Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Strategies of Silence: Colonial Strains in Short Stories of the Troubles

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Strategies of Silence: Colonial Strains in Short Stories of the Troubles

Article excerpt

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Focusing on examples from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, this essay argues that the short story form both reflects the problems of articulation and representation within that fractious political situation and, with its characteristically wry, elliptical point of view, can be a subversive strategy of understatement. It suggests certain linkages between the short story tradition in Ireland and 'modernist' narrative techniques--part of the explanation for the prevalence of both in Irish fiction--and considers the oft-observed connection of the form to marginal and colonial conditions. It finds a resonance between this form and familiar features of Troubles writing: the emphasis on reticence and silence, the articulation of historical forces through 'gaps' in the narrative, the intrusion of political disturbance into the private or domestic realm, the use of symbolism, the attempt to express a social condition through the use of non-mimetic modes.

Though there is no shortage of formulaic 'troubles' thrillers, there was a strong tendency during the conflict to seek non-realist modes, to try to re-imagine a calcified political condition through a formal restiveness in literature. Along with this, came a suspicion of verbosity and extended realism, a feeling that a language which cleaved too closely to surface appearances would reproduce the jaded antagonisms of the conflict, without probing its historical causes. Strategic reticence, then, combined with literary forms amenable to historical origins or structures of thought beneath surface appearances were often deployed (Seamus Heaney's engagement with the Troubles, for instance, displays both these tendencies). The deployment of reticence for expressive purposes is, I suggest, at the heart of the short story form, particularly as it developed in the twentieth century. Given the stringency and economy which the tightness of its form imposes to some degree, the short story is geared towards the unsaid and suggested, rather than the elaborately articulated. It does not develop the leisurely analysis of character or the sustained investigation of social milieu that the novel enjoys. It tends to deploy the wry, sidelong glance rather than dwelling in the 'knowable community' that Raymond Williams characterizes as the province of the realist novel. (1) It relies, in other words, on strategies of silence. But, at its best, the short form uses its compression and its deployment of suggestion as a virtue. So if the Troubles prompted elliptical and non-realist modes in other forms, it seems sensible to look at how it has been treated in the short story.

Famously, Ireland has produced a plenitude of short story masters such as George Moore, James Joyce, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, and John MacGahern. Marginality is sometimes used to explain this phenomenon. It has become commonplace to claim that, lacking the epistemological self-confidence of the metropolitan centre, the realist novel could not take root in Ireland. This theory is often used to explain the wealth of experimental, avant-garde writing that Ireland has produced. (2) The short story has also long been a form in which marginal voices could find expression and perhaps this is one reason why it has been so prevalent in Ireland. Frank O'Connor's famous notion that the short form was particularly amenable to expressing the condition of 'submerged population groups' seems enduringly resonant. (3) For instance, since the late nineteenth century, many women writers have found it an innovative way to represent a circumscribed female identity and, as we shall see, this counter-tradition has been continued in short stories from the North of Ireland by writers such as Mary Beckett and Anne Devlin. Predictably, it has proved remarkably congenial for emerging or post-colonial literatures. The expressive gaps or silences of the short story can be powerful indicators of muteness. …

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