A Psychoanalytic Deconstruction of Perspective in John McGahern’s 'The Dark’

A Psychoanalytic Deconstruction of Perspective in John McGahern’s 'The Dark’

John McGahern

A Psychoanalytic Deconstruction of Perspective in John McGahern's 'The Dark'

By Rebecca A. Demarest
inquire 2010, VOL. 2 NO. 10

You, he, they, and I. All of these pronouns are used in John McGahern’s The Dark to refer to the central character who, when named, is simply given a surname: Mahoney. Young Mahoney is a troubled youth who is coming of age in the brutal Irish society and culture of the 1950’s, and suffers beatings, sexual abuse, and various other traumas and embarrassments at the hands of his father, his priests, and teachers. He is in turns a care-free Irish youth, going on fishing trips with his family and studying hard for his exams, eventually winning a scholarship. But even this victory is sullied by his father and the humiliation he wreaks. In response to these brutal situations, each of the thirty-one chapters in the short novel have four separate points-of-view which serve as a vehicle to illuminate the psychological impact of the situation as well as serve as a coping mechanism for the narrator to come to terms with the trauma he endures.

To understand how this narrative device is working in the novel, it is first necessary to understand how the psychological mechanism McGahern is using actually works. From the evidence in the text, a psychologist would most likely diagnosis young Mahoney with a dissociative disorder:
"[Dissociation] include…a loss of personal identity; multiple personality, in which an individual appears to present two or more different personalities, alternating in control over experience, thought, and action; and depersonalization and derealization, in which the person perceives him- or herself, or the external world, to be unreal or otherwise fundamentally changed" (Kihlstrom, Flisky, & Angiulo, 117).
Essentially, Mahoney is distancing himself from the situation at hand in the only way that is possible: by pretending that the world is somehow different. He adopts four world views throughout the novel which will be discussed in detail later in the piece. Dissociation can lead to diverse and severe kinds of disorders such as full mental fugues, more commonly known as amnesia, or personality fugues in which the person adopts full and discrete personalities, each one designed to cope with specific situations and completely unaware of the other personality’s existence, memories and experiences. McGahern’s character suffers a more mild form of dissociation in which he simply separates himself from the traumatic and unpleasant situations and helps himself start to take charge of the situation. He has separate ways of viewing the world, the most extreme coming during scenes of sexual and physical abuse.
It is not unheard of for children of child abuse to suffer from dissociative disorders, and:
The Dark, by John McGahern
"Although there may be a variety of aetiological factors associated with major dissociative disorders, there is increasing evidence that children who have suffered severe, repeated, and often bizarre physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, most often administered by parents and unpredictably interspersed with affection, are at high risk for their development" (Pekala, Angelini, & Kumar, 205).
Thus, our narrator, who experiences repeated childhood traumas of beating and sexual abuse as well as emotional manipulation from his father is at an even higher risk for the development of this kind of psychological disorder. Old Mahoney will spend a day having fun on the river, fishing with his children, and the day will be perfectly pleasant until he becomes tired and quarrelsome. At this time, it is as though a switch is thrown and he becomes emotionally and verbally abusive towards his children. He may also try to engage his children in card games but be manipulative and childish himself when they are afraid to participate. The beatings and sexual trauma evidenced in chapter three interspersed with these random acts of kindness only serve to confuse and complicate the relationship between young Mahoney and his father. As such, he forms a more dissociative worldview in order to understand and cope with the environment in which he is forced to learn and grow.
The form of Mahoney’s dissociation is quarter-fold. He in turn views the events from first person, second person, third person, and third person plural, all in the present tense. The narration has no knowledge of the future, only the past, and is primarily reporting the events of the novel as it happens. As such, “The protagonist’s auto-narrative is – crucially – not a retrospective but an act of simultaneous translation in which the source language of direct experience is translated directly, without a temporal delay into the target language of his narrative.” (van der Ziel, 104) This provides even more support to the idea that the point of view is the result of a dissociative character as we are getting the personality and point of view of the character as he is experiencing the event, not as it is ten or twenty years down the line, after Mahoney has had a lifetime to come to terms with the events in question. It is the raw data which the reader is exposed to, the active coping with vicious trauma and abuse. Given enough time to cope with the situation and learn to deal with the long-term negatives of dissociation, Mahoney would be more likely to report his childhood in a constant tense, most like first. But the present narration provides a unique opportunity to fully explore just how the dissociation fully and deeply affects just exactly how Mahoney relates to his world.
