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.