense of the personality of the teller makes him the most important Irish intermediary between the old folk style and modern realism. Although Carleton's work is little known outside of Ireland, Benedict Kiely has called him "possibly the greatest writer of fiction that Ireland has given to the English language," and Yeats has said that "modern Irish literature" began with Carleton's 1830 Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry
Carleton did not perceive himself to be a creator of stories, so much as a re-creator of fact. Harold Orel notes that Carleton believed fiction and fact were inextricably mixed; thus, like many other romantic writers, such as Hawthorne, Irving, and Poe, he made no real generic distinction between the terms "sketch," "story," "essay."  In many of his narratives, Carleton frequently reminds his readers that his story is based on fact, using such language as "exactly as it happened" and "strictest truth."  Orel says that this emphasis on truth was obsessive with Carleton, that he emphasized fact even when his story was written to illustrate a theory or a moral.
            This combination of fact and thematic significance signals an important shift in the development of the 19th-century short story, for a crucial problem for fiction writers of the period was how to write a story based on "real" events that illustrated a thematic idea but did not depend on the symbolic conventions of the old allegorical romance form.  One of the most important conventions to develop from this need by such romantic writers as Carleton was the creation of a personal teller whose emotionally-charged account of the event took precedence over both mimetic and didactic considerations.
Although Margaret Chesnuitt claims that Carleton goes no further than to reproduce what is ostensibly an eye-witness account in one of his best-known stories, "Wildgoose Lodge," other critics of Irish fiction generally agree that the piece, 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 developed by Poe and Hawthorne.  Barbara Hayley argues convincingly that the accuracy of Carleton's account is less important than his "skill at picking out from the real event the facts that would act most powerfully in a story." Because this "tale of terror," as Carleton tells us in a final note, "is 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?
Narrated by an eye-witness, the story recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a group of Ribbonmen, a Catholic secret society.  Since Carleton was not actually present at the murder, his choice of the first person point of view is a romantic literary device--typical of Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne--to emphasize the reactions of the teller.  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" when he first rides into view of the ominous house.  Moreover, like many Poe narrators, Carleton's narrator says he cannot define the presentiment or sense of dread he feels, for it seems to be a mysterious faculty, like Poe's "perverse," beyond human analysis.  Although Carleton never wrote about his theory of the construction of fictional narrative, it is clear that "Wildgoose Lodge's presentation of the past as presage makes possible the kind of tight unity popularized by Poe in which even the first sentence seems self-consciously aimed toward the climax and denouement.
Another self-conscious literary device Carleton uses is the creation of a thematically-appropriate atmosphere surrounding the events by describing the day as gloomy and tempestuous beyond anything he remembers.  Moreover, the fact that the meeting in which the murders are planned takes place in a church and involves ceremonies of brotherhood is perceived by the narrator to be bitterly ironic.  This ironic contrast 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 swear an oath of the horrifying revenge he plans, the candle goes out, a sound of rushing wings fills the church, and a mocking echo of his words in "supernatural tones" seems to resound throughout the building.  In what would be comic in any other framework, the captain explains that the candle was snuffed out by a pigeon that sat directly above it, and the narrator apologizes for not pointing out that pigeons had built nests among the rafters--a mundane explanation for the seemingly supernatural rustling of wings.  That Carleton's narrator conveniently neglects to mention the pigeons until he has used them to create a quasi-supernatural and symbolically meaningful effect is simply another indication of his self-conscious use of unifying fictional techniques to transform a factual event into a literary occasion.
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 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 the captain pushes the final victim back into the flames, the narrator's transformation of the events into a mythic, symbolic story is complete.  As the fire throws its light on the faces of the murderers, "the scene seemed to be changed to hell, the murderers to spirits of the damned, rejoicing over the arrival and the torture of some guilty soul."  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 over two dozen men being hanged in different parts of County Louth.
What makes "Wildgoose Lodge" a modern short story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and ironically distant at once, and the story's selection of metaphoric detail to make 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 the story from mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure.

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