William Trevor’s short stories explore several themes; faded love, hopeless marriage, as well as alienation and loneliness. By focusing on two of these short stories, The Distant Past, and In Isfahan, these themes that usually set a mood of melancholy will be compared and contrasted within the coursework. It will be shown that the above themes are constantly lurking on the fringes of both these stories. Although, the context or setting for Trevor’s stories differ as well as the characters, the ordinariness and often bleak or peculiar attributes are all combined to bring these themes to life. Finally, the essay will look at the resolution and show that both stories show a hopelessness and loneliness that seems characteristically dark and offers no hope for a happy ending for the main characters in each story.
A major undercurrent of the Middeltons background is the theme of the past. Trevor sets this theme against a phase of Irish history where sectarian attitudes within both communities had acted as a catalyst for a period known as the troubles. As such, the Middeltons like many others on both sides of the religious divide they are prisoners of the distant past, which has shaped and defined cultural, political and religious identity for centuries. Trevor’s narrative gives a rich sociological and historical description of the decline of the family’s fortunes and the Middeltons resolve to hold on to Carraveagh the family home, “a large house, built in the reign of George II, a monument that reflected in its glory and later decay of the family fortunes”. The scene setting used by Trevor instantly registers, symbolically with the reader able to identify the Middletons declining fortunes with the decline of the British Empire. This symbolism is cleverly used within the story to reinforce the message that the past still dominates the present, especially within the context of Irish life.
Although the Middletons, both brother and sister are portrayed as harmless and peculiar, this has an odd appeal that endears the family to the local catholic residents. This poignant inconclusiveness of being loyal to Ireland’s colonial past highlights the curious relationship the Middeltons nostalgia and dual identity has in conveying the sharp cultural differences, and ordinariness the troubles were to have in transforming social relationship in this small Irish town. At a latter stage in their lives the brother and sister lay the blame for the family’s disappointments upon the father’s catholic mistress, and the independent government of the Irish Republic. Here Trevor first shows how the past grievances of the Middleton’s are entirely based upon the irrational prejudices of an eccentric couple, that don’t at first reflect the populace’s viewpoint.
The exotic Persian setting and a chance meeting between a middle aged couple both facing a rather clichï¿½d mid life crisis is the theme of Trevor’s second story; In Isfahan. A rather eloquent and beautiful looking women who appears to be of Indian extraction, but talks with a cockney accent meets a typical English middle aged man, with greying hair, wrinkled face, and tanned skin. These two central characters Normanton and Iris seem totally out of place against the ancient skyline and surroundings of Isfahan. However, an unusual and at times awkward tour of Isfahan seems to draw these too deeply troubled souls together in a way that allows both to eventual open up deeply held wounds of failed relationships, and regretful past decisions. This sets the tone which eventual leads both characters to view their failed relationships, and ponder on the possibility of finding happiness with each other.
After their chance meeting Iris and Normanton’s ordinariness reveals a quite appealing side to Iris’s Indian background. This allows Trevor to bring a more interesting background to the character with a cosmopolitan feel that gives her an allure of charm and style that instantly registers with both Normanton and the reader. This appeal to the reader was mutual complimented with Normanton exhibiting the characteristics of a man not only well travelled, but knowledgeable and educated. As such, this mutual curiosity is the catalyst that sees the couple renew their acquaintanceship after their first chance meeting. In addition the use of a peaceful silent courtyard, with blue mosaic walls, blue water, as a scenic grotto of heaven are equally appealing to the reader in keeping an interest and flow to the story, which allows the narrative to cover subjects associated with a mid life crisis. This is achieved by Iris confining that her marriage to an Indian businessman in Bombay, who’s also twenty two years her senior, was done for purely materialistic reason. The dialogue is eloquently used with facial expressions of indifference in her eyes when talking of her husband, which helps bring the underlying emotions and feelings of the character to the fore. These outpourings and human descriptions of body language by Trevor are used to draw the reader in to the inner subject of the characters that allows the storyline to flow while gripping the reader.
