Our Cross-Class Interview with Dawn DuncanConcordia College, Moorhead, MNBridging the Minnesota-Nebraska-Ireland Distance


Given that O'Connor is a contemporary writer telling a historical story, what biases might he have that make this story postmodern that it might lack had it been written in its own time period?
I don't know that bias is the word I would use since I am not privy to O'Connor's mind. However, I can say that he would certainly have knowledge that a Victorian writer would not have. For instance, he would know that history has revealed more about the abysmal behaviors and failures that made a crop failure into a famine: British government callousness, landlord callousness, constabulary and reactionary brutality, etc. He would also have lived to see the flaws in capitalism, the way in which greed has created a myriad of oppressive conditions.

Who do you think O'Connor blames for the Famine?
As my students and I discussed, blame is not singular here. Rather he seems to be suggesting that anyone who lacks mercy, who does not see people as real and deserving of our care but simply lives by equations (which Pius fails to be able to do in the end, a rescue of his nature), would be to blame. We cannot shut our eyes to the needs of others. Certainly history and the novel shows there is plenty of blame to go around (see answer above), including among the Irish upper and merchant class who failed to assist their neighbors. However, there were also upper class members of society, like Verity, who did what a human being should do, regardless of what it cost her. She had a lasting impact on families she helped and on the attitudes and actions of her son, David Merridith.

Are there any unusual observations your class is making in discussion that we aren't seeing on the wiki?
Hmmm...probably quite a few. I have the advantage of reading their longer think pieces, which in the future might be what we want to place on the wiki. In class they make many more ties to what they have learned about postcolonialism (especially the ontological struggles) and to the hallmarks of postmodernism. I suppose the paragraphs get to these main points in some measure. We have also discussed the recurring theme in our class of the role of the artist, including what happens to the artistic nature that is kept from its true vocation (Pius Mulvey and David Merridith, perhaps even Dixon, though we question his artistry).

How do you find the reading experience differs from someone with an extensive knowledge on the time period and history within the novel, versus a new coming to Irish lit who has little to no knowledge of the historical background? And do you feel as though this difference is significant enough that it takes away from the story itself?
While I recognize that the difference is significant, I do not think it takes away from the story. Rather, I would say that when I or Karen point something out in the text (how much land the Kingscourt's have, given the extended title; that the preacher at Verity's service is actually WB Yeats' grandfather, etc.), then the text gains richness. The novel is already so beautifully constructed and subtly layered that someone coming to it without extensive background knowledge can be pulled into the story and learn to want to understand even more about the characters. I would hope that a curious reader would also be drawn to do a bit of research into the context and certain aspects that interest them most.

In your opinion, does this book contain a quality of the historical background (realism) that almost separates it from "fiction"? Does the reality of these issues outshine the story being told?
In no way to I believe that reality outshines the artistic merit of the fictional tale. Look at the artistic structure: Victorian stylization with the chapter epigraphs and nod to well drawn characters (like Dickens) and moody atmosphere (like Bronte); the intertexuality that I just mentioned; the mosaic of pieces--newspaper articles, captain's log, letters, shifting perspective--that indicates postmodern fragmentation yet comes together to complete an entire work of art; the chapters that can only be imagined by Dixon (would not have had access to those thoughts or feelings) as imagined by O'Connor. Well, I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. This novel is a work of art that has the heft of reality/history supporting the creative structure and complex human characters.

While looking over your PowerPoint on postmodernism on our wiki page: I noticed the mention of authors and titles such as Ian McEwan's Atonement and Samuel Beckett's Endgame and I'm wondering if the significance this novel has for the era is comparable to these titles and authors you mentioned?
Beckett's work was like no other. McEwan is a mixed bag (having read works of his), though I agree that Atonement is outstanding. I am not comfortable comparing these authors for signficance because they are each giving the world significant gifts through their writing, engaging us to think by pulling us into the written worlds they create. Personally, I feel (and that is not a word that I use lightly) that O'Connor's novel is more powerful in its scope than McEwan's.

In Ch 14, Dixon covers his hardships concerning his own writing and in this chapter there is a lot of mention of the aesthetic movement. On p. 120, Dixon makes reference to John Ruskin's "Modern Painter" as the ideal definition of art for the purpose of beauty and pleasure, and p. 127, there's mention of Laura as a love of the "aesthetics." I also noticed on our wiki page, under Duncan Class Essentials, you term postmodernism as "an attempt to retying a number of concepts held dear to Enlightenment humanism; also refers to the aesthetic/cultural products that treat and often critique aspects of postmodernity." I'm wondering how these specific references to the aesthetic movement reflects a postmodernism ideal?
This question is much tougher to answer without a deep study, or at least lecture, of artistic theory. I will say that I think there is irony at work here. The aesthetes, like Pater and Wilde, thought the goal of art should be to bring beauty to the world, that any message cannot be the motivating force for an artist (which is not to say that their work is devoid of such). Laura believes she can judge true artistry, yet the two men she marries are both flawed artists (David is good at landscape but idealizes the human portrait; Dixon wants to write fiction but writes more like a journalist) and both construct false images that they portray to the world. So how good can she be at judging truth and beauty? On the other hand, when we hear O'Connor speak of his work, we do hear hints of the aesthetic preference for beauty before message. He wants to write a ripping good story, first and foremost. But I cannot help but be fascinated by the embedded social commentary that comes through the story. I think he succeeds on the second point too, giving us something that rings true.

