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Reading John McGahern's "Love of the world" a fistful of images

Liliane Louvel


This paper focuses on McGahern's particular use of images and metaphors as a means of concentrating the energy of a short story. This double entendre of McGahern's is also part and parcel of his use of irony and paradoxes. He was a great one for humour but could also use scathing irony when he disapproved of his contemporaries. “Love of the World” bears traces of this. I will try to show that a central image condenses the whole story perhaps true to one of McGahern's only critical texts about his work: “The Image”. This fine text written years before “Love of the World” perfectly applies here. It holds under the reader's eyes a Medusa's mirror in which “the totally intolerable” is reflected. In this text he develops one of his favourite ideas, that of the link between image and imagination and how one strong image often triggers the writing of a story or a novel.

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Auteurs étudiés :

John McGahern
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1Let me start the reading of this story with a personal memory dating back to the time when I stayed with John and Madeline McGahern in Colgate University, Hamilton, NY. John McGahern had been invited as visiting professor, a position he had already occupied several times before. This was well-known territory. I had the privilege of following one of the phases of his writing the latest of his short stories. One day, he came and asked me to read one of the drafts of the story. We went through it and we agreed one of the passages still sounded a bit awkward. He more or less disappeared for three days. Then he came back with a new draft. The former rather long passage about Callaghan’s sexual preferences for older women had been very much abridged into the following:

From a very young age he was drawn to older women: ‘Callaghan doesn’t want the trouble of schooling them; he likes his breaching done’ was joked to cover suspicion and resentment of any deviation. What pang of pleasure passing them might they be missing? They too would kill the wildfowl though they had no taste for the dark meat.

2Then John McGahern started to explain what kind of work he had been doing. He had spent some time in the University Library to try and find a suitable word that would condense into one closely-knit phrase what he had previously developed at greater length. Thus he had come upon “breach” which articulated three terrains: that of horses, of agriculture and the earth, and of women. And of course “breach” entails a violent action of rupture, a disruption of order and of the law, which is what happens in the story. The polysemy of the word1 enabled McGahern to condense in one sentence the complex stakes of the story and the crucial role of Callaghan in the final disaster. Then he further showed me how he decided to express the passage of time using the flight of birds. I told him I wished my students had been there and heard him as a validation of what they took as my own erratic developments on the use of metaphors and other literary devices. Tempus fugit was a phrase borrowed from one of McGahern’s early memories he liked to quote. The inscription figured on a sundial on the wall of one of the schools he attended and this he illustrated in the short story under scrutiny.

3I will have occasion to analyze the use of bird images in the course of this paper which will concentrate on the particular use of images and metaphors as a means of concentrating the energy of a short story. This double entendre of McGahern’s is also part and parcel of his use of irony and paradoxes. He was a great one for humour but could also use scathing irony when he disapproved of his contemporaries. “Love of the World” bears traces of this.

4Then I will try to show that a central image condenses the whole story, perhaps true to one of McGahern’s only texts about his work: “The Image” 2

When I reflect on the image two things from which it cannot be separated come: the rhythm and the vision. The vision, that still and private world which each of us possesses and which others cannot see, is brought to life in rhythm—rhythm being little more than the instinctive movements of the vision as it comes to life and begins its search for the image in a kind of grave, grave of the images of dead passions and their days.

Art is an attempt to create a world in which we can live: if not for long or forever, still a world of imagination over which we can reign, and by reign I mean to reflect purely on our situation though this created world of ours, this Medusa’s mirror allowing us to see and to celebrate even the totally intolerable.3

5This fine text written years before “Love of the World” perfectly applies here. The story holds before the reader’s eyes a Medusa’s mirror in which “the totally intolerable” is reflected. In this essay he develops one of his favourite ideas, that of the link between image and imagination and how one strong image often triggers the writing of a story or a novel. In a public reading he gave at Poitiers University in 1993, he declared that the image of lorries parked along the Thames gave rise to the writing of Amongst Women, an image which eventually disappeared from the novel. “Love of the World” also carries some of McGahern’s own world and particular inner landscape. I will pinpoint some recurring features which bring cohesion to his work as a whole, making of each separate story or novel, a part of a very strong œuvre building up a microcosm.