The novel opens with a scene depicting a near beating that is designed to instill fear and complete humliation in a fairly young boy. We are not given his age, but judging from contextual cues such as the fact that he can curl up in the chair, he must be somewhere around five years old. He is stripped and placed in the chair in front of all of his sisters and then his father pretends to beat him while in fact hitting the leather arms of the chair instead. In a child as young as the narrator, this is a terrifying and humiliating experience, particularly as he loses control of bodily functions due to the terror of possibly actually being hit. This chapter is narrated in the third person, one of the most removed perspectives available. It is an effort on the part of the narrator to pretend that it is not really him in the chair, that he is outside of it all watching an anonymous third party being beaten, or even pretend he is not there at all. This is the most common form of general dissociation and can be seen in all sorts of victims of abuse and trauma. However, it is still a close third, staying within the mind of Mahoney to help the reader experience his fear and embarrassment, which inoculates the reader against the later jumps into first and then second person, but it is still distanced from the action, fear, and humiliation of the scene.
The other chapters in the novel which also utilize the third person are all about personal failure, abuse, or generally negative emotions. In chapter 3, Mahoney is molested by his father. It is framed in carefully obscure language, but there is definitely inappropriate contact between the father and son on nights, as the narrator says, “he wanted love” (McGahern, 17). In chapter four, the children are forced outside by their father’s wrath into the rain and storm to pick potatoes. The children are all too terrified of what their father might do to them if they fail to pick the potatoes that they venture out anyways and do their level best before deciding to just rebury the line until the next day when it would be safer to pick them. Mahoney’s father belittles and degrades Mahoney in chapter eight due to his aspirations for the exams, determining that his son is trying to go above and beyond his station in taking the exams and trying for a scholarship for college. The reader cannot help but feel that the amount of wrath directed to the young boy in this section is due to jealousy on the part of the father that his son has an opportunity to escape the farm that he is trapped on. In chapter eleven the narrator confronts his sister’s molestation at the hands of the merchant family she is a maidservant for and the suggestive inappropriateness of John living as the Father Gerald’s ‘caretaker.’ There are definitely implications of sexual abuse in that relationship which are an uncomfortable reminder of his own traumatic relationship with his father.
There is also a long stretch of unbroken third person narration in chapters twenty-four through twenty-seven in which Mahoney is returning to the farm after the exams to await his results and re-engages in the farm work. The pain of readjusting his body to the hard labor while dealing with the comments from his father during the stressful wait for the results from the exams and whether or not he even has a chance of going to the university, because if he doesn’t get the scholarship, he will not be able to go. After he receives his marks, the reader may then expect to witness a change in point of view due to the ecstatic nature of winning the scholarship and having a chance to leave the farm, but the lengths to which the father goes to in order to show off his son mortally embarrass him and he’s left with a distinct sense of a spoiled victory. It has become about his father, and his father’s successful son, no longer his own blood sweat and study that has reached this point. The usurpation of his incredible amount of work leaves him upset and impatient to be out of the small village which he grew up around.
The one thing all of these chapters have in common is a sense of humiliation and shame, inadequacy and abuse. In each and every one of them, Mahoney is experiencing negative emotions which he then distances himself from, disassociates from, by informing his readers about it in the third person. While he is still informing them of his emotions and feelings as it is a close third person, he is still able to pretend that these things are happening to someone else, and not him. The closest analogy to this is the effect many people experience during events such as car crashes. Once the trauma begins, the brain is incapable of, or just doesn’t want to, process all the information that is inundating the senses and the complex feelings and so you experience a sort of out of body experience. In the same fashion, Mahoney is scared or sickened or humiliated beyond his young tolerance and in reaction, his brain pulls away, puts a thin veil of fantasy between itself and reality.
