Tragedy, History, and Myth: William Trevor's Fools of Fortune

By McAlindon, Tom | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Tragedy, History, and Myth: William Trevor's Fools of Fortune


McAlindon, Tom, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Even among the best of its kind, William Trevor's Fools of Fortune (1984) stands out as a Big House novel of singular complexity and scope. In this richly allusive work, the story of the house at Kilneagh between 1918 and 1983 is fashioned as a tragic and symbolic distillation of Irish history from the sixteenth century to the present day. But in keeping with Trevor's conviction that the artist must deal with what he calls 'the parochial' in such a way as to 'illuminate the human condition', (1) the novel has a transhistorical, mythic dimension too.

The ambitious nature of the novel is signalled in the title, a phrase which links it with Romeo and Juliet (III.i.136). (2) Here, too, the title intimates, is a story of young lovers whose happiness is undone by the violence endemic to the polarized world in which they have the misfortune to be born. Here, too, the tragedy involves the protagonist's surrender to the spirit of hatred and revenge, and an element of malign chance which mocks good intentions and reasonable hopes. Here, too, the harshness of the tragic ending is modified by a consolatory reaffirmation of love and union in the midst of ruin.

But whereas the feuding which splits the world of Romeo and Juliet seems to have no beginning, in Trevor's novel the perspective is historical throughout. Like that other meditation on colonialism and civil war, Conrad's Nostromo, Fools of Fortune has its own historian, a pacifist priest who repeatedly insists that the lesson of Irish history is the futility of violence. Like Nostromo, moreover, it employs narrative techniques (including memory, reverie, dream, and nightmare) which continually break down distinctions between past, present, and future: there is 'the battlefield continuing' from Elizabethan times to the current 'trouble up in the North', symbolized by the permanently stopped clock in what remains of the ruined house at Kilneagh. (3)

Although he may have had Nostromo in mind when he set about locating a narrative of recent history in an extensive historical continuum, and making it exemplary of the whole, another analogy in this respect, and probably an important influence, is David Thomson's classic memoir, Woodbrook (1974). Beginning with suggestions of an endangered idyll, moving through a phase of hope and renewal, and ending in desolation, Woodbrook has the shape and tone of a tragic novel. Early in the 1930s, Thomson, a history student at Oxford, goes to the Big House at Woodbrook in Co. Roscommon as tutor to the two daughters of a cultured Anglo-Irish family, the Kirkwoods. He stays there for almost ten years, failing in love with Woodbrook, with Ireland, and with his pupil Phoebe (with whom he reads Romeo and Juliet). But the Kirkwood fortunes decline and the estate is sold to its native Irish tenants, the Maxwells. The family moves to Dublin, where Phoebe soon falls victim to a serious illness and dies. Back in wartime England, Thomson's sense of loss on hearing of her death seems complete; but it is not. He returns to Ireland almost thirty years later, assuming that his old friends the Maxwell brothers will have given new life to Woodbrook. Instead, he finds that it too has died. The land is overgrown with thorn, abandoned implements litter the farmyard; Tommy Maxwell, childless and arthritic, has retreated with his wife to the servant quarters, leaving the unmanageable Big House to become an echoing shell.

Summarized thus, Thomson's memoir is a moving and personal version of a familiar pattern. What makes it unique is the way in which the author's affection for Woodbrook stirs his historical imagination. History continually seeps through his autobiographical narrative, not in any orderly or academic fashion, nor with any clear sense of chronological development, but according as particular places, persons, or customs prompt parenthetical explanation or narrative inset: 'past and present merged'. (4) Thus at the end the reader is left with a well-informed grasp of Ireland's troubled history from the arrival of the Normans until the time of the book's publication. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Tragedy, History, and Myth: William Trevor's Fools of Fortune
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.