Identity struggle is prevalent in the Gothic genre because of the character types that often occur within the novels. A traditional Gothic text would have a fallen hero, Byronic for the most part; a virginal maiden, functioning as the damsel in distress; and a tyrannical villain. O’Connor’s Star of the Sea portrays these character types with influence from the Irish Famine and society at the time of the story. In the novel there are three main characters that the story centers on: David Merridith, Mary Duane, and Pius Mulvey. All three are marginalized by society and each other, and a significant part of the identity struggles that these characters have come from this marginalization.
The Virginal MaidenMary Duane—a woman who tragedy constantly follows—has lived a life of poverty and starvation; twice abandoned by lovers, eventually driven into prostitution, and now suffering from sexual abuse at the hands of her Master, David Merridith. Mary considers the circumstance, knowing that “She was one of His Lordship’s charity cases: the local girl he rescued from a beggary in Dublin. She knew her role and he knew his” (O’Connor 46). Although not a virginal maiden by definition’s standard, Mary struggles against those who have power over her: the tyrannical male villains who use her for their own pleasure and objectives. Mulvey even admits to this wrong against her, realizing that “He had deserted the only woman he has ever wanted, for no other reason than his own sickening weakness” (O’Connor 214). Merridith too understands that “He had murdered her trust for no other reason than obedience: his crippling and crippled desire to please. Out of hunger for love he had thrown love away” (O’Connor 228). Both of these men broke Mary. They broke her innocence, her tenderness, and her spirit. Yet, Mary does not need saving. She decides to leave the Merridith family and even rises above the villainy of Mulvey by letting him leave the ship with her, giving him mercy instead of seeking retribution (O’Connor 366). Mary Duane prevails through the abuse and oppression she endures as an Irish peasant woman and under the cruelty of the famine.
Tyrannical Villains and Fallen HeroesWhen it comes to Mary, both Merridith and Mulvey can be seen as villains. Having used and abused her, these men significantly contribute to her downfall. Yet, like Mary, O’Connor shows that there is more to these characters than their archetype. Merridith and Mulvey also both function as fallen heroes. Their stories show that their villainy comes from their struggles. Merridith, as a man who strives for a solid identity, cannot handle his own desires and what is expected of him. He falls into a life of debauchery and women, seeking peace that he will never find and suffering from the guilt of his actions. Hated by the tenants he desires to provide for, and uneasy about his Irish identity, Mary notes about Merridith that “There was a darkness in him she had not seen before; not the gloom of lust but that of culpability” (O’Connor 47). Merridith wants to be a magnificent Lord, he wants to be a great father and husband, he wants to love Mary, but he cannot achieve these wishes because he struggles with who he is. Throughout the novel Mulvey is painted as a sympathetic character, despite his corrupt actions. Known to be a murderer, conman, and a thief, “Nothing much interested him except survival and clothes, and collecting new words for stealing” (O’Connor 189). O’Connor reveals Mulvey to be a man focused on survival, going to the extreme in order to make sure he stays alive. Mulvey’s actions are not condemned because his reasoning seems forced upon him by society and the famine.
Functioning as both heroes and villains, Merridith and Mulvey are products of the world around them. Oftentimes in Gothic literature with the traditional character types, the plot usually finds its happily-ever-after due to “the passage of a series of suspenseful events toward the rescue of a heroine and/or the redemption of a hero” (Snodgrass). The novel uses Gothic character types to modify this tradition in order to focus on portraying the experiences of the characters.
O'Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Gothic Novel." Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.