Reading In the Dark
In his novel, Reading In the Dark, Seamus Deane tells the story of an Irish Catholic family in Northern Ireland between the late Forties and early Seventies. He traces the path taken by a growing boy searching for and finding the truth about his family during this very tumultuous time and having to come to terms with what he discovers. Deane uses this family to illustrate the issues surrounding history that are central to the deeper understanding of his novel. He shows how the British government’s and the Catholic church’s differing agendas affect these people’s history and the consequences of not dealing with their history and past resulting in their subjugation and passivity. The theme of haunting plays a major role in the history of this family and the overall society of this people illustrating the problems of not confronting and not knowing the past. The hauntings also further illustrate how various forms of authority affect the way history is written and hidden.
Deane begins the novel with the haunting of the family’s home which starts to hint at the importance of history and the failure to deal with it. “‘There’s something between us. A shadow. Don’t move,’” (Deane 3). This is the first reference to there being something dark and sinister to this family. The “shadow” here is the ghost that haunts the family, but in fact represents the true history of the family that has not been exorcised. By calling it a shadow, this brings up dark and ominous connotations about what has happened in their past. This shadow is also between the mother and son, a clear indication that the existence of it keeps them apart emotionally. The secret of their history builds walls between the members which will destroy the relationships among their family. “‘No, nothing, nothing at all?All imagination?There’s nothing there,” (Deane 4). The mother ignores the truth and fails to deal with it. She attempts to ignore it by burying the past inside her. The truth about their history becomes nothing more than a ghost in this family, festering inside those who know the truth, but don’t tell it, which in the long run will destroy themselves and others around them.
The house itself is haunted which is used by Deane to illustrate the strength and affect of how history and the failure to deal with it affects the surroundings around a person, in this case the family.
We had a ghost, even in the middle of the afternoon?The house was all cobweb tremors. No matter where I walked, it yielded before me and settled behind me. (Deane 5)
Deane reestablishes the secrets of the family by saying they had a ghost in the afternoon. This only helps to strengthen that this is not the typical ghost and haunting, which in the usual sense would take place at night. This is something more, the history of the family that will not go away unless it is brought out. This hidden history and truth is so strong that the house becomes a sort of ghost and haunts the family as well. The house, which further represents Northern Ireland, becomes the past and history that they refuse to deal with, whichconstantly surrounds them. He describes the house as “cobweb tremors” implying that the secrets of their history are old, since the image of cobwebs creates the vision of something long and unattended to. It is this truth about their past that has been unattended to or rather not dealt with. The use of the word tremors describes that this secret still affects them, though it is very old. This reveals Deane’s larger concern of how history and not dealing with it can affect everything no matter if it is alive or inanimate. These issues take on a life of their own, unpredictable and uncontrollable.
In “Eddie” Deane begins with the stories of what may have happened to the narrator’s uncle, commenting on who writes history. “I wanted him to make the story his own and cut in on their talk,” (Deane 8). The story being referred to is that of what happened to the narrator’s Uncle Eddie in the distillery shoot out, something that still remains the hidden history of the family. The father by making the story, or rather history his “own” would begin to bring this out into the open, in effect beginning to exorcise these ghosts in their past. Instead by refusing to “cut in on their talk”, he effectively allows an outside group to write his history, much like the British government writing the history of the people. By not cutting in, he illustrates the passive subjugation of the Irish people. The narrator, on the other hand, illustrates the new generation wanting to face their past, where by challenging the authority of the British government. This section shows how their history is always present no matter what and how the outside authority affects several generations of this country.
A story of an exorcism then follows the talk of Eddie in the section “Eddie” building on the theme of hauntings and the ghosts that this family refuses to exorcise themselves. The idea of an exorcism is to cleanse the body and surroundings of something evil and harmful, to in effect clear the soul and free it. “But if the snib was broken open, the devil would enter the body of the person like a light, and that person would then be possessed and doomed forever,” (Deane 9). This exorcism on the other hand does the opposite, keeps the “evil” suppressed and doesn’t get rid of it. Their true history is the “devil” in their minds and discovering the truth is like a “light” since now everything is clear and visible. The “snib” is the seal between the secret and truth of the family’s history and the comfortably numb feeling of not dealing with it. They feel they can only continue living staying in a numb and unfeeling state of their past, which in the long run will destroy family bonds. This is the mother and father’s belief of the truth they know, that if they release this onto their children, they too will be “possessed and doomed” with the knowledge that they, the parents, have. What these characters don’t understand is that by keeping this truth and history to themselves and not dealing with it, they are in fact “possessed and doomed”. This knowledge will haunt them for the rest of their lives, doomed to relive this hurt for the rest of their life by themselves.
