The Tragedy of Imelda's Terminal Silence in William Trevor's Fools of Fortune
Russell, Richard Rankin, Papers on Language & Literature
The concluding terse scene of William Trevor's Big House (1) novel, Fools of Fortune (1983), portrays the return of Willie Quinn to the remnants of his ancestral home Kilneagh in County Cork, Ireland, burnt by British Black and Tan soldiers some 60 years before. Many members of Quinn's family died in the fire, and he murdered the ringleader of the killers, a man named Rudkin, as an act of revenge. He has been in self-imposed exile since then. Imelda, whom he fathered with his cousin, Marianne, has come to live with her mother in the house but has been mute since she was a child. Willie's return to Kilneagh after years on the run should be triumphant, or at least happy, but it is not. This critically misunderstood final scene focuses on Imelda's silence, which is overpowering. Her mute suffering is the final chapter in the decline of this Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy family and constitutes Trevor's critique of the evils of cyclical, transgenerational violence in Ireland. Her silence, however, has been wrongly read as positive, even redemptive and saintly, a reading that fails to understand the causes of her suffering and Trevor's conception of evil, a power that can be broken only through forgiveness, as shown in the short story "Attracta" that inspired Fools of Fortune and serves as a helpful contrast to the novel. The other factors that suggest Imelda's unhappiness and the lack of a meaningfully consoling conclusion involve a realization of the community's and her parents' perverse mythologizing project that makes her a veritable saint and the tragic structural trajectory of the novel toward silence.
Imelda has become mute because her seemingly heartless mother has told her of past atrocities at the house that eventually overwhelm the child and render her permanently, though vicariously, traumatized. (2) She has also eavesdropped on a number of conversations about her itinerant father and has been told by the maid Philomena how Rudkin was murdered with a knife. (3) On a number of occasions, Imelda sees the atrocities that have been committed in the past at Kilneagh. One of these vicarious, imagined, but searingly real flashbacks occurs at the conclusion of the first chapter of Imelda's first section in the novel: "Imelda closed her eyes. Pictures slipped about. The flames devoured the flesh of the children's faces and the flesh of their arms and of their legs, of their stomachs and their backs" (159). Gradually, she succumbs to a mental life composed of meditations on the violent acts committed at Kilneagh: "More and more her reveries claimed her in the classroom or when she wandered about the fields or during the Sunday-evening anthems, or in bed. It was a habit she'd got into, like reading her mother's diaries, and listening" (168-69). Other chapters in this first section on Imelda also end disturbingly with more of her vivid imaginings of the atrocities committed at the house. For example, chapter three concludes with her visualizing the aftermath of the murder after reading a newspaper account of it: "She imagined the head, its weight tearing the flesh that still attached it to the body. She imagined the eyes and the mouth, and the body twitching the way she'd seen a turkey's once, for nearly a minute after death" (172). Imelda's imaginative immersion in the violence of the past finally traumatizes her to such a degree that she becomes silent, a mute, vicarious "witness" of sorts to atrocities associated with Kilneagh.
The final, two-page section of the novel opens bucolically with Imelda's parents walking past the mulberry trees at Kilneagh, talking mostly about their former classmates, but, significantly, "They do not speak of other matters" (191). The tragedies of the past are too much to even be articulated, and, as the passage that immediately follows this one indicates, these horrors have literally become embodied in the silent Imelda. Her supposed happiness is just as false as her "face [which is] meticulously made up" (191), which belies the fact that she is now middle-aged:
Imelda does not speak at all, nor ever wishes to [. …