Analysis of William Trevor’s Stories

Like his novels, William Trevor’s (24 May 1928 – 20 November 2016) short stories generally take place in either England or the Republic of Ireland. For the most part, Trevor focuses on middle-class or lower-middle-class figures whose lives have been characterized by loneliness, disappointment, and pain. His stories feature tight organization and lean but detailed prose. Their very “average” characters are made interesting by Trevor’s careful attention to the traits and quirks that make them individuals, to the memories and regrets they have of the past. Trevor, often wry and always detached, refuses to sentimentalize any of them; he does not, however, subject them to ridicule. Their struggles reveal the author’s deep curiosity about the manifold means by which people foil themselves or, more rarely, manage not to do so. Many of Trevor’s characters are trapped in jobs or familial circumstances that are dull or oppressive or both; many retreat frequently to fond memories or romantic fantasies. Trevor rarely mocks the men and women who inhabit his fiction, nor does he treat them as mere ciphers or automatons. In fact, like James Joyce, to whom he is often compared, Trevor assumes a detached authorial stance, but occasionally and subtly he makes it clear that he is highly sympathetic to the plight of underdogs, self-deluders, and the victims of abuse and deceit. Invariably, his principal characters are carefully and completely drawn—and so are the worlds they inhabit. Few contemporary writers of short fiction can render atmosphere and the subtleties of personality as precisely and as tellingly as William Trevor. Few can capture so accurately and wittily the rhythms and nuances of everyday speech. Though its themes can be somber and settings quite bleak, Trevor’s brilliantly paced and carefully sculpted fiction consistently moves, amuses, and invigorates.

The General’s Day

One of Trevor’s earliest stories, “The General’s Day,” illustrates with particular clarity the darkest side of his artistic vision. Contained in The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, and Other Stories, “The General’s Day” centers on a decorated and now-retired military man who, at the age of seventy-eight, has never quite come to grips with his retirement and so spends his days wandering around the local village looking for something to do. On the day of the story, a sunny Saturday in June, General Suffolk greets the day with energy and resolution but ends by simply killing time in the local tea shop, where he musters what is left of his once-celebrated charm and manages to persuade a woman—“a thin, middle-aged person with a face like a faded photograph”—to join him for drinks at the local hotel. There, fueled by gin, General Suffolk flirts so blatantly and clumsily with the woman that she flees, “her face like a beetroot.” Fueled by more gin, the lonely man becomes increasingly obnoxious. After suffering a few more rejections and humiliations, he finally stumbles back home, where he is mocked further by his “unreliable servant,” Mrs. Hinch, a crude woman who habitually cuts corners and treats herself to secretive swigs of the general’s expensive South African sherry. In the story’s final scene, General Suffolk, “the hero of Roeux and Monchy-le-Preux,” is shown leaning and weeping on his cleaning woman’s fat arm as she laughingly helps him back to his cottage. “My God Almighty,” General Suffolk, deflated, mutters, “I could live for twenty years.”


An Evening with John Joe Dempsey

Trevor often portrays older men and women who make stoic adjustments to the present while living principally in the past. He also sometimes focuses on children and adolescents who use vividly constructed daydreams as a means of escaping dreary surroundings or obtuse parents who are themselves sunk in the deadness of their cramped and predictable lives. In “An Evening with John Joe Dempsey,” from The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories, Trevor’s central figure is a boy of fifteen who lives in a small house in a small Irish town where, daily, he sits in a dull classroom in preparation for a dead-end job at the nearby sawmills. John Joe lives with his widowed mother, a wiry, chronically worried woman, whose principal interest in life is to hover protectively about her only son. John Joe escapes his mother’s smothering solicitations by wandering about the town with Quigley, a rather elderly dwarf reputed to be, as one local puts it, “away in the head.” Quigley likes to fire John Joe’s already active imagination by regaling the boy with detailed descriptions of the sexual vignettes he claims to have witnessed while peeping through area windows. In his own daydreams, John Joe dallies with many of the same sizable matrons whom Quigley likes to portray in compromising positions. One of them, Mrs. Taggart, “the wife of a postman,” is a tall, “well-built” woman who in John Joe’s fantasies requires repeated rescuing from a locked bathroom in which she stands unblushingly nude. Like many of Trevor’s characters, John Joe is thus a convincing mix of the comic and the pathetic. If his incongruous sexual fantasies are humorous, the rest of his life looks decidedly grim. In the story’s particularly effective closing scene, Trevor portrays John Joe in his bed, in the dark, thinking again of impossible erotic romps with wholly unobtainable women, feeling

more alive than ever he was at the Christian Brothers’ School . . . or his mother’s kitchen, more alive than ever he would be at the sawmills. In his bed he entered a paradise: it was grand being alone.

