This page is referenced by:
The Gothic in Star of the Sea
Fixating on terror, death, darkness, and the supernatural, Gothic literature possesses more at its core than just fear and mystery. The term “Gothic” relates to more than just literature or architecture, it represents a cultural phenomenon that began in the eighteenth century and still lingers today.
Theme of Isolation
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.
Researcher/Writer: Sarah Swansen
Technical Designers: Carissa Rodenbiker & Krystal Jamison
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. Halfway through their voyage the ship starts to smell; to which 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). For the people on the ship, the suffering never ends because the home that many of the characters are leaving has become a place of decay both physically and culturally.
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 together on their father’s land desperately and hungrily, 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 mean happiness. The decaying land conveys the bleakness and desperation of the characters’ lives, but is also a catalyst for why many of these people are living in ruin.
Pius Mulvey is not the only character whose life falls to pieces. Both David Merridith and Mary Duane find themselves in situations of despair due to their own choices and situations that have been forced upon them. Merridith and Duane are both put in positions where they suffer from circumstances that were not of their own creating. After many a lifetime of struggle 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).
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 decaying and broken down castle or Abbey, Star of the Sea illustrates a decaying land and state of the people, which conveys this same atmosphere. 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. She is a physical embodiment of this bleakness, desperation, and gloom.
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. 5 Mar. 2016.
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.
An Analysis of the Gothic in Star of the Sea