6Finally, I will try to show that this short story full of silence, sound and fury actually tackles the question of change, evil changes and good ones, and what they entail and bring about in people’s lives. The narrator’s final stand takes on a metaphysical and ethic dimension.

7To sum up the story, told by one of the villagers: the Harkins return to live in a small Irish town after the heart attack of the young father of three who was a much admired football player as well as a guard. The story follows the course of his slow physical and moral degradation after reaching the climax of his football career. He turns out to be unable to adapt to change and fails at passing the Sergeant’s Exam. As his wife, Kate, claims she has a right to work, he becomes more and more violent with her, wrongly suspecting her of having an affair with a former friend named Callaghan, himself engaging in drinking bouts and going out with women. His pent-up resentment at her taking up a job results in his violent throwing her out of the house. It reaches a climax when he shoots her. As she falls down, her hand remains shut tight for it still contains a handful of currants. He will then put an end to his life while in jail awaiting his trial.

8The story is unusual as it deals with quite a long period of time, over ten years actually, corresponding to the Harkins’ life away from the small town. The time span runs backwards to the beginnings of Harkin as a football star, then to his marriage to Kate, the birth of their children and then his heart attack and to the slow degradation of the couple’s relationship ending in her violent death then in his. At the end of the story, the children are at university and Maggie, Kate’s mother, is chosen as “Personality of the Year”. All in all, the story must cover something like twenty years, a very long time for a short story usually dealing with compact events.


9I remember walking once with John McGahern in the fields behind their house overlooking a lake. We were discussing his work and the kind of exacting task it was. Finding the right endings was particularly tough: “the ending is not right” he would say about the work in progress and it took him a long time and a lot of rewriting to find the right-sounding ending. This is why his endings sound so true to purpose. “Love of the World”’s ending is no exception to the rule. It is a particularly fine one. It answers the question suggested by the title which is full of irony and double entendre as “love of the world” seems to ask: love of what world? Whose world? When one realizes that the story, is the story of a human being killing another one, a story of violence…what sort of a world can one love then? Is it love of the world or love of life? This is the very lesson Maggie, Kate’s mother, honoured by her small town for her resilience4, ironically teaches the narrator at the end of the story, reasserting her love of life and her desire to live. “I was—in life” is her way of explaining what she felt but they are also heart-rending words uttered by a mother whose daughter met a violent death. She had no choice and then made the most of it. The presence of the beautiful night and of the world are there to assert the beauty of being alive in the narrator’s eyes as he utters the coda of the story:

“What did I do? I did nothing. What else could I do? I was—in life.”

She was silent then until we turned in round the lake. Even where I am now it’s still all very interesting. Sometimes even far, far too interesting. The moon was bright on the lake, turning it into a clear, still sky. The fields above the lake and the dark shapes of the hedges stood out. Maggie sat quietly in the car while I got out to open the gate. Only a few short years before she would have insisted on getting out and walking the whole way in on her own. Wild fowl scattered from the reeds along the shore out towards the centre of the lake as soon as the car door opened. They squawked and shrieked for a while before turning into a dark silent huddle. Close by, a white moon rested on the water. There was no wind. The stars in their places were clear and fixed. Who would want change since it will come without wanting? Who this night would not want to live? (41, 42)

10Once one has read the final paragraph of the story, the opening paragraph, as we shall see, acquires its complete meaning and the reader fully grasps its innuendoes. The incipit displays an opposition between the acknowledgement of quiet, — the indication of silence and the tendency of “eyes” to be downcast when violence erupts — and the evocation of “violent and shocking” events, of the ensuing “shock wave”. It cryptically announces what is going to happen, as the voice of the narrator sounds proleptic and ominous. It seems to suggest that although “Nothing much ever happens”, when it does… that although everything is quiet, when there is noise…:

It is very quiet here. Nothing much ever happens. We have learned to tell the cries of the birds and the animals, the wing beats of the swans crossing the house, the noises of the different motors that batter about on the roads. Not many people like this quiet. There’s a constant craving for word of every sound and sighting and any small happening. Then when something violent and shocking happens, nobody will speak at all after the first shockwave passes into belief. Eyes usually wild for every scrap of news and any idle word will turn away or search the ground.(1)

