General Features 7
Title The title of the story immediately establishes these two characters as archetypes: they are not merely individuals, but they represent every father and son. Because of this, the title brings with it immediate connotations of the father/son relationship.
There are many positive aspects to this relationship: the Bible is full of relationships between father and son, particularly the love between them, as can be seen at the Baptism of Christ (“This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased”) and the story of the prodigal son.
On the other hand, there are negative connotations, such as the power struggle between a young man seeking to assert his own personality and an older man reluctant to relinquish dominance.
It is not surprising that in this story, both these aspects of the father/son relationship exist uneasily alongside one another.
The title sets out the bond between these characters, but also the divisions and oppositions which exist between two generations of the same gender.
Often, the language and incidents of the story parody allusions which the author may expect you to make. Unlike the Father of the Bible, here is a man disappointed by his son: “Here lies my son who let me down.” Unlike the father of the parable, he cannot forgive his prodigal son, and instead expects constant atonement from him.
Setting Belfast The story is set in the recent past in Belfast. As a result, the reader brings with him an awareness of the troubles in that city, and can anticipate the effect of the hostile environment on the characters. However, the setting does more than this: it embodies one of the themes of the story, communication. The tensions of this divided city – where there is often little communication, only violent response – not only provide the backdrop of anxiety in which the characters are forced to live, but they also reflect the violence, separateness and lack of communication within the home.
The house itself is never described in any physical detail; the reader is only aware of sounds: the “click” of feet, the “snap of a switch”, a paper that “crackles like fire”. All of these are reminiscent of a snipers, and their burning nature suggest unrest and violence within the home. The other sounds replace conversation and communication. The radio and television are used to drown out the noises which cause fear or represent the father’s only access to knowledge of his son’s whereabouts.
The emotions of the characters are transferred to the home: the door “shudders” as the father leaves in the morning. Any descriptive detail in the story belongs to the past, and we hear about a garden burgeoning with produce for the whole street before the weeds took over the garden and the father’s life. In fact, all the images of the story, even the description of the gun, are drawn from the past.
Consider carefully the repeated way in which the boy builds barriers between himself and his father: a newspaper, duvet or a slammed door can often prevent communication.
Themes On one level, the story dramatises the effects of a violent environment on a family, but the issues of the story transcend the setting. The story deals with the complex nature of human emotions and relationships. Very often, our deepest feelings are not those which we communicate. Very often the language we use obscures what we truly feel. Often, though we are aware of the need for communication, we put it off until communication is no longer possible.
In this story we see the real concern and anxiety that a father has for his son become clear in constant reproach and recrimination. We see him hold back his true expression of love for his son until it is too late.
We also see a son’s love for his father degenerate into what the father can only interpret as hatred, under the weight of the father’s constant disapproval and disappointment.
Plot The plot is a series of inconsequential incidents – clearly repeated day after day – which culminate in a death which seemed inevitable from the first moments of the story and the father’s ominous remark, “Here lies my son…” Unfortunately, it is only his son’s death which makes it possible for the father to communicate his love.
Characters The Father He is a man driven by fear and anxiety, who can neither eat nor sleep. He is disappointed in his son and aware of his weaknesses (that is, that he is easily led). His memory of his son’s abject return from London makes him fearful for his safety, and he suspects the paramilitary involvement which causes his son’s death. Despite his constantly demeaning comments it is clear that he is lonely, and longs for communication with his son. He harks back to the days of his son’s childhood and the easy relationship which they enjoyed, yet it is clear that his disappointment is so great that he cannot discuss anything other than this. Though he tries to instigate a dialogue between them, his every remark reproaches his son for his lack of manliness, or reminds him of earlier weaknesses and failure.
The Son He, too, is driven by fear and anxiety and cannot eat or sleep. At some earlier point he has left home to go to London, only to return a drug addict, disgraced and dependent upon his parents. He is not allowed to forget this weakness, and has it cast up to him regularly by his father. He, in turn, is disappointed in his father and is disgusted by his apparent cowardice and womanish behaviour. He, too, remembers the relationship which they used to enjoy, but such is his resentment of his father’s constant recrimination and his contempt for his father’s lack of manliness that he cannot communicate other than in retaliation or in abusive language.
Parallels between both characters
each lives in fear, both for the son’s life
each uses or has used drugs to help them to cope
each conceals a weapon beneath his pillow or beside his bed
each has a notion of manliness which the other does not live up to: the father wants the son to be a man with a man’s haircut and a girlfriend; the son feels the father has turned into a nagging old woman who constantly enquires about his whereabouts. However, it is clear throughout that it is their “manliness” which prevents them from communicating: by the end of the story, the father cradles his dead son in his arms, just as Mary cradles the dead body of Jesus in traditional art. He can finally say how he feels about his son, having fully taken on the motherly role which the son needed so badly in his life.
the father’s weapon is a household implement, whereas the son has acquired a gun
the father’s idea of manliness is made up of old clichés of his generation
the father prays and hates foul language
Whatever differences may be between the two characters, they are “tied” by a blood knot which cannot be undone. These early references to fishing sum up the relationship between them: the father is able to “strike” and “to play” the son so that he will not “escape”. With a mere reference to his earlier failures, the son is “as if snagged on a fish hook”. Though they fail to communicate, the father still cares deeply about his son, and the son is a prisoner of his own earlier failure, and a victim of his father’s disappointment.