In the novel Deane has the narrator, his brother and father visit the haunted “Field of the Disappeared”, which begins to lead the narrator down the path of the true history of the family and the pain from not confronting it. “There was a belief that the souls of all those from the area who had disappeared? collected three or four times a year” (Deane 53-54). The souls of this region represent the secret history that the family refuses to deal with. Even though this history has “disappeared” it still returns to haunt them, just as the “souls” do when they collect together. No one, no matter how hard they try, can escape their past or history.
Or if you were in a house when the cries came, you were meant to close the doors and windows to shut them out, in case that pain entered your house and destroyed all in it?Again, I felt there was something more to be told, but his eyes were saying he had changed his mind, he was not going to say any more. (Deane 54)
From this field, Deane reaffirms the secret truth of the family’s history, again associating it with the haunting of a house, the family’s house. By using the word “cries”, Deane conjures up notions that the history of the family is something dark and hurtful, since one associates crying with pain and anguish. “Close” and “shut” refer to the attempts of the father to keep from facing this past and bringing the history out into the open, where by the healing can begin. Again, it is believed, by revealing the truth, it will do countless damage to the family, but in fact by holding it in he effectively builds a wall between him and his sons. The narrator continues to “feel” there is something more to the family and he begins to slowly associate what is haunting the family.
In “Katie’s Story” at the end of part one, Deane shows that the narrator is beginning to see there is more to his family’s own history through her story of haunting and the force of the outside authority of his parents. “An instinct woke in me at the mention of Grianan. I wanted her to stop, not knowing why, but she went on” (Deane 68). Not only is Katie’s story about haunting, but also the narrator, he is being haunted by “an instinct”. There is something more that he begins to realize about his family’s past and its connection to Grianan. This “instinct” is the truth of their history that is beginning to come out through the story. Also, the reference to Grianan illustrates the feelings of the new generation of Irish Catholics that the narrator represents and their remembering the past and the drive for self rule. The parents failure to deal with this past of theirs is handed down to their children through their authority over them. The narrator does not want to hear this history by his reaction of “wanting her to stop”. He doesn’t “know why”, but through the feelings of his parents, he wants to not deal with it, though, just like his parents, he doesn’t understand yet the consequences of holding it in. Katie, on the other hand, also does not understand the history of the family, but she deals with it in her own way by telling this story. She forces the narrator to begin dealing with this history when she goes “on” with telling the story. Through this story of haunting, the affects of two different authority figures becomes clear by how the narrator reacts to having to begin dealing with their past and how difficult it can be.
The authority of the narrator’s father is used by Deane to show the colonialization of the Irish people by the British government and the resultant effects of his trying to pass this down to his son in order forget their history and past.
You ask me no more questions. Talk to me no more. Just stay out of my way and out of trouble. (Deane 110)
Here, the father is representing the authority of the British government by exerting the force he has over the narrator through the parent-child relationship. “You” in this case is the narrator who symbolizes the Irish people, particularly the new generation who will be involved in the struggle. This is the same way the government acts with the Irish people, forcing them to “ask no more questions” thereby effectively forgetting their past. The total authority over these people again is represented by the comment “just stay out of my way”. This shows the military force the British government has in order to force the Irish into submission. The father also represents the Irish people and their failure to deal with their history and past when he comments to the narrator to “ask no more questions”. “Questions” in this instance the history of the family that no one wants to deal with, which the narrator is forcing.
Deane uses the father’s attempt to suppress the history of the family to illustrate the affects of the British government on the Irish people. After the narrator confronts his father about the family’s past, the result of the father’s suppression of the truth on the family when they sit down to eat. “Everyone was sitting round the table, silent,” (Deane 110). “Everyone” represents the family, but moreover the Irish people. The “table” that they are sitting around is the country of Northern Ireland. These people live so close together in this nation yet they have been indoctrinated by the outside force of the British government to remain “silent”. By remaining silent about their past and history, he drives a wedge between the family, therefore illustrating how the silence divides the people.
