A Psychoanalytic Deconstruction of Perspective in John McGahern's 'The Dark'

By Rebecca A. Demarest
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 1/4 |

You, he, they, and I. All of these pronouns are used in John McGahern’s The Dark to refer to the central character who, when named, is simply given a surname: Mahoney. Young Mahoney is a troubled youth who is coming of age in the brutal Irish society and of the 1950’s, and suffers beatings, sexual abuse, and various other traumas and embarrassments at the hands of his father, his priests, and teachers. He is in turns a care-free Irish youth, going on fishing trips with his family and studying hard for his exams, eventually winning a scholarship. But even this victory is sullied by his father and the humiliation he wreaks. In response to these brutal situations, each of the thirty-one chapters in the short novel have four separate points-of-view which serve as a vehicle to illuminate the psychological impact of the situation as well as serve as a coping mechanism for the narrator to come to terms with the trauma he endures.

To understand how this narrative device is working in the novel, it is first necessary to understand how the psychological mechanism McGahern is using actually works. From the evidence in the text, a psychologist would most likely diagnosis young Mahoney with a dissociative disorder:

"[Dissociation] include…a loss of personal identity; multiple personality, in which an individual appears to present two or more different personalities, alternating in control over experience, thought, and action; and depersonalization and derealization, in which the person perceives him- or herself, or the external world, to be unreal or otherwise fundamentally changed" (Kihlstrom, Flisky, & Angiulo, 117).

Essentially, Mahoney is distancing himself from the situation at hand in the only way that is possible: by pretending that the world is somehow different. He adopts four world views throughout the novel which will be discussed in detail later in the piece. Dissociation can lead to diverse and severe kinds of disorders such as full mental fugues, more commonly known as amnesia, or personality fugues in which the person adopts full and discrete personalities, each one designed to cope with specific situations and completely unaware of the other personality’s existence, memories and experiences. McGahern’s character suffers a more mild form of dissociation in which he simply separates himself from the traumatic and unpleasant situations and helps himself start to take charge of the situation. He has separate ways of viewing the world, the most extreme coming during scenes of sexual and physical abuse.

It is not unheard of for children of child abuse to suffer from dissociative disorders, and:

The Dark, by John McGahern"Although there may be a variety of aetiological factors associated with major dissociative disorders, there is increasing evidence that children who have suffered severe, repeated, and often bizarre physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, most often administered by parents and unpredictably interspersed with affection, are at high risk for their development" (Pekala, Angelini, & Kumar, 205).

Thus, our narrator, who experiences repeated childhood traumas of beating and sexual abuse as well as emotional manipulation from his father is at an even higher risk for the of this kind of psychological disorder. Old Mahoney will spend a day having fun on the river, fishing with his children, and the day will be perfectly pleasant until he becomes tired and quarrelsome. At this time, it is as though a switch is thrown and he becomes emotionally and verbally abusive towards his children. He may also try to engage his children in card games but be manipulative and childish himself when they are afraid to participate. The beatings and sexual trauma evidenced in chapter three interspersed with these random acts of kindness only serve to confuse and complicate the relationship between young Mahoney and his father. As such, he forms a more dissociative worldview in order to understand and cope with the environment in which he is forced to learn and grow.

The form of Mahoney’s dissociation is quarter-fold. He in turn views the events from first person, second person, third person, and third person plural, all in the present tense. The narration has no knowledge of the future, only the past, and is primarily reporting the events of the novel as it happens. As such, “The protagonist’s auto-narrative is – crucially – not a retrospective but an act of simultaneous translation in which the source of direct experience is translated directly, without a temporal delay into the target language of his narrative.” (van der Ziel, 104) This provides even more support to the idea that the point of view is the result of a dissociative character as we are getting the personality and point of view of the character as he is experiencing the event, not as it is ten or twenty years down the line, after Mahoney has had a lifetime to come to terms with the events in question. It is the raw data which the reader is exposed to, the active coping with vicious trauma and abuse. Given enough time to cope with the situation and learn to deal with the long-term negatives of dissociation, Mahoney would be more likely to report his childhood in a constant tense, most like first. But the present narration provides a unique opportunity to fully explore just how the dissociation fully and deeply affects just exactly how Mahoney relates to his world.

The novel opens with a scene depicting a near beating that is designed to instill fear and complete humliation in a fairly young boy. We are not given his age, but judging from contextual cues such as the fact that he can curl up in the chair, he must be somewhere around five years old. He is stripped and placed in the chair in front of all of his sisters and then his father pretends to beat him while in fact hitting the leather arms of the chair instead. In a child as young as the narrator, this is a terrifying and humiliating experience, particularly as he loses control of bodily functions due to the terror of possibly actually being hit. This chapter is narrated in the third person, one of the most removed perspectives available. It is an effort on the part of the narrator to pretend that it is not really him in the chair, that he is outside of it all watching an anonymous third party being beaten, or even pretend he is not there at all. This is the most common form of general dissociation and can be seen in all sorts of victims of abuse and trauma. However, it is still a close third, staying within the mind of Mahoney to help the reader experience his fear and embarrassment, which inoculates the reader against the later jumps into first and then second person, but it is still distanced from the action, fear, and humiliation of the scene.

