The Role of Historical Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The historical political figures featured by Joseph O’Connor in Star of the Sea serve several roles in the novel. Functioning as a postmodern questioning of objective reality, an allusion to the continuing Irish struggle long after the events in Star of the Sea conclude, or a reminder that many English and Protestants did, in fact, fight for the rights of deeply oppressed Irish Catholics, the political figures of the novel serve diverse but important roles throughout Star of the Sea.
Although this theme is more prominent among O’Connor’s artistic figures, a postmodernist questioning of objective reality through the use of historical people also exists among the political figures. Naomi Jacobs writes in The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction that “The presence of the historical figure signifies our questioning of the artificial boundaries between truth and lie, history and fiction, reality and imagination” (xxi). Perhaps the best example of this questioning occurs with women’s education reform advocate and suffragist Emily Davies, who in the world of Star of the Sea is good friends with David Merridith’s sister Natasha; Natasha is even said to have edited Davies’s real-life work The Higher Education of Women (O’Connor 103). This mixing of the historical and the fictional aids O’Connor in the questioning of any one objective history, which is a particularly important examination to make in the context of a postcolonial novel, due to the colonizing country’s suppression of the atrocities it has committed against the colonized.
Other political historical figures are used by O’Connor to remind readers that the Irish struggle for independence continued long after the end of the potato famine. John Mitchel and James Connolly are both quoted in epigraphs decrying Irish oppression, Mitchel in 1856 and Connolly in 1916; prefacing the novel with these quotations reminds or informs readers before the novel even begins that the struggle for Irish independence and horrors committed by the English continued long after the potato famine. The third historical figure serving as a reminder of the continuing struggle, Charles Parnell, who advocated for Ireland in Parliament during the 1870s and 80s, is alluded to in the novel’s epilogue as a final reminder of the post-novel fight for independence (O’Connor 366).
Finally, O’Connor works in Star of the Sea to paint a nuanced portrayal of the English by mentioning political figures who supported the Irish cause. Angela Burdett-Coutts, for example, along with Charles Dickens, runs a safehouse for prostitutes, many of whom were poverty-stricken, starving Irish women, as we see in the novel. Additionally, we are reminded that Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish but not Catholic, nonetheless “fought and died for Ireland as captain of the revolutionaries in ’98” (O’Connor 67).
O’Connor’s use of historical political figures in Star of the Sea clearly serves a diverse set of purposes throughout the course of the novel. However, what these diverse purposes all have in common is that they demonstrate the complexity and deftness with which O’Connor weaves his tale.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.