11The incipit deals with general truths about life in that area, the narrator’s voice affecting to resort to common knowledge using generalizations such as: “it” “we”, “not many people”, “nobody”, “eyes”, “any idle word”. There is no singular presence but, as in a chorus, the overall attitude of a community becomes palpable. And after all, “Love of the World” is the story of such a small community living in a far-off isolated still rural place such as the part of Ireland J. McGahern chose to live in. The reader feels he is caught in a sort of paradox, for if he reads about general truths and feels a dehumanized presence (only eyes and words are evoked without any identifiable subject), he nevertheless recognizes the outlines of a very particular place in terms of location and landscape.

“Out of darkness”: Metaphors and images

12“The image is the basis of all writing; the writer’s business is to pull the image that moves us out of darkness.”5 In this story images play a crucial role as they are subtly woven into it and achieve its cohesion. One in particular, to me, remains as the central image of the story, as I will argue further down.

13The bird metaphor is a highly developed one and it spreads like a net all over the story. In the previously-mentioned passage about “breaching” women, an analogy is offered by the villagers resorting to bird metaphor: “What pang of pleasure passing them might they be missing? They too would kill the wildfowl though they had no taste for the dark meat.” Naturally enough, to understand something which is beyond their grasp, the rural townspeople will resort to the world they know, that of hunting and fishing which is going to play such a part in the Harkins’ lives too. Towards the end of the story, the aftermaths of the double drama may be felt:

A silence came down around all that happened. Nobody complained about the normal quiet. Bird cries were sweet. The wingbeat of the swan crossing the house gave strength. The noise of a recognizable old diesel beating around the road brought reassurance. The long light of day crossing the lake seeped us in privilege and mystery and infinite reflections that nobody wanted to question.

Gradually, the sense of quiet weakened. The fact that nothing much was happening ceased to comfort. A craving for change began again. The silence around the murder was broken. All sorts of blame was apportioned as we noticed each year that passed across the face of the lake, quickening and gathering speed before swinging round again, until crowds of years seemed suddenly in the air above the lake, all gathering for flight.(40)

14This passage is the passage J. McGahern also worked on in Colgate showing how it was a means of conflating together the passage of time and the presence of birds. How to render visible the flight of years if not by using the image of those who can literally fly, i.e. birds, and above all those wonderful mysterious birds: swans. How to contract in one metaphor the passage of time, the birdlike years all ready to gather for flight? This is how one should read “each year that passed across the face of the lake, quickening and gathering speed before swinging round again.” It required but the replacing of “birds” by “years” to reach the strength of the metaphor. It also required the minutest observation of birds’ flight and their movements. This McGahern did beautifully.

15It is remarkable that the same elements: birds, swans, the lake, the noise of motors “beating around the road” should recur in this extract as in the opening paragraph after slight modifications such as that of the verbs: “that batter around on the roads”. This passage can also be considered as the development of what was contained in the opening paragraph: “Then when something violent and shocking happens, nobody will speak at all after the first shockwave passes into belief. Eyes usually wild for every scrap of news and any idle word will turn away or search the ground.” finds its counterpart in the final passage: “A silence came down around all that happened. […] The silence around the murder was broken.” Then “the whole racing wheel” started again before coming to “a sudden brief stop when Maggie was the astonishing choice for ‘Personality of the Year’”(40)

16When Callaghan drives back after the murder he disturbs wild fowl:

he[…] found himself driving out to the lake, parking by the gate. As he got out, he disturbed wild fowl in the reeds along the shore, and they scattered, shrieking, towards the centre. There was no moon but there were clear reflections on the water. Never did life seem so mysterious and inhospitable. They might as well all be out there in the middle of the lake with the wild fowl. (37)

17At the very end of the story, wild fowl reappear: “Wild fowl scattered from the reeds along the shore out towards the centre of the lake as soon as the car door opened. They squawked and shrieked for a while before turning into a dark silent huddle”(41), which provides one more echo of the introductory paragraph. Thus we can see that the bird imagery is one of the red threads that stitches the story together and creates in the reader’s mind a powerful visual system he will keep as a kind of identikit of the story. It works at the macrolevel of the story. Whereas at the microlevel, inscribed in it, as it were, and very powerful, another image erupts towards the end linked to violence.