The other chapters in the novel which also utilize the third person are all about personal failure, abuse, or generally negative emotions. In chapter 3, Mahoney is molested by his father. It is framed in carefully obscure language, but there is definitely inappropriate contact between the father and son on nights, as the narrator says, “he wanted love” (McGahern, 17). In chapter four, the children are forced outside by their father’s wrath into the rain and storm to pick potatoes. The children are all too terrified of what their father might do to them if they fail to pick the potatoes that they venture out anyways and do their level best before deciding to just rebury the line until the next day when it would be safer to pick them. Mahoney’s father belittles and degrades Mahoney in chapter eight due to his aspirations for the exams, determining that his son is trying to go above and beyond his station in taking the exams and trying for a scholarship for college. The reader cannot help but feel that the amount of wrath directed to the young boy in this section is due to jealousy on the part of the father that his son has an opportunity to escape the farm that he is trapped on. In chapter eleven the narrator confronts his sister’s molestation at the hands of the merchant family she is a maidservant for and the suggestive inappropriateness of John living as the Father Gerald’s ‘caretaker.’ There are definitely implications of sexual abuse in that relationship which are an uncomfortable reminder of his own traumatic relationship with his father.

There is also a long stretch of unbroken third person narration in chapters twenty-four through twenty-seven in which Mahoney is returning to the farm after the exams to await his results and re-engages in the farm work. The pain of readjusting his body to the hard labor while dealing with the comments from his father during the stressful wait for the results from the exams and whether or not he even has a chance of going to the university, because if he doesn’t get the scholarship, he will not be able to go. After he receives his marks, the reader may then expect to witness a change in point of view due to the ecstatic nature of winning the scholarship and having a chance to leave the farm, but the lengths to which the father goes to in order to show off his son mortally embarrass him and he’s left with a distinct sense of a spoiled victory. It has become about his father, and his father’s successful son, no longer his own blood sweat and study that has reached this point. The usurpation of his incredible amount of work leaves him upset and impatient to be out of the small village which he grew up around.

The one thing all of these chapters have in common is a sense of humiliation and shame, inadequacy and abuse. In each and every one of them, Mahoney is experiencing negative emotions which he then distances himself from, disassociates from, by informing his readers about it in the third person. While he is still informing them of his emotions and feelings as it is a close third person, he is still able to pretend that these things are happening to someone else, and not him. The closest analogy to this is the effect many people experience during events such as car crashes. Once the trauma begins, the brain is incapable of, or just doesn’t want to, process all the information that is inundating the senses and the complex feelings and so you experience a sort of out of body experience. In the same fashion, Mahoney is scared or sickened or humiliated beyond his young tolerance and in reaction, his brain pulls away, puts a thin veil of fantasy between itself and reality.

In addition to the straight close third person, there are a few chapters which utilize a unique third person collective or plural viewpoint which are distinct from the straight third person chapters. In the three chapters in which this point of view appears, Mahoney is disappearing into the army of children that are his family as a method of defense and camaraderie. In chapter two, the family enjoys a day of fishing which steadily deteriorates as the father becomes tiredly abusive and ends with the children quietly and subversively mocking the father. In chapter nine, Mahoney’s older sister Joan is sent off to town to take a job and the narrator is also forced to confront his own career path. In these two instances, the children ban together, first to defy the father, and second to mourn the loss of their eldest sister. Mahoney melts into the pack of his peers for support through times when the pain is not singly placed upon him. Yes, he is feeling terrible about the situation; they have gotten yelled at while fishing, his sister was sent away. But at this time the abuse and negativity is not directed solely at him and so he retreats into the plural form and tries to blend into the background of his siblings as protection. It’s as though the fact that he is no longer singly responsible for his father’s wrath is a better defense even than simply pretending to the emotional distance of third person. As they say, misery loves company, and so apparently to abusive children. Staying hidden in the middle of the pack prevents them from being singled out and dealt a more devastating and upsetting blow.

This is particularly evident in chapter seventeen wherein Mahoney has brought Joan home after hearing about her abusive employer. This chapter starts off in the third person plural because Mahoney is not sure what kind of reaction his father is going to have to the fact that he has ‘rescued’ his sister. He is trying hard to simply be another of the children, regardless of the fact that he has gone against his father and has brought home his sister who had been making money for the family. As it becomes evident that his father is not displeased by his actions, he fades into the close third person and takes responsibility for bringing Joan home. He is still cautious and afraid of what the consequences might possibly be. The defensiveness of the third person fades, however, as it is clear that he did took the correct actions and is not facing punishment, which fades in turn into second person in the next chapter.

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