What does perspective in narration affect when you're looking for clues/hints of postmodernism in a text?
Its greatest effect is on reliability: does anyone person hold the truth? When we look through the eyes of another, doing so engages us in a particular view of the world. To understand what that view shows us and why, we have to exercise empathy even while asking what we aren't seeing through those eyes. I would also invoke postcolonialism here, which suspects any singular perspective of providing a true account, so is much more interested in the power of image and the recognition of multiple perspectives to arrive at a more complete understanding. O'Connor writes in a postmodern age and from a postcolonial inheritance, and he reflects the conditions that have shaped him even while giving shape to a fresh perspective on an old story (the Famine) and a common genre (mystery). He rises above what might mire a weaker writer down in order to give us this fresh perspective, employing a variety of voices to do so.

What is an example of popular American postmodernism/postcolonialism that we could use for contrast?
Hmmm...I turn to Louise Erdrich's novels, or those of Toni Morrison, as a good American contrast. On the one hand, Erdrich comes from the Native American experience and Morrison from the Black American experience. On another, they both interrogate history, play with perspective and reliability, and write incredibly beautiful and powerful tales. If you have not read these two authors, you should. Two I recommend are Morrison's Song of Solomon and Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

From your class's point of view, what does the epilogue do to the story and what would change if it were absent?
Well, first of all, it brings all the pieces together and gives that lovely final twist: Dixon is the one who murdered David Merridith. It also calls us to rethink what we were told and how, a literary scholar's delight and a writer's curiosity about craft coming into play here. There is a general kind of sorrow and justice that completes the tale. We, hopefully, find ourselves able to feel the pain of each character (though Dixon might be hardest) and to see the ways in which love and fear can drive us to actions that under normal conditions we might not take. However, when is lfie devoid of love and fear? So perhaps it makes us take a good look at ourselves as well.

Does the view of searching for purposes of writing that deal with postcolonialism/postmodernism ever take away from detail because of the scope of the story?
Hmmm...I don't think you can ever search for the purpose of writing, which would lead us to commit what critics call the flaw of authorial intention. What any reader does is bring him or herself to the reading, making of the experience something particular. I cannot read books without seeing what I have studied, so I see hallmarks of postmodernism in some and the postcolonial condition in others, and sometimes a book like this will have both. Then, when we come together as a community (class or book group) to discuss a book, it changes yet again as we add new perspectives. Part of the pleasure of teaching is how much I am taught by what my students see and think, ideas that I cannot have since they are different from me. What a wonder! The story grows richer.

Is viewing the book as a writer (or as a reader) beneficial? Should we look at it as both?
If we can (maybe some people who have never tried writing can't), always! I firmly believe that no one should teach or write about literature who hasn't tried to write a creative project of some length. I also think that good writers must be avid readers.

Do you agree with the critics' view of postmodernism that we have lost contact with the "real"?
Those are only the negative critics who posit that take; the positive critics would say there is no one "real" but many perspectives on reality. I fit in that latter group.

What is your favorite character and why?
Hmmm...I feel the most for Mary Duane, but the richness of the portrait of Pius Mulvey gets to me the most. I keep thinking about what might he have done if he could have made a good living as a ballad-maker, a revered position in the ancient Irish culture. He seems part writer, part singer, part actor. I have an affinity for the artist and feel for those who can't practice that art. He is also a survivor, as is Mary. I have a level of respect for the kind of resiliency that survivors must have. On the other hand, I don't think I could ever kill someone unless they were threatening someone I love or my own life were in immediate danger. Some of his acts are monstrous, but O'Connor made me care about him. If you had asked whom I like best, then I would immediately respond with the only trustworthy character: Captain Lockwood.

How does this book compare to his others?
I think it is my favorite, but that is probably because it is the one I chose to teach. As I said, that process enriches the experience.

What are YOU most excited for regarding this collaboration?
I am excited on several levels, but probably most about giving our students the chance to hear from the author himself.

What do you think the most interesting aspect of this novel is? (And what do your students think is most interesting, most fascinating, etc?) There is so much going on in my mind as I'm reading--it would be interesting to see what stands out for you as you, personally, are reading it.
I cannot speak for my students since their own responses would vary. For me the most interesting aspect it its utter humanity. O'Connor has given us flawed characters but made us enter into their lives in such a way that we feel their pain and understand their motivations. He has also subtly shown how we are all responsible for caring for one another. I think the humanity of his vision, of this work, is remarkable.