In addition to the straight close third person, there are a few chapters which utilize a unique third person collective or plural viewpoint which are distinct from the straight third person chapters. In the three chapters in which this point of view appears, Mahoney is disappearing into the army of children that are his family as a method of defense and camaraderie. In chapter two, the family enjoys a day of fishing which steadily deteriorates as the father becomes tiredly abusive and ends with the children quietly and subversively mocking the father. In chapter nine, Mahoney’s older sister Joan is sent off to town to take a job and the narrator is also forced to confront his own career path. In these two instances, the children ban together, first to defy the father, and second to mourn the loss of their eldest sister. Mahoney melts into the pack of his peers for support through times when the pain is not singly placed upon him. Yes, he is feeling terrible about the situation; they have gotten yelled at while fishing, his sister was sent away. But at this time the abuse and negativity is not directed solely at him and so he retreats into the plural form and tries to blend into the background of his siblings as protection. It’s as though the fact that he is no longer singly responsible for his father’s wrath is a better defense even than simply pretending to the emotional distance of third person. As they say, misery loves company, and so apparently to abusive children. Staying hidden in the middle of the pack prevents them from being singled out and dealt a more devastating and upsetting blow.
This is particularly evident in chapter seventeen wherein Mahoney has brought Joan home after hearing about her abusive employer. This chapter starts off in the third person plural because Mahoney is not sure what kind of reaction his father is going to have to the fact that he has ‘rescued’ his sister. He is trying hard to simply be another of the children, regardless of the fact that he has gone against his father and has brought home his sister who had been making money for the family. As it becomes evident that his father is not displeased by his actions, he fades into the close third person and takes responsibility for bringing Joan home. He is still cautious and afraid of what the consequences might possibly be. The defensiveness of the third person fades, however, as it is clear that he did took the correct actions and is not facing punishment, which fades in turn into second person in the next chapter.
The second person is one of the more interesting uses of point of view in this novel. While some younger writers use it as a tool to try and draw their audience farther into the piece with a gimmick, McGahern uses the second person as an indicator for when young Mahoney is taking charge of his life, his future, and acts more as a mantra or empowering statement for the character. A personal pep-talk if you will. He is addressing himself in the second person and not the audience. Most people engage in similar behavior, looking in the mirror before a big presentation or life changing event, vocalizing, “Come on, you can do this!”
The first instance of this point of view comes in chapter six wherein Mahoney actually stands up to his father when the older man is beating another of his siblings:
‘Hit and I’ll kill you,’ you said and you knew nothing, there was no fear, you watched the hand come up to hit, your own hands ready and watching the raised hand and the throat. You knew or felt nothing, except once the raised had moved you’d get him by the throat, you knew you’d be able, the fingers were ready (McGahern, pg 36).
Mahoney actually takes a stand against his father and is actively changing his circumstances. It is such a radical change from the submissive and distant third perspective that the pep-talk style personal address seems appropriate. He is trying to change the balance of power and status quo, which is never easy, trying to improve his circumstances. And so, the second person address is appropriate and substantive rather than gimmicky.
Ant the young protagonist continues to wrest command of his life from the others around him. In fact, fully half the chapters of the book are in the second person. As such, it can be argued that this is not just a book of coming of age; it is also a book about taking control of your own life, changing your own circumstances. Through the second person, Mahoney makes many changes during his life from carving out a place for academics in his and his family’s home life to standing up to his father. He also comes to terms with the fact that academia is not necessarily the place for him and finally brings himself to a point where he is happily employed and in the work force, out on his own, and far from the rural farm of his family. It is the second person perspective that allows the readers to understand this in the novel.
The second person point of view also provides a very interesting vehicle of transformation and illustrates the changing dynamics in his life. In chapter seven, Mahoney makes confession to a priest in the second person and is taking charge of his life and his perceived masturbation problem until his father comes to collect him. “’You can’t be long more. I’ll wait for you out at the gate,’” old Mahoney says (pg 43). After two paragraphs of young Mahoney mourning the loss of the state of grace and prayer he had been enjoying after the confession, the narrative returns hard and fast to the third person. His father stripped him of his agency, informing him he could not have much to pray about and it was time to go. The narrator lost the feeling of control he’d had over his life and was returning to the domination of his father.
The second person returns when he spends a chapter masturbating, fantasizing about being a priest and about a young girl in the town named Mary. In this chapter, he is using his growing sexuality as a vehicle for controlling his life. Sex controlled his life when he was young in the form of his father’s sexual abuse, and now, when he realizes he can just be sent off like his sister Joan was, he takes what little control he knows he has and plays it to the fullest in private, dreaming about the control he has over both himself and others through sex.