“Nice Day at School”

In “Nice Day at School,” from the same collection, Trevor’s principal character is a girl of fourteen, Eleanor, who lives on a housing estate with her cranky, chain-smoking mother and her father, a former professional wrestler who now works as a nightclub bouncer and likes to claim that his work has made him the trusted friend of many celebrities, including Rex Harrison, Mia Farrow, Princess Margaret, and Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Though Eleanor is embarrassed by her father’s obviously exaggerated accounts of his encounters with the rich and famous, she is much given to vivid imaginings of her own. Bombarded daily by saccharine pop songs and the more blatantly sexual chatter of her friends, Eleanor thinks obsessively of her ideal lover:

a man whose fingers were long and thin and gentle, who’d hold her hand in the aeroplane. Air France to Biarritz. And afterwards she’d come back to a flat where the curtains were the colour of lavender, the same as the walls, where gas fires glowed and there were rugs on natural-wood floors, and the telephone was pale blue.

Subtly, however, Trevor indicates that Eleanor is not likely to find a lover so wealthy and suave. Like her friends and most girls of the same social class, this daughter of a bloated bouncer and a bored, gin-sipping housewife will instead settle for someone like Denny Price, the young butcher’s apprentice with “blubbery” lips, who once moved his rough hand up and down her body “like an animal, a rat gnawing at her, prodding her and poking.”

Office Romances

Trevor often focuses on women who find themselves pursued by or entangled with insensitive or calculating men. In “Office Romances,” from Angels at the Ritz, and Other Stories, Trevor’s central character is Angela Hosford, a typist who works quite anonymously in a large London office appointed with “steel-framed reproductions” and “ersatz leather” sofas and chairs. At the age of twenty-six, Angela is pleasant but plain and myopic: She wears contact lenses that give her eyes a slightly “bulgy look.” Her pursuer, Gordon Spelle, is, at thirty-eight, tall and “sleek,” but his left eyelid droops a bit, and the eye it covers is badly glazed. While watching old films on television when she was fourteen, Angela developed a crush on the American actor Don Ameche and had imagined “a life with him in a cliff-top home she’d invented, in California.” Now, she finds herself drawn to the deliberately “old fashioned” Spelle and at one point imagines herself “stroking his face and comforting him because of his bad eye.” One day, after his flatteries succeed in rendering Angela both “generous and euphoric,” Spelle manages to lure her into a dark and empty office, where—muttering “I love you,” repeatedly—he makes love to her, inelegantly, on the floor. Angela finds this experience “not even momentarily pleasurable, not once,” but afterward she basks in the memory of Spelle’s heated professions of love. Angela eventually takes a job elsewhere, convinced that Spelle’s passion for her “put him under a strain, he being married to a wife who was ill.” Like many of Trevor’s characters, she understandably decides not to look past her comforting delusions; she refuses to accept the well-known fact that Spelle was “notorious” and “chose girls who were unattractive because he believed such girls, deprived of sex for long periods of time, were an easier bet.”

Lovers of Their Time

The vast gulf that often separates romantic fantasy from unsavory fact is similarly revealed in the title story of Lovers of Their Time, and Other Stories. In this piece, set in the 1960’s, Trevor’s lovers are Norman Britt, a mildmannered travel agent with “a David Niven moustache,” and a young woman, Marie, who tends the counter at Green’s the Chemist’s. Norman and Marie meet regularly in one of Trevor’s favorite fictional locations—a dark pub filled with a wide array of drinkers, talkers, and dreamers.

The Drummer Boy

In that same place, in “The Drummer Boy,” the two listen to Beatles songs and talk of running away with each other to some romantic foreign country—an event they realize is not likely to materialize. Marie is single, but Norman is married to the loud and bawdy Hilda, who spends the better part of her life sipping cheap wine and watching police dramas on the television and who has previously hinted that she is quite content in the odd marital arrangement that Norman loathes. Thus, at Norman’s instigation, the two lovers begin to rendezvous more intimately at the nearby hotel, the Great Western Royal. More specifically, they begin to sneak into a large, infrequently used bathroom, “done up in marble,” on the hotel’s second floor. Here, luxuriating in an enormous tub, they talk hopefully of happier days that, unfortunately, never arrive. Hilda dismisses her husband’s request for a divorce by telling him, “You’ve gone barmy, Norman”; Marie, tired of waiting, weds “a man in a brewery.” Thus, as the years pass, Norman is left with a nostalgic longing not only for Marie but also for that brief period in the 1960’s when playful risk-taking was much in the air. Often, while riding “the tube” to work, Norman

would close his eyes and with the greatest pleasure that remained to him he would recall the delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two. And now and again he heard what happened to be the sound of distant music, and the voices of the Beatles celebrating a bathroom love, as they had celebrated Eleanor Rigby and other people of that time.

