Posted January 8, 2007on:
“Everybody was watchful here. It was like moving about in a war area.”
That was life in Moran’s house. He set himself up as a king and god in his family, living out in the Irish countryside. Amongst Women is McGahern’s understated depiction of Moran, withdrawn from a world he feels has betrayed him, intent on making his children and later on, Rose, his second wife, into physical manifestations of his ego. The back cover synopsis states that he “transfers his brutality to his own family” and, while true, seeing it stated is jarring; McGahern’s subtle, restrain, muted prose resists such bald pronouncements. Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, with her biting, ironic, dark humour and ruthless baring of dysfunctional family dynamics takes better to such descriptions. In contrast, McGahern’s prose is quiet, unobtrusively creating a picture of this grim, isolated family with such great care that when we read a horrible episode near the end we are shocked, horrified unexpectedly, even though we know everything before had prepared us for that moment.
The story opens with Moran ill and apathetic near the end of his life. His three daughters–of five children, the other boys–urge him to put more effort into recovering, unable to imagine their lives without him, as he had so properly taught. To fulfill this aim they decide to resurrect an old family tradition calledMonaghan Day, one that had not been acknowledged in years. McGahern uses this as a window into the past, taking us back to their last Monaghan celebration which did not end well. On the morning he greets the girls efforts at preparing the meal with negative criticism, hardly needed as his very presence is enough to lower spirits.
Alone, the two girls were playful as they went about their tasks, mischievous at times, even carefully boisterous; but as soon as their father came in they would sink into a beseeching drabness, cower as close to being invisible as they could.
McQuaid, an old army friend with whom he typically spent the day, is not as easily conquered. Reminisces about fighting with the Old IRA for independence lead to friction on topics like religion and Moran’s old popularity with women. His sharp retorts, abrupt departures and brooding silences do nothing to quellMcQuaid’s resolve but is enough to dissuade him from staying the night, as he usually does. As he leaves his good natured, “Good luck, Micheal” is met with silence and provokes him to a second retort: ‘Some people just cannot bear to come in second.’ This is born out by Moran’s following thoughts:
After years he had lost his oldest and best friend but in a way he had always despised friendship; families were what mattered, more particularly that larger version of himself
Moran sees his family as extensions of himself, as pawns to his moods and desires, subjugate to his will. As much as possible, he wants them to be empty vessels to his ideas and philosophies–but only in so far as it does not adversely affect his own needs. For these children, five including two boys, must carefully nurture him.The youngest son, Michael, a boy at the time, is largely protected from the brunt of this temper, met by the daughters: Maggie at 18, Mona at 16 and Sheila, 14. The girls cook and clean, their manner disturbingly servile; they do not even eat dinner together as a family, but must wait on him, eating on their own after he is done. He uses the rituals of religion to tighten the cords around his family, calling them to daily prayer, every person aware of their designated part of the Rosary. When he needs to rein in or destroy any general happiness or joy, for such things must flow directly from him and be him, he effectively uses prayer. When Maggie, having left home for nurse training in London returns for the first time, Moran’s initially happy reaction turns sour and bored because everyone is naturally focused on Maggie; he calls for the Rosary earlier than usual
This night Moran enunciated each repetitious word with a slow clarity and force as if the very dwelling on suffering, death and human supplication would scatter all flimsy vanities of a greater world; and the muted responses giving back their acceptance of human servitude did not improve his humour…The high spirits round the tea table had gone.
Indeed, what strikes one most forcefully is that the religious activity in their lives rings hollow. It seems perfunctory, done because Moran wills it and lacks any personal enrichment, any weight of meaning. All such reverence is reserved for Moran: the hush when he enters the room, every one keenly noting his present mood, the constant tension as they communicate or do household chores in his presents, deathly afraid of making any mistake like breaking a plate for fear of severe retribution. The only solace any of the children living with him find is in their school work, seen as a refuge because Moran does not bother them much when they are being studious. Their behaviour is depressingly familiar toKambili and Jaja, the two children of a physically abusive father in Purple Hibiscus
Do not think he leaves them wholly unchecked there. His variations on the refrain, “I consider all my family equal. I don’t like to see a single one trying to outdistance another”, leads back to his need to have no usurper. When Sheila and Moran take their final exams, Sheila performs exceptionally and is offered a university scholarship and many civil service positions. The nuns at her school advise her to continue schooling, which is what she wants, but the father will have none of it. Mealy mouthed gems like, “She has to make up her own mind,” are nothing more than talk. Learning that she wished to become a doctor–one of the two professions he despises because it had gained the most status after the war rather than the guerrilla fighters–“his withdrawal of support was total.” When Maggie tells him of Luke–the eldest and only estranged child living in London–his night schooling to qualify as an accountant and plans with a friend to start a house renovation business he dismisses his efforts, admonishing his keeping company with riff-raff. When the plan succeeds he predicts that it will all blow up in his face but, as ever, “All the members of my family are equal even if they think otherwise. They should never be looked down on or excluded.”
