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Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

Characters in the Novel

“For as truly as the night comes down on every day, if the world were somehow turned downside-up; if Ireland were a richer land and other nations now mighty were distressed; as certain as I know that the dawn must come, the people of Ireland would welcome the frightened stranger with that gentleness and friendship which so ennobles their characters” (O’Connor 275)

When it comes to the elements of postmodern literature, the characters play a strong role. Star of the Sea tells the stories of three main characters: David Merridith, Pius Mulvey, and Mary Duane. All three lives intertwine in intriguing ways; each character impacting one another and having to deal with the consequences of their own choices. The experiences of these postmodern characters highlights the novel’s purpose in order to question the grand narrative at hand. Postmodernism facilitates the retelling of historical experiences, which is why “Postmodern texts often revel in uncertainty since there is no one ‘right’ way of looking at the events that are being narrated. They may make use of multiple narratives to reinforce an awareness of subjectivity, or they may simply be left open to several interpretations” (Sibley). O’Connor’s Star of the Sea recounts the Irish Famine at the height of its devastation through Dixon’s voice, who is telling the story of those who are affected by the famine.

In order to see how the grand narrative is questioned, the characters need to be analyzed. Merridith, Mulvey, and Mary Duane all struggle with their identity, being alienated, and against a system larger than themselves. Merridith feels comfortable with the Irish tenant class because his nanny was Mary Duane's mother, who was also an Irish tenant servant. As a boy, Merridith would come home, sickly and pale, to Ireland during breaks from his school in England and “He would take off his neatly pressed worsted trousers, his Winchester college blazer and schoolboy’s cap, and don the rough clothes he wore at home in Connemara…He seemed to think they concealed his status but for some reason they tended only to underline it” (O’Connor 62). Merridith will never be accepted by the Irish tenant class, those with whom he identifies; and he will never identify with the Irish ruling landlords, those by whom he is accepted as a member. He belongs to the English system that oppresses the Irish people, but he recognizes himself to be among those who view him as an oppressor. Merridith questions this and wonders “Am I my fathers? Are they all me?” (O’Connor 10). Merridith’s story reveals a man torn between two identities; filled with anguish and guilt, he never finds his sense of belonging. Merridith’s character uncovers the gray in what seems to be a black-and-white world. Struggling against society and divided between two lands, his experience forces readers to reexamine the different ways in which the famine impacted people.

Pius Mulvey and Mary Duane are two Irish peasants whose identity struggles come from the oppression that they must endure. Mary suffers from being a woman, which is highlighted by her being abandoned by both Merridith and Mulvey. She eventually comes to work for the Merridith family as their nanny, and becomes a victim of abuse by Merridith. After losing her own family and now having to raise someone else's “Mary Duane wondered if she should tell her mistress that almost every night for the last seven months the lady’s husband had come to her quarters at midnight to sit on her bed and watch her undress. That might soften her cough for her” (O’Connor 44). But Mary is aware that this confession would only aid in her own demise, and not that of Merridith’s. Although Mary chooses to become the lover of both Merridith and Mulvey, the misfortunes in her life have been caused by these two men, the famine, and being a peasant woman. Mary, the ultimate victim in the novel, strives to survive in a world that has had no mercy on her.

Mulvey, on the other hand, has more blame on his hands for his own ordeals. How does the famine affect an Irish man? Dealing with the same hardships as any Irish peasant, Mulvey finds that his talent lies with his cunning, and he attempts to use this to persevere and progress in a society that thwarts him. Feeling alienated as a peasant farmer, he takes up being a singer because “Often it felt to Mulvey as if the songs were a secret language: a means of saying things that could otherwise not be said in a frightened and occupied country” (O’Connor 92). Not only does Mulvey enjoy utilizing his talents and being a person whom others admire, but he finds pleasure in using scenarios of all kinds to his advantage. Furthering his talents and traveling all over the United Kingdom, Mulvey finds himself in London. Working as a conman but feeling accepted by the inhabitants of the city, he remarks that “What helped was that most of them were outsiders too; many living with the knowledge that they might be again” (O’Connor 181). Mulvey is alienated in society, seen as an outsider, and constantly attempts to use situations to his advantage in order to improve his life.

The different experiences of these characters depict the Irish Famine as a diversified experience. But, the stories are all being told by Dixon. This illustrates that “There are no absolutes in postmodernism, everything is subjective, and individuals shape their own reality through their perceptions.” (Sibley). Questioning Dixon as a narrator also means questioning the characters’ stories. The novel uses postmodern elements to demonstrate the Irish Famine, showing that there is more than one story to any historical experience, and all stories have the ability to be questioned.

Works Cited
O'Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea‚Äč. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.

Sibley, Rochelle. "Postmodernism." In Maunder, Andrew. Facts On File Companion to the British Short Story. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Researcher/Writer: Sarah Swansen
Technical Designers: Sara Juntunen, Elizabeth Pilon

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