In the distant past Trevor captures the triteness of the town’s social attitudes by focusing on everyday relationships during the Keynesian post war boom. As the Middleton’s have failed to share in the town’s growing prosperity the contrast is sharply brought in to focus by Trevor using the faded furniture, colourless wallpaper, leaking roof, with only an ebony framed portrait of their father as being a testament to the family’s previous wealthy standing. This bleak decline in the family’s fortunes and the advancing years of the Middletons convey both the loneliness and disappointment, which are totally at odds with the post war boom. Yet these failings and characteristics have an appeal of there own that is manifested in the brother and sister seen as evidence that previous conflicts and wounds being healed. Although, the bleakness, disappointment, and loneliness of the family jump out from the storyline, the characters have a charm and allure similar to Normanton and Iris in the Isfahan story. This ability of Trevor to bring the ordinary characters to life by focusing on the underlying emotions is a testament to the author’s skill at analysing the human psyche.
This latter aspect and human characteristics of village life are richly woven between the pomp, and eccentricity of the Middletons, and the friendly, sociable nature of its predominant catholic inhabitants. This dialogue and interaction was the Middletons pleasure, and the relationship with the community is portrayed as genial in spite of their loyalty to the colonial Anglo past. These conflicts of the past are encapsulated by Trevor in a way that captures the friendly status quo that dominates the pre Irish trouble days. The example of the butcher fat Cranley and the Middleton’s recalling the day Cranley had taken them hostage at gunpoint is given in a humorous conversation and reflects the compromise that existed in the town.
In contrast Iris’s difficulty at adjusting to life and circumstances in India leave the impression of a woman who seems to have accepted her fate, yet maybe fate will also give her a way out of this mid life crisis. The perception of this tragic sour little fairy story, a tale of Cinderella gone wrong leaves Normanton with an uneasy feeling. Yet Iris through this emotive outburst is left speculating on whether Normanton is married as his expression during these conversations is portrayed as a man with a deeply pained look on his face. Here Trevor shows his ability to keep the flow of the story and the plot hanging just enough to leave the reader’s interest always wanting more.
The ordinariness of the characters in the distant past is depicted not only in the story’s narrative, but also the physical description. With the Middletons being thin and silent with bony countenance, pale blue eyes and high cheekbones that are complemented by a sharp nose. The shattering of the status quo, the compromise and tolerance of Irish village life is the outbreak of the troubles. This watershed acts as a catalyst in bring the human emotions that Trevor eloquently uses to open up the old wounds of past conflicts. With the landing of troops in the North and the attempt of the locals to somehow convince themselves that these events are not representative of their own community are crushed with a downturn in the economy. Here Trevor shows the once cosmopolitan nature of the town is also a prisoner of past conflicts. These events leave the reader to ponder on the underlying psychology of the troubles, and how these feelings of bitterness, regret, and loyalty to the past slowly resurface in tribal outbursts.
In Isfahan the dialogue between Iris had allowed Normanton to open up in a similar fashion. His life is depicted as a middle class family man living in the Home Counties, with a wife, and a job as an architect. As the evening had progressed Iris confined that she did not want to go back to Bombay.
“Secrets are safe with strangers”.
“Why do you think I told you that secret”?
“Because we are ships that pass in the night”.
Iris started reflecting on her life as the whiskey took hold and confessed that she hated sleeping with her husband. In fact “I’ve never actually loved him”. This regret allowed her to reflect on what she was going back to. For the first time since she was married Iris felt happy in the company of Normanton. What we see emerge from this dialogue is both the regret, fears, and a brief moment of happiness that’s captured through the unfolding of events that start out as two strangers just meeting over a friendly drink. This ability of Trevor to give the story a dynamic turn of events in the dialogue while using the simple setting of a bar allows the characters to seem almost human in their fears, regrets, and aspirations.
