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Artistic Figures in Star of the Sea
The Role of Historical Artistic Figures in Star of the Sea
The historical artistic figures in Star of the Sea serve many diverse roles in the novel. To an even greater extent than the political figures, the novel’s artistic figures serve the role of questioning the existence of an objective truth surrounding not just the novel, but the potato famine and wider colonization of Ireland. Although not listed as political figures, many were also involved in politics of the time, through their art or otherwise, demonstrating the pervasive impact of Irish colonization on the people of Ireland, England, and abroad.
The questioning of objective truth is a particularly important theme within Star of the Sea’s artistic figures. Charles Dickens is one of the only historical figures to merit not just a mention, but several appearances in the novel, and O’Connor takes liberties with Dickens’s portrayal, implying, for example, that Dickens was inspired to write Oliver Twist based on stories told to him by Pius Mulvey (O’Connor 179). Naomi Jacobs writes in The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction that contemporary writers ““have been directly and indirectly influenced by theories of history, character, and language that question the existence and even the desirability of factual truth, unified identity, and aesthetic perfection. Freed from the constraints that had limited use of historical figures under the reign of realism, contemporary writers are using such figures with increasing frequency to serve a variety of fictional aims” (xiv). By including Dickens in such a manner, O’Connor’s fictional aim is to question the validity of any objective truth surrounding historical events, especially as they relate to a colonized country.
Other artistic figures in Star of the Sea serve not to question the validity of historical objectivity, but to immerse readers in the culture of the time and remind them of the pervasiveness of the Irish struggle’s portrayal in art. From a passing mention of Irish poet James Clarence Mangan in a footnote to a derisive and racist mention of Irish songwriter Thomas Moore by Surgeon Mangan, we see that Irish artists also pervaded the culture of both England and Ireland. A footnote mention of Jonathan Swift, perhaps one of the most important Anglo-Irish advocating the rights of the Irish, serves the purpose of creating a nuanced portrayal of the English by reminding readers that many English and Anglo-Irish (like Swift) actively supported the Irish cause; many political figures mentioned in the novel serve this same purpose.
Jacobs writes that ““unashamed of partial truth, these writers owe no allegiance to the bogeys of accuracy and objectivity; as a result, they can find no reason not to use historical figures” (204). O’Connor’s use of artistic figures, in particular his liberties with the history of Charles Dickens and complex portrayal of Englishmen like Jonathan Swift, serves to question the validity of historical truth in the setting of a colonized country and its oppressor.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey GunnBack to Historical Figures
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Artistic Figure from 393 Old Commercial Rd., Portsmouth, England
“As if to mock him, on his way to his last appointment, [Dixon] had seen that idiot Dickens strolling along Oxford Street doffing his topper like a victorious general among the plebeians. People were rushing up to him and shaking his hand, as though he were a hero instead of a charlatan; that saddle-sniffing ringmaster of Bozo beadles, of Harrow-toned orphans and vulture-nosed Jews.”
-Star of the Sea, 115
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens (“Charles Dickens”). Dickens’s education was described as “interrupted and unimpressive,” and ended when Dickens was only fifteen years old (Collins). In 1824, Dickens’s entire family was sent to the debtor’s prison Marshalsea, (“Charles Dickens”), while Dickens, as the oldest boy (though only age twelve), was forced to work in a factory, where he “began to gain that sympathetic knowledge of its life and privations that informed his writings” (Collins). Fortunately, he was able to leave the factory and return to school for a couple more years after the family’s finances improved (Collins).
“It was as though [Mulvey] had lived among these imaginary people; as though he had become one of his own fictional characters. Soon Charlie asked if he might copy down the lyric. Mulvey said he would happily sing it again, if only his throat were not so confoundedly dry. A pitcher of ale was hastily ordered and Mulvey sang it two more times. Charlie was trying to scalp him, but that was fine. Charlie was being thoroughly scalped himself. The song was an act of mutual robbery.”
-Star of the Sea, 179
Dickens’s professional career began as a journalist; he began reporting from Parliament for The Morning Chronicle in 1833. He married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his editor, in 1836, and began to publish his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, that same year. Dickens quickly became a household name, and spent the next several decades writing, editing, and working for charities (“Charles Dickens”), including acting as director of “a reformatory home for young female delinquents, financed by his wealthy friend Angela Burdett-Coutts” (Collins). Although they had ten children together, Dickens was estranged from his wife in 1858. He died in 1870 due to a stroke, and was buried in Westminster Abbey (“Charles Dickens”).
Charles Dickens is one of the most important historical figures in Star of the Sea, and becomes an actual character in the novel, albeit a minor one. Across the novel, Dickens appears at the Merridiths’ parties in London, is seen in London (and resented) by Dixon, and meets with Mulvey, where Dickens finds inspiration for Oliver Twist. At the end of the novel, Dickens even becomes the chairman of a charity distributing funds mailed to Dixon from his readers in support of the suffering Irish (367). Dickens acts as a go-between for the rich and poor, Irish and English; although he is himself a wealthy Englishman, he demonstrates in the novel, as in his own life, a deep empathy for the diverse lives others, based perhaps in his own experiences as a factory worker at age twelve. Dickens, both in his real life and in Star of the Sea, is a testament to the fact that although there were many cruel, oppressive Englishmen, there were others eager to give the Irish a voice.
“Charles Dickens.” BBC History. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2014. Web. 28 February
Collins, Philip. “Charles Dickens.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey Gunn
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
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