William Trevor's Martyrs for Truth

By Bonaccorso, Richard | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

William Trevor's Martyrs for Truth


Bonaccorso, Richard, Studies in Short Fiction


In a 1989 Paris Review interview, William Trevor speaks of his fascination with the focusing power of the story form: "I like the whole business of establishing its point," he states, "for although a story need not have a plot it must have a point" (Stout 143). The point in Trevor's stories appears to be of a moral nature. Indeed, one could call them "moral mysteries." His typical tale builds through a series of concealments and partial apprehensions, until, with details and identities established, moral truths, or more precisely, moral implications that emanate from truths, begin to resonate, forming the story's ending. But because he takes such pains to avoid the didactic, and because he seems to have such respect for the relativity, and the ambiguity of each situation, one may question whether or not Trevor's stories promote a general moral vision. In the same 1989 interview, Trevor states that he has no message, no philosophy imposed upon his characters beyond "the predicament they find themselves in" (Stout 145-46). His declared preference for the story form testifies to his distrust of philosophic generalization and yet also to his desire to dramatize the need for truth, a truth that, perhaps, can only be glimpsed in the momentary and the miniature.

Although truth in Trevor's world is difficult to define in general and objective terms, it can be said to exist to the extent to which his characters recognize and respond to it. In a moral sense, there are two kinds of Trevor characters: those who try to evade the truth and those who gravitate, often in spite of themselves, toward it. In a 1979 essay entitled "The Truth-tellers of William Trevor," Julian Gitzen suggests that the majority of Trevor's characters evade truth by cultivating "comforting illusions, ranging from harmless daydreams and fantasies to compulsive and profound convictions" (60). Indeed, it is through such strenuous evasions of truth by many of his characters that Trevor establishes a moral,reality. Like an insinuating disturbance, it emerges from the sub-structure of the story to its surface. In each individual story, however, it is no easy matter to determine whether Trevor's moral portraiture also implies a moral assertion.

One critic goes so far as to suggest that Trevor creates moral situations only to reveal their absurdity. In an essay published in 1988, Michael Ponsford places an emphasis on "the destructive energy of truth," its inevitable insinuating power to "flourish and breed," even to a point where it achieves nothing but humiliation for all concerned. Because truth becomes an avenger in the lives of the characters, Ponsford asserts that Trevor is questioning its "validity" (86).

Perhaps the best indicators of the consistency of Trevor's moral vision are his significant minority, those characters who find themselves pursuing rather than fleeing truth. They climb, often unconsciously, out of the general complacency to a moral high ground, obeying an instinct rather than formulating a conceptual ideal. In all cases they suffer for the truth, sacrificing the comfortable arrangements that exist among the less conscience -driven. Three examples may serve to reveal a pattern.

In the curiously amusing "The Third Party," for example, Trevor may be suggesting that truth is like an elusive third party in all relationships. Two men, a provincial named Boland and a Dubliner named Lairdman, meet in a Dublin bar to discuss the future, since Lairdman, who has had a clandestine affair with Boland's wife, is now openly taking her from him. Boland, unlike the adulterous couple, is quite given to truth-telling. Indeed, it seems that his truthfulness is the catalyst of the breakup of his marriage to Annabella, a compulsive liar: "He believed that his wife actually disliked the truth-a rare enough attribute, he imagined, "in any human being" (36). Perhaps because he has lived with a self-deluder for 12 years, Boland is eager for honesty. …

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