18The central image of the story to me, that which stuck in my mind after first reading it, is contained in the following passage. It is a very humble and domestic image which encompasses the whole drama. It textually appears at Kate’s death:

Beforehand she had been eating currants nervously from a glass jar on the sideboard, and she lifted [her son] awkwardly because the currants were still in her hand and she did not want them to scatter. […] As she turned her back, she heard a sharp click, but did not turn to see him lift the gun. One hand was reaching for the door when she fell, the other closed tight. When it was opened, it held a fistful of small black currants. (35, 36)

19This is a potent image of holding onto life at the same time as it shows the derision of those small black currants held tight as a treasure. Held in her hand as a sign of life, they are then let loose when her fist is forced open after her death. It also moves the reader with the strength of a trivial and yet potent detail, that of those small black currants which had been picked up and will never be eaten. But another metaphorical fist had already been evoked in the story before. Kate’s mother commented upon Harkin’s character after his first visit to them as Kate’s betrothed: “There’s no use wishing […] we’ll have to make the best fist of it we can.” (my emphasis). Another sign of bitter irony, it is also a sign of fate.

20Image can also serve humour and irony and McGahern had a great sense of both: for instance the choice of a comparison could serve to pass a scathing remark on his contemporaries’ flaws. Commenting on Callaghan’s grief at his uncle’s death, the narrator makes up a comparison allying feelings and the dark clothes worn for mourning, often out of hypocrisy: “When his uncle died leaving him everything, the plain grief he showed did not look put on like a dark suit for the day.”(26) McGahern’s humour has often been ignored, a shame really. The narrator uses all kinds of irony starting with irony of fate when “a young, vigorous man struck down without warning elicited natural sympathy.” This struck-down young man will also be the agent of the cruel fate he will bring about on his wife and children. Another instance of bitter irony is provided when describing one of the football games Harkin plays before his heart attack: “Mayo lost but Harkin had played his heart out at centrefield.” (7, my emphasis)

21One of the recurring symbols of McGahern’s is that of life seen as a wheel. “Love of the World” uses this potent image as well. One of his earliest stories is entitled “Wheels”6 and circular images are a recurrent process structuring most of the work including the novels7. In “Love of the World” Callaghan experiences the wheel of life and for a time escapes it: “Lazily, [Callaghan] had believed that one day he’d marry a young woman, a doctor or a teacher, somebody with work and interests of her own, and take his place on the second circle of the wheel before being turned out again on the large invisible turning wheel.”(27) This sounds as an echo of a passage in “Wheels”: “I knew the wheel: fathers become children to their sons who repay the care they got when they were young, and on the edge of dying the fathers become young again; but the luck of a death and a second marriage had released me from the last breaking on this ritual wheel”8, the image coming as the concluding final “Rustle of the boat through the bulrushes as we went to Moran’s well for spring water in dry summers, […] all the vivid sections of the wheel we watched so slowly turn, impatient for the rich whole that never came but that all the preparations promised.”9

22“Love of the World”, one of John McGahern’s last stories, is full of the world he constructed in his other work. Images, as we have seen, but also, people, places, landscape, sensations…

Recurring features: familiar silhouettes in a familiar landscape

23Some of the characters in the short story are familiar to the reader of McGahern’s works. The presence of Callaghan’s uncle reminds one of The Pornographer which opens with a visit of the narrator to his uncle in hospital. The narrator’s uncle also plays a major role in That They May Face the Rising Sun. He is nicknamed the shah. Garda and Guards, of course are also prominent characters looming large in the work. They count among the figures of authority, fathers, priests, who often exert some kind of violence. Their first targets often are women as well as young children: this is the case in The Barracks, The Dark, “Korea”10, “The Gold Watch”11, “Wheels”12, among others. This painful relationship reaches the dimensions of family archetypes. In “Love of the World”, Harkin is true to character and becomes more and more violent. An incident which occurred while a guard reveals his brutality:

Harkin was in the newspaper again, but not in the sport pages. He had been with his friend Guard McCarthy late one night when their patrol car was called to a disturbance at an itinerant encampment on the outskirts of the town. A huge fire of car tyres and burning branches lit up the vans and mobile homes, the cars and mounds of metal scrap. Stones and burning branches were thrown at the garda car. […] All the itinerant witnesses swore that both guards had jumped from the car with drawn batons and provoked the assault.(10)

24After the bloody encounter both guards were moved to other districts and Harkin lost all hope of promotion.