Probably the most interesting chapter of second person is chapter twelve, wherein Father Gerald comes into young Mahoney’s room while he is staying at the priest’s house and curls up in bed with him. It is a stark picture of an older man testing out the waters of the young boy for any sign of acceptance of physical affection. Judging by the pattern formerly introduced by the point of view, the reader might have expected this kind of situation to warrant a third person perspective, but instead we are given the scene in second. This is because while it is an unpleasant situation, to be sure, the narrator is maintaining control of it by refusing the priest’s advances. After a long section of the priest asking probative questions about the young boy’s sexual activities and refusing to answer questions in turn, the narrator states:
"You barely listened this time, resentment risen close to hatred. He had broken down your life to the dirt, he’d reduced you to that, and no flesh was superior to other flesh…. He must have committed sins the same as yours once too, if he was flesh. What right had he to come and lie with you in bed, his body hot against yours, his arm about your shoulders" (pg 74).
Instead of lying there and taking it like a victim, Mahoney takes charge, shrugs off the priest and persists in a dismissal of everything the priest stands for. He is no longer the helpless young child that had to submit to his father’s molestation and the priest leaves that evening, having not achieved his goal and surly throughout the rest of Mahoney’s visit with him.
This second person command lasts through the rest of the visit with Father Gerald. He visits his sister Joan, finds out she’s being molested, plans their escape, and then takes the two of them home again. It is only once he reaches home and is unsure of how his father will react that he slips back into third person. Through this entire section, Mahoney constantly asserts his dominance and independence through actions such as destroying books in the priest’s library, leaving the house and coming back late for meals, confronts his sister’s employers and then leaving Father Gerald’s house early. He is determined to be his own man, and that is not a priest, plaything, or coward. One of the most courageous things Mahoney does through the entire piece is confront the much older and richer Ryans about their treatment of his sister. He has taken control of his own life, his own actions, and is prepared to back up his talk with plans of attack and retaliation. He no longer thinks of himself as the victim and helpless child. He is starting to become a man.
The second person picks up again immediately following the siblings’ homecoming. Once Mahoney is sure of their welcome, he continues in his take charge attitude when it comes to studying for school and his exams. Throughout this section, he is still asserting his independence and personal space. He carves out a spot in his house for him to attempt to study and cram for the exams even though his family is noisy and unsupportive. He goes through the house exams and helps his father take potatoes to the priests in his school even though he is sure they will just turn around and sell them for alcohol. He stands up to his father about praying to do well in the exams, saying,
‘What does it matter to God whether I get the exam or not, or to my life under him? If it’s his Will, and I’m lucky enough and good enough, I’ll get the exam. And if I don’t it doesn’t matter. It’ll not matter the day I’m dying” (129).
No matter the fact that his father wants to invoke divine grace to assist his son, Mahoney doesn’t want any of it, and informs his father as such. He also tells his father that if he feels he must pray for his own grace, that is fine, but do not use prayer like money to barter for good exam grades.
The second person then dissipates for a while and doesn’t return until Mahoney goes off to university in Galway. Once there, he is again in charge of his own destiny, he is capable of making his own decisions. He settles into the boarding house and then wanders the city. He starts to get into university life with coffee shops and classes, but when he is presented with an abusive professor, he makes a choice and decides to leave the university. Twice he is presented with situations that are uncomfortable or downright unpleasant and instead of staying in the situation because people expect him to do so, especially since he received his scholarship, he telegrams his father and informs him that the narrator will be leaving college for a job, and that is that. He doesn’t let the situation control him as it once did; he has complete agency over his own future. Finally.
One of the main tools of control that Mahoney used throughout the novel in his second person point of view sections was masturbation. As he says in chapter twenty-two, “Its strange how there never was any urge towards abuse when I was at peace.” The ultimate control over his own sexuality was one of the ways that he was able to utilize in order to overcome the situations in which he felt oppressed, neglected, humiliated, and abused. Sex, along with weight control through exercise and dietary manipulation, intimate relationship manipulation, and drug use are common things people use to help them feel that they are controlling their environment when the are in stressful situations. Out of those common factors, Mahoney fully appreciates and, one might even say, abuses the feeling of control it gives him. However, this self-stimulation also appears in two out of the three first person chapters.
