Setting: The Open OceanAccompanying the atmosphere of decay and despair is the sense of isolation. Stuck on a ship in the middle of the unfathomably deep sea, and below a death-black bowl of sky, the awareness of one’s own insignificance and powerlessness penetrates the atmosphere in the novel (O'Connor XII). Even Merridith states in his letter to his sister “We feel very cut off here in the middle of the great ocean” (O’Connor 108). The only way to leave the ship during its voyage is by death. Isolation in the novel is conveyed through both the environment on the ship and the characters’ physical and psychological states.
Merridith and Mulvey—Embodiments of the Theme
Like other characters, Merridith finds himself in situations of despair due to his own choices and situations that have been forced upon him. After a lifetime of struggles with his aristocratic and Irish identity, Merridith is finally able to accept his position as Lord Merridith on his family’s estate after his father’s death. Unfortunately, he finds out that the estate is bankrupt, the land is deteriorating, and his people are suffering (O’Connor 249). This type of decay is outside of Merridith’s control, and yet he suffers because of it. Deterioration is present in almost every aspect of Merridith’s life, which drives him to seek relief in immoral ways. His marriage has fallen apart, his health has begun to decline, and his morality has succumbed to a life of debauchery. Being physically isolated on the ship only enhances the loneliness and solitude that Merridith—and the other characters—has felt in life.
The main source of Merridith’s psychological isolation is his struggle with his identity. His identity struggles increase after he marries Laura, because “Marriage, for Merridith, had been a feat of vengeance, but an act that had only imprisoned its kicked-down perpetrator even as it seemed to have given him liberation. What had made him a freeman had also enslaved him: the slavery all the worse for being self-imposed” (O’Connor 228). This sense of imprisonment and the feeling of being lost are both presented by Merridith’s journal entries, which portray the work of a man filled with self-anguish, aimlessness, and torment (O’Connor 229). The fevered self-loathing and guilt that fuels Merridith’s psychological isolation is a part of his downfall, and overall contributes to the portrayal of his character type and experience as a member of the Irish upper class.
Mulvey, like Merridith, also struggles with his identity. Unlike Merridith, this comes from being an educated Irish peasant trying to survive starvation and poverty. After living a life of a thief and conman, separated from society, Mulvey also isolates himself from everyone else on the ship. Yet this intentional isolation turns into a fearful isolation for everyone else aboard the ship. Dixon describes Mulvey as “The Monster” and notes that “His apparent fear of daylight and love of the darkness led some of the imaginative to call him ‘a cithoge’; a weird supernatural of Irish legend, the child of a faerie and a mortal man, possessed of the power to curse and conjure” (O’Connor XX).
Jennifer McClinton-Temple states that “Whether the isolation is voluntarily imposed on the self or forced by some other entity, it is a condition that is objective in that it is not merely a feeling, and that is created by an outside force, not by happenstance.” This is true for both Merridith and Mulvey, as their isolation—physical and psychological—is due to their individual struggles for identity in a society defined by status. The isolation felt by the characters enhances the novel’s portrayal of the Irish Famine experience.
McClinton-Temple, Jennifer. "isolation." McClinton-Temple, Jennifer, ed.Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature.. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011.Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.
O'Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.