25The pleasure experienced by the little boy walking by his mother’s side in the short story reminds one of the same kind of devoted love displayed in The Barracks and in “A Slip-up”13 for instance. In this story the old man remembers walking by his mother’s side as he is walking by his wife’s side:

and it brought him the feeling of long ago when he walked round the lake with his mother, potholes and stones of the lane, the boat shapes at intervals in the long lake wall to allow the carts to pass one another when they met, the oilcloth shopping bag he carried for her in the glow of chattering as he walked in the shelter of her shadow. 14

26The soft sounds of the alliteration in “the shelter of her shadow” finely renders the tenderness of the feeling which may develop between a small boy and his mother. In “Love of the World” the little boy’s love replaces the father’s lost one: “Kate must have felt the changes ten years can bring as she walked the curving path through the fields above the lake and down by the tall trees to the house. It was her son’s hand she now held instead of Harkin’s, his grip more demanding than ever her husband’s had been.”(14) And Kate has a particularly close relationship with her son, somewhat along the lines of the one John McGahern shared with his mother as he describes his walks with her in Memoir15: “When I was three years old I used to walk a lane like these lanes to Lisacarn School with my mother.”16

27The story is strongly anchored in Ireland as onomastics testifies to with such names as Michael Doherty, Callaghan, McCarthy, and toponyms: Athlone, Achill, County Mayo, Dublin. “That summer Mayo won the Connacht Championship and beat an Ulster team to reach the All-Ireland Final against Cork.”(7) This sentence also reflects the narrator’s strong liking for and deep knowledge of football games, a feature he shared with the writer and which can be found in several stories too. The Royal Hotel also is a recurring feature in McGahern’s stories and novels. Life is restricted in a small community where everyone knows everyone. Thus Callaghan’s former affair with the headmistress of the school did not remain a secret for long: “but there was nearly always someone connected with the town who saw them in a hotel or restaurant or bar, and once, during the long school holiday, together on a London street.”(26) Great attention is paid to the depiction of life in a small town: “I walked about the empty town, had one drink in a quiet bar that also sold shoes and boots across from the town clock, until it was time to take Maggie home”. The activities of this bar are typical of small town pubs in Ireland, often combining several trades such that of a grocer’s shop or even of a funeral parlour together with the selling of spirits. It anchors the story in a precise location, a there and then. Thus the reader may literally “see” the backcloth of the story onto which the characters are as many silhouetted shadows.

28The landscape also is the same constantly from story to story, with the exception of the Dublin stories such as “My Love my Umbrella” or “Parachutes”17. Thus the description of Maggie and James’s farm by the lake when Kate first takes Harkin to visit his prospective father and mother-in-law is powerfully rendered with few but very visual details: “They parked the car at the lake gate to walk the curving path through the fields above the lake and down to the house in its shelter of trees.”(3)

29Great attention is also paid to sensations. The sense of hearing is alert: “Blackbirds and thrushes racketed in the hedges. A robin sang on a thorn”, a phrase repeated further down —“the blackbirds and thrushes racketed. A robin sang.”— as Kate goes to visit her parents with her little boy. Close attention is paid to minute details such as smells the narrator takes great care to qualify as accurately as possible using carefully chosen adjectives and plant names: “Close to the lake she smelled the rank water weed and the sharp wild mint.” The recurrence of “the old apple tree heavy with green cooking apples” on Kate’s visit, then as “the old Brambley heavy again with cookers” watched by the narrator during an important footbal match reminds one of the pear tree Bertha watches in K. Mansfield’s eponymous story18.

30Nature is all important and provides easy comparisons to those who live close to it. When the Harkins are struck by Guard Harkin’s heart attack, they are welcomed back to town and “concern circled around them” “as if they were garden plants hit with blight or an early frost.” The comparison chosen stems from a farmer’s concern with weather hazards.