Flights of Fancy

This allusion to a popular and bittersweet Beatles song is especially appropriate in yet another Trevor story about two thoroughly average and lonely people whose lives have not often been marked by episodes of great passion. In “Flights of Fancy,” also from Lovers of Their Time, and Other Stories, Trevor’s principal character, Sarah Machaen, is yet another Rigby-like character destined, one assumes, to spend the rest of her life uneasily alone. Sarah, a clergyman’s daughter, is an executive secretary in a large London firmthat manufactures lamps; she visits museums, sings in a Bach choir, and is “a popular choice as a godmother.”Well into middle age, Sarah is quite content with the externals of her life and gradually has become “reconciled to the fact that her plainness wasn’t going to go away.” Sometimes, however, she gets lonely enough to daydream of marriage—perhaps to an elderly widower or a blind man. Ironically, the one person who does express a romantic interest in Sarah is another woman, a young and pretty but unschooled factory worker called Sandra Pond. Sarah is shocked at the very idea of lesbianism, yet she cannot stop her mind from “throwing up flights of fancy” in which she pictures herself sharing her flat with Sandra and introducing her to London’s many cultural delights. Though her shyness and acute sense of propriety prompt her to reject Sandra’s clumsy but clearly genuine professions of love, Sarah is haunted by the sense that she has perhaps passed up her last chance for passion and romance.

Broken Homes

“Broken Homes,” also from Lovers of Their Time, and Other Stories, is one of Trevor’s most powerful stories. Its principal character, Mrs. Malby, lives with her two budgerigars in a little flat that is scrupulously neat and prettily painted. Mrs. Malby, a widow, lost both of her sons thirty years earlier during World War II; now, at the age of eighty-seven, she has come to terms with her own impending death and wants nothing more than to spend her remaining days in familiar surroundings, her faculties intact. Unfortunately, Mrs. Malby’s flat is destroyed and her serenity threatened by a squad of loud and insensitive teenagers from a nearby comprehensive school—“an ugly sprawl of glass and concrete buildings,” Mrs. Malby recalls, full of “children swinging along the pavements, shouting obscenities.” As part of a community relations scheme, the teenagers have been equipped with mops and sponges and brushes and sent out into the neighborhood in search of good deeds to perform. Mrs. Malby politely asks these obnoxious adolescents to do nothing more than wash her walls, but they treat her with condescension and contempt, and while she is out, they proceed to make a complete mess of her apartment, splattering its walls and floors with bright yellow paint. The students’ “teacher,” an obtuse and “untidily dressed” bureaucrat, patronizingly assures Mrs. Malby that the damage is slight. He reminds her that, in any event, one must make allowances for the children of “broken homes.”

Perhaps more than any of his other stories, “Broken Homes” reveals Trevor’s sympathy for the plight of the elderly and his acute awareness of the infirmities and insecurities that accompany old age. The story certainly reveals a strong suspicion that, by the mid-1970’s, the British welfare state had become both inefficient and rudely intrusive. Indeed, “Broken Homes” is informed by the subtly expressed sense—not uncommon in Trevor’s later fiction—that contemporary Great Britain and Ireland have grown increasingly crass and tacky and that the old social fabric is rapidly unraveling.

The Paradise Lounge

Arguably, “The Paradise Lounge,” from Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories, is Trevor’s most representative story. Set principally in the small bar of Keegan’s Railway hotel, in “a hilly provincial town” in the Republic of Ireland, “The Paradise Lounge” shifts its focus between two recognizably Trevoresque figures. One of them, Beatrice, is thirty-two; the other, Miss Doheny, is in her eighties. Beatrice—who wanted to be an actor once—drives often to Keegan’s and its adjoining Paradise Lounge to rendezvous with her lover, a middle-aged businessman already married. Miss Doheny, one of the locals, goes regularly to the lounge for a bit of company and several good, stiff drinks. The two have never formally met. Yet Beatrice—observing Miss Doheny from across the room—is convinced that the old woman is an intriguing figure with a fascinating and no doubt satisfyingly romantic past; she does not realize that Miss Doheny is not only lonely but also full of anger and regret. Miss Doheny, in turn, envies Beatrice’s freedom—her ability, in a more liberated and enlightened age, to enter into a friendly sexual affair without running the risk of paralyzing guilt and ostracism. She does not realize that the younger woman’s affair has grown stale and mechanical and that by her own estimation Beatrice is about to engage in nothing more than a “mess of deception and lies.”

