Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Catholicism, Creativity, and the Reconciliation of Contrarieties: The Power of Love in John McGahern's the Barracks

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Catholicism, Creativity, and the Reconciliation of Contrarieties: The Power of Love in John McGahern's the Barracks

Article excerpt

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WITH John McGahern's death in Dublin in 2006, the literary world lost a nuanced and original voice. His award-winning novels contain understated yet powerful evocations of the inner lives of his characters. (1) Though critical in his work of the weaknesses in the Catholic faith, McGahern felt "gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing" (All Will Be Well 133). Like Joyce, he was critical of Irish repression, but he chose to live his last years in the Irish countryside where he was raised. Repelled by his father's violent narcissism, McGahern nonetheless presented him as worthy of study in his final fictional portrayal of his father in Amongst Women (published in 1990). (2) Originally blasted for his honest portrayals of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of parents and clergy in The Dark, which was banned, he was eventually awarded numerous prizes and prestigious academic positions for his body of fiction. (3) McGahern knew well the vicissitudes of life, and in his patient and quiet way, he wrote from the beginning of his career about the eventual reversal of perspective that could generate beauty and possibility from even the most horrifying realities.

In his first novel The Barracks, published in 1963, McGahern's portrait of Elizabeth Reegan reveals penetrating insights on the imprisoning yet simultaneously liberating visitation of a death sentence upon the protagonist, who is dying from breast cancer. (4) Elizabeth is the second wife of Reegan, a disgruntled sergeant in the Garda, who lives with his young children in the barracks, a prison to offenders and home to police staff and their families. Elizabeth, as a step-mother, tries hard even before she is diagnosed to belong and cope with her husband's volatile moods and his children's emotional distance from her. The working of her mind and heart is the center of the book. Dermot McCarthy has noted that "what strikes one immediately in this novel is how much McGahern minimizes his own presence as the little boy, Willie Reegan," because the "focus is on the character of the step-mother, first and foremost" (51). In the daily activities that surround Elizabeth's increasing illness, McGahern conflates the sacred with the mundane and demonstrates how the vigilant mind is able to perceive moments of ephemeral beauty and intimations of immortality in an increasingly limited and melancholy existence. The open nature of Elizabeth's mind and heart becomes McGahern's instrument for demonstrating the powers of perception and creativity available to us all, powers which ultimately reveal to her, as it did to Viktor Frankl in his years of confinement and suffering in various concentration camps, that "self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence" (111). Eamon Maher suggests that "McGahern wants to record in a systematic manner what Elizabeth, with her heightened vision, sees" (John McGahern 16).

When Elizabeth Reegan experiences the paradox inherent in all things and in the least likely places, she apprehends the melancholy but equally beautiful truth that loss may actually be gain and that one's end may be one's beginning--a truth found both in her Catholicism with its sense of hope and in the kind of creative assimilation of beauty and truth that Keats wrote about when he described contrarieties that fade as fast as they appear and vanish into the night air like the nightingale whose flight leaves only the memory of a song--or the silent tale of the urn which lingers and fades at once. If we read the novel in the patterned way in which Elizabeth experiences the last months of her life, where one despairing experience after another is changed into its opposite, we see that McGahern ultimately points to the triumph of beauty, light, and hope in Elizabeth's ability to apprehend spiritual realities; most importantly, the power of love increasingly triumphs over her fear. (5) Throughout the text, McGahern points to hopeful possibility within her apparently dreary end: anxiety turns to wonder; imprisonment becomes liberation; and the need to be loved transforms itself into the supreme choice simply to love. …

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