Deane then uses Katie’s story to further strengthen and comment on what an outside authority, in this case the British government, has on another group, the Irish, in regards to making them forget their history and the consequences of forgetting the past. “Every day they would go to the field behind the house, where their parents were buried, and put flowers on the grave and sit there for a long time” (Deane 64). “They”, in this case, represent the Irish people and the grave of their parents embodies their history and past. The “flowers” that they place on the grave represents the remembrance of this past and the reflection on it. By visiting the grave “every day” and by “sitting there for a long time” the children, or rather the Irish people are reflecting on, dealing with and accepting their past.
?she wasn’t going to have them falling ill by doing so in such conditions, no more than their parents would want her to, or want them to insist on doing? She found the boy was now dark-haired, as his sister had been, and the girl was fair-haired, as her brother had been. (Dean 64-65)
In this story of haunting, Deane uses the character of Brigid to represent the British government. The children, whom again represent the Irish, are being told how to deal with their history by this outside authority by forcing them to not go to their parents grave. The “conditions” Deane is commenting on, is that of Britain’s control of the of the Irish in Northern Ireland. By not wanting the children to “fall ill”, Britain does not want the people to remember their past and history which would harm the control they have over the Irish in this region. Resistance would spread like an “illness” if the people remembered and dealt with their past. When the children start to change and switch between each other as a result of not being able to visit the grave, they effectively begin to forget their past. The more they switch and change, their past history becomes more and more blurred as time passes. The use of this story illustrates how an outside authority attempts to manipulate a groups history for their own gains and what the consequences for not dealing with and forgetting the history are for this dominated group.
The hauntings throughout Deane’s novel have a very distinct religious connotations which illustrates the control and authority of the church in the lives of the Irish Catholic people and how they affect the history of these people by making them again passive and submissive.
We live, boys in a world that will pass away?Injustice, tyranny, freedom, national independence are realities that will fade too, for they are not ultimate realities, and the only life worth living is a life lived in the light of the ultimate. (Deane 26)
Here, Deane illustrates how the Church keeps the people submissive and ignorant. They try and want the people to forget the circumstances they are living in and stay focused on “the only life worth living” which is heaven. This is where the family gets their belief that the ghost of their history and past will in the words of the church, “will pass away” and “fade”. The church’s focus is to keep the peoples attention on heaven, to ignore the “realities” such as “injustice, tyranny, freedom, national independence”. These are things that affect the people daily which, if they remember their past, could cause upheaval in the area, therefore hurting the churches power in Northern Ireland.
Deane continues on, in “Grandfather”, with showing why the Church has a vested interest for wanting the people to forget their situation and focus on something intangible, which is their power in the region would be at stake if the people remembered their history.
I know there are some who believe that the poor man who committed that murder was justified, and that he will be forgiven by an all merciful God for what he did. That may be?But it is true, too, of the policeman: he may have been as plagued by guilt as his own murderer? (Deane 26).
“I” represents the Church in this situation. They occupy the same intermediary position here as they do in region, playing both sides of the field between the Irish people and the British government. The “man” in this story represents the Irish Catholic people in the struggle and the “policeman”, the British government. The church in this instance is trying to negate the struggle and tension between the people and government by saying both felt “justified”. They must play both sides off if they want to keep their position of power in the region. To side with one they run the risk of alienating either the people or the government. That is why they treat both sides of the “man” and “policeman” as the same and not different.
By the end of the novel, the narrator illustrates the new generation of Irish Catholics who seek the truth about their history and in effect become the living ghosts who now haunt the authority in the region.
“Why don’t you go away?” she asked me. “Then maybe I could look after your father properly for once, without your eyes on me”. (Deane 235)
The mother, who represents the old order of authority, now treats her own son as the ghost that haunted them. Just as she wanted the shadow to “go away” in the begin, she wishes the same of her son, who searched and discovered the hidden secrets of their history. “His eyes” are those of the new generation who dig up the past and make those who do not want to face the truth. He becomes that constant reminder of their history, just as the “shadow” was in the beginning. Here “your father” and her being able to “look after” him illustrates the old order of authority in Northern Ireland that he, the new generation of Irish, interrupt. It is this new generation that are involved in the fighting for their freedom from the authority of the British government and Church, which the mother, father and the rest of their generation had been conditioned into passivity and ignorance by.
Deane takes the theme of haunting and weaves it into his novel in order to reveal something much more complicated than merely the mystery of the history one family refuses to deal with. The family and their ghost reveal the intricacies of the Northern Irish society. These two things reveal the use of history by several different authorities to colonize and subjugate this people, by steering them away from the realities that truly affect them. The simple truth of the what Deane illustrates is history and the past will not go away and they will always be present.