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

Genres in the Novel

“For the dead do not die in that tormented country, that heartbroken island of incestuous hatreds; so abused down the centuries by the powerful of the neighbouring island, as much by the powerful of its native own” (O’Connor 377). 

A common element of postmodern literature is the deliberate use of different genres to incorporate various elements and blur the distinctions. Postmodern writing “blurs genres, transgresses them, or unfixes boundaries that conceal domination or authority, and that ‘genre’ is an anachronistic term and concept” (Cohen 11). Defining a work as one genre limits its capabilities; therefore, postmodernism incorporates and mixes genres to further express different aspects and purposes of the writing.  

Star of the Sea, a novel about the journey from a famine- and injustice-ridden Ireland to America, tells the tales of the characters on this voyage; showing how the past never truly lets go. Through the use of various genres, the novel is able to tell the stories of these characters and portray the Irish Famine experience. The Irish Famine “is a historical event that because of political developments in Ireland in the twentieth century, has been deprived of an adequate forum for its speaking” (Beville 32). Star of the Sea branches the gap between history and fiction to tell the story of the Famine.

The novel is a work of historical fiction, Gothic fiction, and mystery. The three genres work together to tell the story, emphasize the setting and the mood, and entertain the audience. The story is completely fictional, but also based on an historical event. The Irish Famine, the injustice in Ireland, and the famine ships were all real occurrences during the nineteenth century, and the novel uses a fictional story to recount these events. Through the use of historiographic metafiction, O’Connor recreates and contextualizes the era of the Irish Famine. Brackett states, “One clear quality of successful historical fiction is that it shapes characters in plots set in the past that transcend time to offer readers a knowledge or awareness applicable to their own time and situation.” O’Connor brings an awareness to the reality of what people experienced during the Irish Famine which reveals the truth of Ireland’s colonial past.

O’Connor also utilizes Gothic elements to shed light on this truth. The themes of decay and isolation are portrayed through more than just the settings; the characters themselves are incarnations of these themes that convey the novel’s gloomy atmosphere. The Gothicism expresses the seriousness and bleakness of the Irish Famine. Historical Fiction retells the story, but the Gothicism addresses the essence of it. The historical fiction and Gothic fiction also collaborate to intensify the mystery in the novel. From the beginning the story reveals that Merridith is a murder victim, but does not reveal why he is murdered or who murders him. As the journey on the ship progresses, the story reveals past events of the characters’ lives, divulging secrets, events, and connections between people. This forces the reader to question the story at hand and face the gritty reality of the lives within it. The work of these genres is what makes this novel successfully tell the story of the Irish Famine experience. 

To view images of artistic and political figures mentioned in the novel, visit the pages tagged below. 

Works Cited
Beville, Maria. “Delimiting the Unspeakable: Gothic Preoccupations in Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.” Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies 1.1 (2014): 30-41. Print.

Brackett, Virginia. "Historical Hiction." Facts On File Companion to the British Novel: Beginnings through the 19th Century, vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

Cohen Ralph. “Do Postmodern Genres Exist?” Postmodern Genres. Ed. Marjorie Perloff. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. 11-27. Print.

O'Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Sarah Swansen
Technical Designers: Sara Juntunen, Elizabeth Pilon

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