The manifestations of the Irish troubles of atrocity of and counter atrocity are conveyed through a mix of human actions. The Middletons experience is highlighted by former friends and neighbours whom they once socialised with shunning them with a malicious and vindictive undercurrent grounded in the sectarian differences that each community was only too willing to embrace during the troubles. Fat Cranley the town butcher “wished it to be remembered that he had stood with a gun in the enemy’s house waiting for soldiers so that soldiers might be killed”. The past friendship of giving extra food for the dog became taboo when Cranley was confronted by the British loving enemy. Even cannon Cotter the pillar of the religious community preferred not to fraternise with the enemy. Here Trevor allows the storyline to show how the characters are prisoners of the past, and how these past conflicts still dominate the present. In short human frailties are exposed which leaves the reader feeling angst when reflecting on the Irish troubles.
The ostracisation of the Middletons brings to the fore emotions of regret and loneliness. This all too apparent despair at the futility of the rebuffs, and the despondency that the troubles were “worse than before…it was never going to cease …not in their lifetimes,” brought about a reflection of their own roles in this whole sorry saga. As a consequence, the stance and display of the previous imperial past, the cross of Saint George, and their father’s portrait were now removed from the family home. Although these changes were not out of fear, but out of a mourning for the modus Vivendi that had existed for so long between them and the people of the town. The life, the peace, the dignity, had strongly ebbed away, and only in the midst of the troubles did the Middletons realise how they would die friendless as their own deaths drew closer. This damming dialogue expose the hopelessness of the Middleton’s during the latter years of their lives.
In contrast Normanton had awoken early just before dawn broke, and began to reflect on the evening spent with Iris. He saw her piercing eyes, and most of all the story she’d told him. His own story of a novelette picture with a comfortable middle class life in the Home Counties was based on a lie. He some how felt he could not disillusion her. Yet the doubt of why he could not have told her his own secrets tore deeply at his soul. His reflection told him that her story and her failings had seemed ridiculous. As the hours went by he believed that he should have found love with her. He should be telling her his own secrets, and asking for her understanding. The harsh realities of his own life, the drab flat in Hampstead, not the home counties, his second wife’s adultery, as well as his first wife also deceiving him meant that he had not had the courage to tell her. This doubt and uncertainty is reflected by Normanton deciding whether to dress and go to the station and tell her his story. If he intervened now they could spend their days together, yet underneath his regret Normanton realised that circumstances meant that his truths made him the stuff of fantasy. This cold hard fact meant that she had quality, he had none. Again Trevor captures the failure and frailties of the psyche with the story line that is so eloquently human in its narrative, yet produces angst that is similar in content to the distant past.
What does emerge from these two William Trevor stories is a kind of observer’s view that’s intent on moralising on themes of loneliness, regret, failure, disappointment, and compromise, and its effects when perpetuated on the characters. Here the common theme that emanates between the two stories is the circumstances in which the need for love and acceptance has been totally unfulfilled in the lives of ageing characters. Furthermore, these characters exude an ordinariness that gives these stories an objectivity, which draws the reader in with a sympathetic understanding of the characters and their motives and actions, which unfold during these mid life dilemmas. Although the context and setting for each of these stories differs, the reader is left in little doubt of the inner workings of the human psyche, and the fact that were all human, and as such, nothing human is alien to us, as well as the characters. This latter aspect always captures the mood of melancholy and frustration that is common to the characters within both these stories.
In conclusion the stories certainly lack an element of passion, and a dynamic that fails to truly capture the alienation that the characters are experiencing. Yes the frustration and bland ordinariness of the narrative convey the redundant conversations in the melancholy tone, which Trevor bleakly wishes to achieve; yet the depths and meaning of these alienated characters lack an intellectual introspection. For example, the Distant Past at best skims the surface of the troubles and leaves the reader amazed that the political, and social factors that have led to the angst of the Middletons, is past off as some superfluous historical event. This effectively means that life in these stories is reflected in predictable and clichï¿½d characterisation that lacks the intellectual depth of a writer like Chekov. Whether this is Trevor’s personal take on life is clearly debatable, yet this shortcoming seems to detract from the consistency of what Trevor is aiming for namely: the flaws and anguish of human circumstance. In short, William Trevor may capture the mood of melancholy and the tone of frustration within these narratives, yet the lack of an intellectual depth to his writings gives his characterisations a superficiality that detracts from his works.