After Rain

The twelve stories of After Rain concern how marriage and family ties constrain, bewilder, confound, or, occasionally, help their characters. For instance, a woman’s attempt to invigorate the life of her best friend by encouraging an affair ends the friendship; a young man refuses to visit his parents for his birthday because he is jealous of their deep love for each other; a pregnant young woman is forced to marry a man she hardly knows to save the family reputation; a barren wife spends her days drinking herself insensate while fantasizing about her husband’s mistress; a Protestant family shrinks in shame when one son claims that a dead Roman Catholic saint has visited him; a retired couple is helpless and dismayed when an old friend, a hopeless reprobate, courts their daughter. As in Trevor’s earlier volumes, the central characters, however muddled in their behavior, usually learn some truth about themselves or recognize a fundamental change in their lives. The tone is taut but not judgmental; the reader is invited to share their emotions rather than laugh at or deplore their plight. The imagery of home, religion, and occupation frequently invests commonplace dramas with broad moral power.

In “The Piano Tuner’s Wife,” the opening story, a blind piano tuner remarries after his first wife dies. Violet, the second wife, was rejected decades earlier when the piano tuner married her rival, Belle. Now Violet at last succeeds but finds that Belle’s memory and style of managing the husband’s affairs haunts the marriage at every turn. Violet sets out to efface Belle by contradicting many of the things the first wife told their husband about the countryside and people around them. The piano tuner recognizes her conduct for what it is, self-assertion, and accepts it calmly. In his marriages, as in his work, he seeks harmony. In the title story, “After Rain,” Harriet has fled to an Italian resort because of a failed love affair, the same resort that her parents took her to as a child. In the sweltering heat, she feels oppressed by her life. The reader learns of her astonished shock, still disturbing her more than a decade later, at her parents’ divorce; she has had previous promising love affairs that all fizzled inexplicably; she cannot be other than distant to her fellow vacationers. To relieve her tedium, she visits a nearby church. There a painting of the Annunciation, vividly colored and showing a rain-swept landscape in the background, lifts her out of her selfabsorption. Meanwhile, a hard rain has broken the afternoon heat. Returning to the resort in the refreshing coolness, she suddenly sees her life in a new light, as if she has had an annunciation of her own. She realizes that she has frightened away her lovers by needing too much from love, a reaction to her parents’ failed marriage. The annunciation is of her own solitude.

Major Works
Plays: The Elephant’s Foot, pr. 1965; The Girl, pr. 1967 (televised), pr., pb. 1968 (staged); A Night Mrs. da Tanka, pr. 1968 (televised), pr., pb. 1972 (staged); Going Home, pr. 1970 (radio play), pr., pb. 1972 (staged); The Old Boys, pr., pb. 1971; A Perfect Relationship, pr. 1973; Marriages, pr. 1973; The Fifty-seventh Saturday, pr. 1973; Scenes from an Album, pr. 1975 (radio play), pr., pb. 1981 (staged).
Anthology: The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, 1989.
Novels: A Standard of Behaviour, 1958; The Old Boys, 1964; The Boarding-House, 1965; The Love Department, 1966; Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neil’s Hotel, 1969; Miss Gomez and the Brethren, 1971; Elizabeth Alone, 1973; The Children of Dynmouth, 1976; Other People’s Worlds, 1980; Fools of Fortune, 1983; Nights at the Alexandra, 1987; The Silence in the Garden, 1988; Juliet’s Story, 1991; Two Lives, 1991; Felicia’s Journey, 1994; Death in Summer, 1998; The Story of Lucy Gault, 2002; My House in Umbria, 2003.
Nonfiction: A Writer’s Ireland: Landscape in Literature, 1984; Excursions in the Real World, 1993.
Radio plays: Beyond the Pale, 1980; Autumn Sunshine, 1982.

Bonaccorso, Richard. “William Trevor’s Martyrs for Truth.” Studies in Short Fiction 34 (Winter, 1997): 113-118.
Gitzen, Julian. “The Truth-Tellers of William Trevor.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 21, no. 1 (1979): 59-72.
Haughey, Jim. “Joyce and Trevor’s Dubliners: The Legacy of Colonialism.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Summer, 1995): 355-365.
MacKenna, Dolores. William Trevor: The Writer and His Work. Dublin: New Island, 1999.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Morrison, Kristin. William Trevor. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. William Trevor: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Schiff, Stephen. “The Shadows of William Trevor.” The New Yorker 68, no. 45 (December 28, 1992/January 4, 1993): 158-163.
Schirmer, Gregory A. William Trevor: A Study in His Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990.

Categories: Irish Literature

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