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Theme of Decay
Setting: A Famine Ship
Setting is one of the most important elements in the Gothic genre, as it has the ability to establish and intensify the atmosphere in the novel. The desolation and gloom felt by the characters comes from not only the circumstances that they are in, but also from their environment. The majority of the story takes place on a ship making the voyage from Ireland to New York. This literal passage has the characters fleeing the now desolate Ireland and seeking the promise of new life in America (Tynan 80). Although the ship represents the beginning of a new life, O’Connor shows that simply leaving a ruined land does not end the misery and suffering. A majority of the passengers on the ship continue to starve and live in terrible conditions. Halfway through their voyage the ship starts to smell. The captain describes “The stench now become very evil indeed. As though the ship itself were beginning to rot, or traversing a very real sewer” (O’Connor 154). This smell, the smell of death, is a result of the suffering that the passengers are continuing to endure, despite their hopes that their lives are beginning anew. For these survivors, the suffering will never end because Ireland, their home, remains in a state of decay and their culture continues to fade.
A Blighted Land
This decay of the land and its effect on the people is shown with the character Pius Mulvey as he is stuck in a life of unrelenting poverty and starvation. O’Connor remarks that “He grew restless with Connemara and its bleak possibilities, its blasted bogscape and lunar rockiness, the grey desolation of everything around him, the rainy, acidulous smell of the air” (88). As tenant farmers, Mulvey and his brother Nicholas live harsh and lonely lives working, desperately and hungrily, on their father’s land together, but failing to produce anything except hopelessness (88). Mulvey constantly seeks escape from this life. He eventually leaves Connemara, but also finds that physically abandoning a place and its people does not equal happiness. He cannot escape the devastation that pervades the land and the people of Ireland. The decaying land conveys the bleakness and
desperation of the characters’ lives, and it is also a catalyst for
why many of these people are living in ruin.
Mary Duane—A Human Incarnation of the Setting
In most Gothic literature “Grandiose but bleak settings redolent with decay tended toward rambling estates and cloisters in remote locales, where unexplained disappearances and deaths or eerie portents and manifestations contributed to suspense, dark tone, and a disturbingly vague foreboding and dread” (Snodgrass). Instead of a desolate and broken down castle or Abbey, Star of the Sea illustrates a decaying land and state of the people, which conveys the atmosphere that Snodgrass discusses. As an Irish peasant who suffers from the famine and being at the mercy of those who are above her in society, Duane’s tragic life represents the state of the Irish people. Throughout her life she loses multiple children due to famine hardship, she is compelled into prostitution, and suffers from abuse at the hands of Merridith. Her life demonstrates a moral decay
which is caused by those who have power over her and the
famine. She is a physical embodiment of the bleakness,
desperation, and gloom that permeates Gothic literature.
O'Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Gothic Convention." Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.
Tynan, Maeve. “’Everything is in the Way the Material is Composed’: Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea as Historiographic Metafiction.” Passages: Movements and Moments in Text and Theory. Eds. Maeve Tynan, Maria Beville, and Marita Ryan. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. 79-95. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Sarah Swansen
Technical Designers: Carissa Rodenbiker & Krystal Jamison