The major bright spot in their life, besides Moran’s transitory good moods, is Rose Brady. She returned to the town to nurse her ill-father and remained with her family after his death. She met Moran at the post office one day and responded strongly to his “distinct sense of separateness and pride that she found refreshingly unlike any of the other local men she knew.” This combined with his general intelligence and aloofness was enough to pique her interest. Her own sense of waning years and concern about a future of being “locked into the life” of her family’s farmhouse compelled her to court him. Moran is willing to be courted because he foresees his solitude when all the children would leave home, but he does so grudgingly. With no regard for Rose’s feelings he is passive at almost every stage of the courtship and gives one of the most unemotional proposals I have ever read. The children are wary of this new development but Rose is a very warm, caring and socially-adept woman, and they soon open up to her, relishing her affectionate, giving nature. After the marriage she takes effortless charge of the house-hold duties, improving the quality of life for everyone, doing her best to mediate any conflicts. It is dispiriting to witness her gradual descent and eventual facilitator of Moran’s parental tyranny.
She did not try to defend herself…Not once did she protest at the unfairness. She seemed willing to go to almost any length to appease, lull his irritation to rest, contain all the exasperation by taking it within herself. This usually redoubled it. He seemed intent now on pushing to see how far he could go and she appeared willing to give way in everything in order to pacify.
There are some opposing forces of good in Moran, keeping him human and a more interesting, complex character. His measured reception to McQuaid’s arrival on that Monaghan Day is belied by the fact that he had “lived for weeks for this hour”. On the morning of his wedding he turns to Michael, with whom he had shared the bed, and affectionately rubbed his shoulder tenderly remarking on this last moment. He is genuinely enthusiastic when any of his brood returns home (for a while anyway) and is more than a little dependent on the letters they send in their absence. Once Maggie moves to London he rarely fails to prompt her on Luke’s doings, ever hopeful for a letter, clearly still holding some paternal feelings towards him. (A less charitable interpretation is that he cannot abide having any part of his “larger existence” reject him, intolerable of his abuse.) It is tragically comic the way these momentary instances of decency and natural fondness trigger such disproportionately emotional responses from the daughters and Rose.
He did not need to be very charming. They had learned to accept him in all his humours: they were grateful for anything short of his worst moods, inordinately grateful for the slightest goodwill, what they barely would have accepted from an equal.
Moran inevitably spoils these moments. He is immediately resentful of any warmth he experiences towards his fellow man, viewing it as some kind of weakness, of surrender. Every interaction is a battle and the worst ones occur between him and his sons. When his sisters leave Michael has no defense against Moran’s brutal manipulations. What drove away the first, Luke, is what pushed Michael out of the door. However Michael’s estrangement is temporary as he is, one gets the impression, far more like his father than Luke. McQuaid describes Luke as “very straight and manly” earlier in the novel, and one feels that he means this in the best sense. Moran is anything but straight and his idea of manliness, one Michael emulates, is built on contempt for and a dismissive attitude towards women whilst being dependent on their support and affection. Michael is never cold or tyrannical, but he chooses to respond to these aspects of his father by going to another extreme. He is unfailingly flippant and jocular about everything, never eager to take any issue, event or person seriously.
In a conversation among the women, Maggie shares a conversation she had with Luke in which she again prompted him to return home to see their father.
“I asked him, was he afraid to go home or what was wrong with him. He was rude–the way he looks at you! You never can tell what he is thinking.”
“What did he say?”
“He said that only women could live with Daddy.”
I wondered then and now why this was so. I am instinctively hostile to the “Virgin Mary” paragon idea of women being natural nurturers, long suffering, ever one to give succor and bear all and the blah blah. As I considered the novel, I don’t think McGahern believed that either. Biological instincts to nurture and gender roles of the early 20th century aside, I concluded that Moran, by his nature, could only allow women to live with him. He is more of the gentle tyrant with them and they, bound by filial ties and affection remained loyal to him. His more severe and sadistic attitude and treatment to his songs are less able to evoke similar reactions.
Mona said in an emotional voice, “No matter what they said, Daddy can be wonderful.”
Sheila nodded her head in vigorous agreement, “when Daddy’s nice he’s just great. He’s like no other person in the world.”
Isn’t that the tragedy?