31The lakes, the farm, the fields, are important to Kate: “These small fields above the lake were part of her life. Away from here she often walked them in her mind, and, without her noticing, this exercise had gradually replaced the earlier exercise of prayer.” This tendency of some of McGahern’s characters to walk in their minds the fields of their childhood or absent landscapes, recurs throughout his work. This is the case in “A Slip-up”, a story in which an old man, waiting for his wife in front of Tesco’s, is so absorbed in achieving his day’s work on his lost farm that he gets left behind. This is also another way of illustrating what the guards in The Barracks called their “patrols of the imagination”, that is writing down in their ledger imaginary patrols to satisfy their superior and hide the fact they never went out of the barracks. An exercise which taught the young boy in the novel what fiction (and lying) was like19.

32But this story could also read as a fable with a moral at the end. Although it is strongly anchored in a so-called realistic background, it is also a tale of violence and we have seen20 that McGahern complained of BBC 4 turning it into a thriller. But above all it is a story about change and life, mystery and bewilderment and metaphysical questions. Far from formulating a lesson or some kind of teaching, an aim the author would not have acknowledged, it still repeatedly passes comments on change and what it takes to try and live as best as possible in this world in which although everything seems to be quiet, nothing nor anyone is sheltered from violence.

The wheel of change

33This short story is about change in a dull community where paradoxically “nothing much ever happens”. Actually it closely studies the slow evolution of people and how change is felt and brought about. It may be due to ambition, defeat, love, greed, frustration … Change is due first and foremost to a sea change in Harkin’s feelings who first reached great fame thanks to his football games before knowing illness, decline and forgetfulness. Change also conditions Harkin’s and Callaghan’s relationship as Harkin gradually becomes Callaghan’s rival, not only concerning Kate, but also material properties:

Once Harkin became involved with the tourists, an involvement that led naturally to property dealing, he was probably relieved to be able to turn their mutual antipathy into rivalry because of the enormous change in the strength of their relative positions over the years.

A change had come to Callaghan’s life that made him more vulnerable than he knew. His beloved mother died. His brother married. […] he had to move out into his own life ; but what life ?  (27, my emphasis)

34Change also happens in relationships: “Gradually, the children got used to their changed lives. There were times when they complained that she was not like other mothers”(24) and it materializes as Kate’s sense of impending change:

‘On Achill it was this bad, but in a different way, and I knew then it couldn’t go on. I knew something had to happen. What happened was the last thing I wanted or wished, but it did happen. I have the same feeling that something is about to happen now that will change everything. It has to happen.’ (31, my emphasis)

35These words spoken by Kate are also loaded with a sense of doom and dramatic irony as what is going to happen will put an end to her life. The strong emphasis put on “happen” reflected by the numerous repetitions of the word—five times in only two sentences — shows the urgency of her plea and is endowed with the power of an incantation. Dramatic events will prove her sense of foreboding true.

36And change begins to make itself felt as Harkin’s attitude to Kate all of a sudden changes: “The silent almost unbearable strain in the evenings with Harkin and the children changed without warning. He became alarmingly friendly.” He offers a kind of reconciliation she is wary to accept as it is too sudden. “The friendliness increased. Her nervousness grew intense. She had to force herself to go to the house.” Then she acknowledges to Callaghan: “I can’t go back. I know everything is about to change. That is all I know.” And the greatest change of all will be brought about by violent deeds.

37Change also is made palpable on a larger social level as the country changes little by little when the foreigners bring new money, habits and expectations:

During the ten years the Harkins had been away, tourism had grown rapidly. there were now many guest houses, and foreigners had built summer houses by the lakes and were buying and converting old disused dwellings. They were mostly Germans and French, with a scattering of Swiss and Dutch - highly paid factory workers from industrial cities, attracted more to the hunting and fishing and cheap property prices than to the deserted beauty of the countryside.(12) 