The Mother Though she is only referred to briefly by each of them, her absence is very significant. The father appears to feel some guilt about the fact that his wife has died, and excuses himself: “Is it my fault a good woman should die?” The son appears to resent both her death and the fact that his father has assumed her feminine, worrisome ways: “My mother is dead but now I have another in her place.” She represents an earlier, gentler time, free from anxiety and disharmony. Her presence clearly made the father a relaxed, diligent and generous man who grew produce for the entire street. Perhaps she also enabled them to share the close communication which each remembers. Notice how uncharacteristically lyrical the father is as he recalls in a vivid sensory moment the feeling of his baby son’s skin against his cheek.
Style Narration Occasionally, an omniscient narrator comments briefly on the characters of the action, but in the main the narration is divided between the father and the son. This serves to emphasise their separateness and since most of the story reflects the thought process of each character, it reinforces their silent isolation from each other.
The movement from father to son also gives a further insight into each character and his reaction to the words of the other. This prevents the reader from too ready identification with – or condemnation of – the father or the son.
Thought/Language There is a marked contrast between what the characters feel and what they say. Their thoughts are fluent and developed, and communicate their anxieties and feelings to the reader. Their language on the other hand is curt, cruel and crude. It is designed to disguise what each feels from the other. The intensity of their feelings, emphasised by repetition and unspoken remarks addressed to the other emerges in monosyllabic questions, imperatives, and dismissive, snide remarks. The dialogue between them is devoid of any colour or emotion – it is abrasive like the cheek of the grown up son.
Though neither address the other (the son reverts to a childlike reply when assuring his father that he no longer takes drugs) when the father thinks of the son it is in terms of desperate affection:
“My son looks confused. I want you to talk to me…”
“Son, you are living on borrowed time…”
The constant gap between feeling and expression makes the reader more impatient for some form of communication between the two of them. We are aware of the unexpressed need of each character and feel the frustration of their inability to express this need.
Notice how the father embodies the very human tendency to cast up in detail every fall from grace:
“I let you go once and look what happened.”
“I had to go and collect you. Like a dog.”
Note also how even in their most intense moments, communication cannot be provoked:
“Today I thought you were dead.”
“Well, I’m not.”
A sense of foreboding The frustration of the reader is intensified by the feeling of foreboding which is present from the earliest moments of the story. It is clear that though the father must speak to his son, he constantly puts off any real conversation or physical contact.
“I must talk to him. Tonight at tea. If he is in.”
“Let me put my arm around your shoulders and let me listen to what is making you think. At the weekend I will talk to him.”
Even when his son returns after he believed him dead and he seems determined to apologise and to explain his behaviour, he is again deflected from his purpose by the sight of the gun and chooses to pray for his son instead of speaking directly to him.
On each occasion, the reader becomes more aware of the urgency of the situation. Yet it is part of the father’s character that he seems unable either to face reality – about the gun – or to take the last opportunity to put his arms round his son when he is alive. Only in death, when his son is unable to respond or resist, is he able to hold him and offer comfort and love. “My son, let me put my arms around you.”
Imagery Imagery is almost inappropriate in this story, as it is so bleak and sparse. The stark nature of the language means that the only real imagery is found in the description of the gun: “black and squat, dull like a garden slug…” and the gardening referred to earlier.
Symbolism Certain elements of the story acquire a symbolic value:
the garden suggests harmony, order, life, growth and friendship
the weeds suggest the decay and neglect which has overtaken the home and the lives of those in it
their blood knot and the skills in fishing seem to apply to the later relationship between father and son – love and dependency which neither of them can escape
General Features The use of repetition in the first paragraph suggests the sheer predictability of the father’s routine: “He will…he will…” and later reinforces the father’s desperate need to communicate: “I want to…I want to…”
Notice MacLaverty’s sharp observation of human behaviour when something so horrific happens as the end of this story: at first the father minimises the situation and says “They have punched you and you are not badly hurt…”, before his response becomes calm and understated, “he sees a hole that should not be there…and he knows that the hole goes up into his brains” and so on. It is important to note also the significance of the news throughout the story, as the father’s means of knowing what his son is involved in. He refers to papers and television, and eventually, the “news has come to my door.”
All the elements of the story – the minimal plot, the tragic climax, the characters, the dialogue, the style, the unconventional narration – are used to communicate the themes of this stark parable. It is a sharp observation of the way in which human beings behave and it offers a grim warning of the consequences of such behaviour. The dialogue dramatises the corrosive effect of bitterness and resentment on the individual and on relationships; the ending is a chilling demonstration of the dangers of delay. The final words of the father are particularly sad: his son can no longer stop him. The violence and division of the setting are mirrored in the division between father and son, and the consequence in each case tragic: the son loses his life because of partisan involvement and the father loses his opportunity to express his love for his son. The story is a moving and thought provoking one and perhaps the only glimmer of hope is offered in the fact that communication can reduce violence.