Chapters five, twenty-two, and twenty-three are the only first person narrations that the reader has in the entire novel. In each of these chapters, Mahoney is happy. He is in turns blissfully exploring his own sexual stimulation, boating with his sister, and reveling in the exams that finally test all of the knowledge he so painstakingly acquired. This creates an interesting parallel in these three sections. For once, Mahoney is experiencing pure pleasure; physical, emotional, academic. He is feeling no guilt in masturbating to ads of women in magazines, and fantasies of women who tell him they love him in the hay loft. Or he is simply hanging out with his older sister and enjoying the last few days before his exams. And finally, he experiences the successful climax of his educational career thus far in the rigorous and exhausting exams, which leave him exhausted and spent. In all of this, Mahoney is focused almost entirely inward. He is not talking himself up or trying to distance himself from these experiences. The narrator is instead intensely and personally involved in all of the experiences and is ready and willing to share them personally with the reader. The first person aspect of this novel is entirely devoted to the rare and sparkling moments of joy in Mahoney’s young life.
One of the most interesting aspects of this handling of Mahoney’s sexuality is the sexual background out of which it springs. Ireland was fully 150 years behind the rest of Europe when it came to pornographic literature and has only recently removed strictures about birth control and sexual practices the Catholic Church made into law. One researcher even commented that,
“It is as if the sense of shame and embarrassment about sex – talking and writing about sexual practices, feelings and emotions – reached so deeply into the psyches of Irish academics, and particularly historians, that they were unable to raise, let alone deal, with such issues” (Inglis, 10).
In The Dark, McGahern has devoted five entire chapters to this young man’s exploration of his sexual feelings and experiences. In some ways, I feel that the history of sexual repression in Ireland has influenced how McGahern chose to portray the sexuality of Mahoney, or one might say, how the narrator perceives his own sexuality. It is an intensely private experience, either entirely inwardly focused as in the first person chapters or it is a way in which he can privately control his own life. At the same time, he feels an intense guilt and shame about the activity and is constantly going to confession about the amount of times he commits the act. We are never given a third person perspective on his actions and this is because of a couple of reasons. The first is that it is hardly a negative influence on his life, in fact it is quite pleasant. But secondly, it is something that must be carried so close to the vest that the narrator himself would never think to distance himself from it, to provide an outside perspective on what is going on in his loins. Thus the perspective treatment of these sections relies not only on Mahoney’s own personal dissociative psychology, but on the cumulative psychology of his culture as well.
I would argue that the most interesting point of view change in this entire novel comes at the very end. In the final chapter, all pronoun references to the narrator have been omitted and passive voice has been substituted for any situation in which a pronoun would be otherwise necessary. It is almost as if this chapter is lacking a perspective at all. For instance:
"In the bedroom that night on prospect hill the rosary was said before undressing. There was a morbid fascination watching Mahoney take off his clothes…Memories of the nightmare nights in the bed with the broken brass bells came, and it was strange how the years had passed, how the nights were once, and different now, how this night’d probably be the last night of lying together" (McGahern, 189).
It is a very unexpected shift to this neutral perspective from the emotionally laden points of view from before. A reader is more prepared for “they said rosary before undressing” or “You experienced a morbid fascination watching Mahoney.” The complete lack of perspective is almost disconcerting after the whirlwind tour of points of view we had through the rest of the novel.
The psychological impact of this section is even more fascinating. When a patient is dissociative, the goal of therapy and such is to bring the person back into sync with themselves, to remove the friction between the fractured world views and bring them back into one personality or perspective. The fact that this last chapter has a lack of distinctive point of view would suggest that Mahoney has finally come into his own. He is not forcing himself to separate from the situation, regardless of the fact that it brings up the ‘nightmare nights’ from his past or hide behind his siblings. He doesn’t feel like he needs to take charge of the situation, nor is it intensely personal. No, in this chapter, Mahoney simply exists as himself and no longer needs to differentiate the situation to himself. Young Mahoney is finally complete and whole and has learned to deal with the various and conflicting experiences in his life.