38The arrival of foreigners and their new needs cause Harkin’s further degradation as he looks after their summer houses to help a local guard who had developed this “lucrative sideline” to his own work in the garda. Soon Harkin is master of the game which he expands. But “these tourists did not return their catch to the water. The sport was in the kill. As well as pheasant, duck, woodcock, pigeon, snipe, they shot songbirds, thrushes, blackbirds, even larks.” It is perceptible that to the narrator, the killing of small birds and not only of fowl is wrong. It is actually voiced a little lower down after the description of the massacre of fish “heads of gutted pike were scattered round every small shore”: “but everybody disliked the slaughter of the songbirds.” Unwritten traditional rules which had been respected for ages have been brutally broken by foreigners described as true vandals. References to old times, old ways of doing things, suggest a feeling of nostalgia. When the rumour in town implies Kate and Callaghan sleep together while Harkin has a German woman and others on the side, it is expressed in terms referring to the country at large: “Old Ireland is coming along at a great rate. There was a time you lay on the bed you made, but now it’s just the same as a change of oil or tyres. […] Yes, my dear, old Ireland is certainly coming along.”

39Another social mutation concerns woman’s work. It is only mentioned at the beginning as the narrator notes that after the wedding “James told me that Harkin didn’t like his wife working” but then it becomes a major problem when Kate asserts her wish for autonomy and independence and takes up a job during one of her husband’s trips abroad. She refuses to drop it, arousing Harkin’s anger. The relationships between men and women seem to be changing in Ireland, Kate first and foremost, as the Germans or the French remarked at first that she seemed to be very obedient and true to former customs: “the tourists congratulated him on having an obedient, old-fashioned wife.” But then as Kate asserts her own free will and refuses to correspond to this image of old times, Harkin knows only one punishment for her. Nevertheless, reward will come to a woman, Maggie, once she has brought up her three grand children and the town decides to make her “Personality of the Year”. She stands as the wise woman of the town and humbly delivers a courageous lesson of life.

40The narrator eventually asserts that although the world seems to be fixed and calm, “the stars in their places”, change will come inevitably. Consequently it is no use desiring it for it will come, being part and parcel of human life:

Close by, a white moon rested on the water. There was no wind. The stars in their places were clear and fixed. Who would want change since it will come without wanting? Who this night would not want to live? (41, 42)

41In John McGahern’s obituary, Richard Pine remarked in The Guardian:

That he depicts people who have largely agreed to live lives of “quiet desperation” underlines the fact that he, and a few of his characters, most notably Michael Moran in Amongst Women, could deal with desperation by absorbing and transmuting it into something approaching a celebration: “The best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.”21 

42Precious life indeed, and fine writing too when it delivers unto the reader’s mind such images as that of a white moon over a dark lake on a windless night and the memory of the soft sound of the wings of swans suddenly flying away.

Haut de page


Louvel, Liliane. “The Barracks, Requiem pour un jour ordinaire”, John McGahern, Poitiers: La Licorne, Special Issue John McGahern, ed. Jean Brihault, Liliane Louvel, Faculté des Lettres et des Langues, 1995.

---. “Patrols of the Imagination: The Short Stories of John McGahern”, in Journal of the Short Story in English, Special Issue, The Irish Short Story, Angers: Presses de l’Université d’Angers, Spring 2000.

Mansfield, Katherine. Selected Stories, London: Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1982.

McGahern, John. The Collected Stories, London: Faber and Faber 1992.

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Liliane Louvel, “Reading John McGahern's "Love of the world" a fistful of images”, Journal of the short story in English, 53, autumn 2009, 53-67.

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Liliane Louvel, « Reading John McGahern's "Love of the world" a fistful of images »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 53 | Autumn 2009, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2010, consulté le 17 octobre 2021. URL :

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Liliane Louvel

Liliane Louvel is Professor of British literature at the University of Poitiers and specializes in contemporary British literature and word/image relationship. She has written numerous articles on this particular subject and published three books on the interrelationship between word and image: L’Oeil du Texte (Toulouse PUM 1998), The Picture of Dorian Gray, Le double miroir de l'art (Ellipses, 2000), Texte/image, images à lire et textes à voir (Rennes PUR 2002). She has also edited three collections of essays on the subject published in EJES, La Licorne and PU Rennes II. She has organized several conferences on the subject. Her work is currently being translated by Laurence Petit and will be edited by Karen Jacobs. She has also worked extensively on John McGahern's novels and short stories and co-edited La Licorne's special issue on John McGahern's work together with Jean Brihault.

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