Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster was published in the autumn of 2014. I’ve recently finished reading the Penguin paperback edition. It’s superb.
The author has said (in an interview in 2013 in the Guardian newspaper in the UK) that he’s ‘against story’:
People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that.
Nora Webster has little plot or ‘story’ to speak of. It shows in chronological sequence how Nora, whose husband Maurice, a schoolteacher, has recently died, struggles to deal with the commiserations of well-meaning family and neighbours as she tries to support her two grieving sons, who still live with her, and her older daughters who have left home. It is set in the late 60s in the sleepy southeastern Irish town of Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s own birthplace). Like women the world over she has to sublimate her own pain and grief while nurturing her emotionally wounded, damaged but needy children. What comes less naturally is learning how to live her life alone; she had previously lived a largely vicarious existence – the needs, tastes and opinions of her husband, and to a lesser extent, her family, had supplanted her own. She must learn how to live bereft of the husband she loved deeply; this means learning a new kind of freedom, and to accept the unwillingly acquired solitude and painful independence that comes with it.
The novel shows with deft sympathy how she undergoes a series of epiphanies to achieve this state. She has to exorcise the ghost of Maurice before she can find out who she is.
As such I see a thematic influence not so much from James Joyce (whose early style is clearly discernible in Nora Webster) and other Irish writers, whom early reviewers tended to adduce, as from Ibsen’s Nora of A Doll’s House. I shall focus here on this aspect of the novel, and on Tóibín’s beautifully lucid, restrained prose style.
Both Noras had played an unquestioning, quietly submissive role in the patriarchy they lived in, until the crisis came, and they were forced to reassess, after which they discover themselves, their resilience and their need for autonomy. From the novel’s opening page we see this passive aspect of women in Irish (or any other) society: Nora’s neighbour Tom has called to offer his condolences. She spends much of his visit anxiously wishing he’d go:
He was speaking as though he had some authority over her…she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated.
Shortly afterwards, having taken her two boys on a visit to Dublin to see their sister Fiona, Nora is surprised and a little nonplussed to see her daughter’s maturity and growing independence. She wants to say something as they part, but feels that Fiona is ‘downcast’:
For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.
Nora plainly feels envious of Fiona’s comparative freedom to choose, and frustrated with her own circumscribed, provincial life, with the responsibilities and constraints that convention and motherhood imposed.
Here too we see the quietly powerful style the writer adopts to convey the interior life of Nora; most of the narrative is in the form of domestic quotidian detail and internal monologue – and in this respect it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners. Back home, for example, the boys having gone to bed,
she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin…[she turned off the TV, ‘irritated’ by the canned laughter on a comedy show] The house was silent now. [She opened the book she bought earlier then put it down.] She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
Tóibín is able, in such apparently banal scenes, in that deceptively unadorned prose, to show us a woman’s complex, treasured inner life in the process of growing and changing in response to the the life endured in the external, intrusive world. Here I’m reminded of Eveline’s existential dilemma (in Joyce’s story of that name, about which I wrote on the Mookse and Gripes site HERE), sitting in her dusty, dusk-filled room, longing to escape from the cage of domestic duty, with a brutal father and humiliating, mind-numbingly tedious shop job, and wondering if her lover is her liberator or potential oppressor. Both narratives show a woman attracted to solitude but feeling a paradoxical impulse towards human warmth and companionship – and love.
After her husband’s death Nora has no choice but to take the offer of a job as a clerk at local firm Gibney’s, which is where she had formerly worked with admired efficiency for eleven years, ‘barely tolerating her mother at home’ – Ibsen’s Nora had discovered she was confined to the role of ‘plaything’ for her father until the putative liberation that marriage brought; she too then found, as a relatively young, unfulfilled mother, that she had simply been handed over from one emotionally stunted existence, subservient to a man’s wishes, to another. When she is told of the job offer Nora recalls this time in ‘the distant past’ without relish:
…Nora viewed the office in Gibney’s as a place where they had spent years working merely because the right chances did not come to match their intelligence, an intelligence that, as married women, they had cultivated with care.
This thought leads inevitably to others:
She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street…letting her mind be idle…but as part of a life of ease that included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her.
With raw immediacy Tóibín develops Nora’s irresistible train of thought:
Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her…Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged…Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.
Sure enough, when she starts work all the tedium and petty tyrannies reappear, and she longs for ‘the feeling of pure freedom’ when she is able to leave the office and go home.
Like Ibsen’s Nora, she has to learn what her opinions are. The narrative is set against the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; Maurice had been a staunch supporter of Fianna Fáil, and she had deferred to his political views. Now she realises she can think for herself, assert herself independently. At first this personal exposure is unnerving, but she slowly comes into her own. This growth is portrayed with immense skill and is the most rewarding, heart-warming aspect of the novel.
Music is the other main source of her personal liberation. There’s a marvellous scene that occupies several pages, set in a pub where a man begins to sing. This brings about an epiphany that is characteristic of Tóibín’s subtle mastery of the portrayal of Nora’s inner being: we see her remember hearing this song at a wedding. She struggles to recall whose it was. She remembers feeling proud to be married to Maurice. Then her mood changes:
In all this noise and confusion, she felt a sharp longing now to be anywhere but here. Even though she often dreaded the night falling when she was in her own house, at least she was alone and could control what she did. The silence and the solitude were a strange relief; she wondered if things were getting better at home without her noticing. Since she was a girl, she had never been alone in a crowd like this. Maurice would always decide when to leave or how long to stay, but they would have a way of consulting each other.
Notice again how delicately the narrative displays her inner growth. She’s learnt to love her own company, but is beginning to sense, like Ibsen’s Nora, that there is an element of wrong in preferring solitude to human company, and in not having a choice about how to act or be, always having to defer to her man. Her thoughts continue:
…she was often irritated by the way in which Maurice’s mood could change, how anxious he would be to go home one minute, and then how eager he could become, how easily involved with company the next minute, while she waited patiently for the night to be over.
And then the revelation comes:
So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.
I don’t recall reading another novel with such a moving, engaging account of one person’s experience of the transforming power of deep emotional trauma. It’s a novel that reaffirmed my faith in the ability of a great novelist to enhance one’s own life through the process of reading their work. Colm Tóibín is an apt pupil of that other literary master of his: Henry James. They both have that empathetic insight into the character of ‘an engaging woman’ that takes one’s breath away. Another writer who comes to mind in this regard is Evan S. Connell, whose novels about Mr and Mrs Bridge I reviewed here, here and here – with a nod towards the influence of Mme Bovary.
Other reviews deal with aspects of the novel I’ve not touched on here: the nuanced depiction of Nora’s two boys and the two older girls, for example, who play their part in Nora’s tentative emancipation.
Max’s customary perception is well to the fore in his recent piece on this novel here at Pechorin’s Journal: he’s particularly good on the family drama: Nora’s relationship with her children and with the ‘love of her life’, Maurice; also on the visceral depiction of Nora’s grief and depression, and the links with the novel’s prequel, Brooklyn, with which it shares a number of themes, and compared with which Max finds Nora Webster less impressive. I find them both outstanding.