There have been some analyses of this novel in the past which have claimed that the kind of psychological deconstruction this paper is performing is not valid. Stanley van der Ziel is one such author. He claims:
"No pattern can, I think, be discovered in what appears to be the arbitrary assignment of different pronouns to the various chapters of The Dark. It would not be unreasonable to expect that a certain mindset or emotional state of the narrator in a chapter would always correspond with a certain pronoun, or that a certain kind of event would always be rendered from the same narrative perspective. However…no such predictable pattern can be discovered in the pronouns" (van der Ziel, 112).
I can understand van der Ziel’s confusion. When first approaching the novel, it is sometimes difficult to tease apart the differentiation in the points of view. Masturbation is treated with first and second, confrontations with the father in second, third, and plural. Many similar situations appear to be treated very differently by the narrator and author.
The problem with this approach to the novel is twofold. First, van der Ziel assumes in his paper that it is an ‘arbitrary’ assignment of pronouns in the chapters. Throughout his argument, he treats them simply as a vehicle for a search for identity by a nameless character. He does not believe that the chapters are assigned a point of view for emphasis or effect on the chapter level, but simply for the overall effect. However, a device of this magnitude and prominence is seldom if ever used ‘arbitrarily’ but studiously constructed for a very specific effect.
Another argument against van der Ziel is the fact that he deems the entire novel a search for identity because of shifting pronouns and the namelessness of the narrator. But if the novel is being narrated by the lead character, there is not a requirement that the narrator name himself for his readers. It might be construed as a false sounding announcement and it would appear that in most of the conversations young Mahoney experiences in the novel are in small groups in which it is not necessary to name who you are addressing as they know full well who they are. It could also be argued that if the lack of a name is so significant an indicator of his search for identity, then why does Mahoney remain nameless at the end? If the pronoun fluctuation was simply a tool to indicate an identity crisis, then he should eventually be named; instead he becomes completely reference-less. He lacks even a simple pronoun to declare who he is.
If van der Ziel had looked closer at the construction of the point of view rather than assuming it was secondary to the lack of a name, he might have understood that the various nuances of the similar scenes is what determines the changes in perspective. Masturbation is a point of pleasure and a tool of control. There are confrontations in which Mahoney is on the losing end, and others in which he is in control. The emotions and even the language of each section is vastly important and does indeed indicate a specific psychological impact and import.
The point of view changes in this novel are a fascinating study, regardless of the tact taken. Given a close and deconstructive view, the perspectives are those of a young man in a terrible situation who is experiencing a strong dissociative coping strategy and are an indicator to the reader how well the narrator is dealing with certain situations and where his head is at. When threatened, cornered, and beaten, he distances himself from the scene by removing to a third person or an anonymous third person plural. When he chooses to take control of his life and beat back the oppression and abuse, he segues into a distinct and strong second person encouraging perspective in which he talks himself up and brings himself forward and accomplishes great things, such as standing up to his father and winning a full scholarship to university. The rarer first person moments are those dedicated to pure pleasure and accomplishment. All four of these perspectives compete and trade off during the narrative until it finally reaches a culmination of a passively voiced absent point of view in which the coping strategy is no longer necessary and Mahoney is finally coming to terms with his life and himself. The dissociation of the past traumas and humiliations have been overcome by the first and second person and they have cancelled themselves out, leaving behind a strong young man preparing to step out into the workforce, whole and hale.

Inglis, Tom. “Origins and Legacies of Irish Prudery: Sexuality and Social Control in Modern Ireland.” Eire-Ireland 40.3/4 (2005): 9-37. Print.
Kihlstrom, John F., Martha L. Glisky, & Michael J. Angiulo. “Dissociative Tendancies and Dissociative Disorders.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 103.1 (1994): 117-124. Print.
McGahern, John. The Dark. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.
Pekala, Ronald J., Frank Angelini, & V.K. Kumar. “The Importance of Fantasy-Proneness in Dissociation: A Replication.” Contemporary Hypnosis 18.4 (2001): 204-214. Print.
van der Ziel, Stanley. “’All This Talk and Struggle’: John McGahern’s The Dark.” Irish University Review March (2005): 104-120. Print.
Rebecca A. Demarest graduated in 2011 with a Masters degree in Writing, Literature An Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, MA.


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