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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Creatures - Amongst Women

In Amongst Women, John McGahern—like any writer—tells the story using a particular narrational style.

Let’s consider the opening paragraph:

“As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.”

Who is the subject thinking this and then writing it?

Well, it’s someone who not only has intimate knowledge of Michael Moran but also of his daughters.

‘Kay, let’s work with this. First, it’s not quoted speech—there are no quotation marks. If there were, would Michael Moran say such a thing? “As I weakened, I became afraid of my daughters.” Probably not, although he might think it in a deeply personal, perhaps pre-conscious way. He might have a vague sense of fear that his daughters plan to limit his freedom, but it would be unusual to think such a thing, let alone say it. If it’s not Moran, then it’s someone saying this about him, someone who knows him well and who can make meaning of his behavior. And since this is a book and the first sentence, it’s someone who is introducing the protagonist to the reader. There is no sense that it’s another character who is saying this—it’s not, “Rose thought, as Moran weakened, he became afraid of his daughters.” And there’s a judgement expressed. Whoever says this judges that Moran is weakening, and that he is afraid.

The same goes for the rest of the paragraph. What’s described—that his daughters are so implanted in his life that they never really leave their childhood home—is exactly what Moran is shown as wanting. However, this desire—that his children not leave him—is never expressed directly in the story; it’s implied. McGahern does a nice job of portraying Moran as a complex man who does not only do bad things. It would be out of character for Moran to be shown as directly scheming to sabotage his daughters’ independence for selfish reasons. (‘Kay, he comes pretty close). And the daughters would be unlikely to render such a judgment on themselves.

No, it seems to be some omniscient entity who is showing the story of these people along with an assessment of their behavior.

Another example:

(Nell Morahan helps Moran’s younger son, Michael, escape Moran’s wrath, and they spend the night together.)

“All through the night they made love. The anxiety of his years soon gave way to tenderness and great gratitude. Each time that she thought that he was slipping into sleep he would come into her again. She received him as if he were both man and child, his slenderness cancelled by strength, his unsureness by pride; and she took him too each time as if she were saying a slow and careful farewell to a youth she herself had to work too hard ever to have had when she was young. Not until morning did they fall into a sleep of pure exhaustion and as soon as she woke she roused him and drove him to the part of the city where his sisters lived.”

Beautiful writing, no?

Would Nell—a relatively uneducated woman—think these things? No. Would Michael? No, he wouldn’t know Nell’s inner experience. This is the narrator describing that experience in poetic terms, something that occurs routinely in the book.

So, we have the perspective of the narrator superseding the viewpoint character, in this case, Nell. The narrator does not necessarily agree with the characters’ perceptions; it shows them as sometimes accurate and sometimes fallible.

And of course, the narrator is only a creature of the implied author.

Heh, heh, heh.

(Oh, no! Not this again, lots of people don't even believe in implied authors. But you just go on and on, blandly bringing "them" up).

'Kay. So, is this creature one of those omniscient narrators?

Prrhaps, best B.

“An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing. While the narration occurs outside of any one character, the narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

“Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance. This might take the form of sweeping descriptions of setting that help to establish the mood or atmosphere of a scene, or philosophical digressions that serve to develop ideas that only tangentially relate to the action of the story.”

Yeah, I think we can say this style is present in Amongst Women. But the story does have a different feel than those classic eighteenth and nineteenth century novels that were grandly omniscient, often utilizing a narrator who was an actual realized character. (Moby Dick—Call me Ishmael, anyone?). Or at least a “we.” (The Red and the Black, Thomas Hardy’s work, Tolstoy).

“We’ve” established that the narrator of Amongst Women is unnamed and infallible. In fact, it’s so unnamed that it has no pronoun. No “we” or “I.”

(Yes, this blog makes use of a personified narrator, an “I,” a “we,” sometimes even named as Mr. Al, or Mr. Pretentious Bully. But, you say, this blog is not fiction. Oh, I forgot).

I think the best technical definition of what’s going on in Amongst Women is that the narration is “third person limited omniscient.” This mouthful means it gets into the heads of some—not all—of the characters, and it maintains distance from the main characters by offering judgements of them.

Telescopic, perhaps.

Well. I think this concludes “our” discussion of this magical book. Next week, a new one—assuming the “old maestro” is sufficiently recovered from the Thanksgiving feast.

Till then.


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