Violence is everywhere in Paula Spencer’s Dublin. Look at its manifestations throughout the story
As suggested by the first word “I” (Doyle, 1998, p.1) in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, the events of the novel are narrated entirely in the first-person, representing the subjective perspective of its protagonist Paula Spencer. The colloquial style, a friend has “smashing black hair” (p.5) for example, and the fragmented nature of the narrative, emphasise its status as her personal recollection – “it’s a mess, there’s no order or sequence” (p.203) as she later admits. The narrative style draws attention to the processes of memory and forgetting in Paula’s retroactive narration – she doesn’t remember any of the stories she told at school (p.25), for example, while other events, as will be discussed, are repeated over and over. The effect of this structure is to provide an insight into Paula’s personal cycles of denial, repression and facing up to the realities of violent abuse. Her experience is shaped through its telling in a non-linear way, suggesting the use of stream-of-consciousness to come to terms with what has happened. Violence is everywhere in Paula Spencer’s Dublin. In her narrative it is sometimes repressed, and, at other times, emerges with the full force of its horror. Violence will be discussed here in relation to Paula’s childhood, to her schooldays, in her relationship with Charlo, and as it is implied in her relationship with her father. To conclude, the relevance of the title The Woman Who Walked Into Doors to the theme of violence will be discussed.
Paula’s Childhood and Violence During her Schooldays
The representation of Paula’s early childhood is remarkable more for what is excluded from her memories than what is explicitly described. Her idealisation of the period is reflected in her shift to infantile language when describing it, “my mammy” (p.7) for example. While there are hints of the threat of violence in her memories, “my mammy would have murdered me” (p.15) combined with actual physical abuse, “I thumped him” (p.47), she herself admits that, unlike Carmel, she has repressed bad memories of this time (p.18) in order to cling on to memories of her early childhood as a happier time. A major shift happens, however when Paula starts at school, which is described as a context where violence is constant and inevitable, “I had to act rough and think dirty. I had to fight. I had to be hard” (p.35). She fights back as a reaction to sexual molestation from the boys, “he kept trying to feel me till I punched him in the face” (p.27); “I got pawed and I scraped back” (p.36) as well as the male teachers, Mister Waters dragging his thumb over her bra strap for example (p.34). It always seems to be Paula who is the on to get into trouble for the violence, however (p.30), suggesting either inherent institutional sexism, her marking out due to the history of her family’s problems (p.30), or the victimised selection process of her own memory. Paula is also hit by the female teachers, but this is described as “ordinary hitting” (p.34), showing how violence has become naturalised and normalised as an unremarkable and expected part of her life. Her descriptions from this time also show how media-represented violence effects the way she defines herself and her actions. She adopts “pre-emptive strikes”, for example, inspired by the Gulf War coverage (p.39) and describes the TV “brutality” of Catweezil (p.120). Violence is undoubtedly everywhere at this time of her life, causing her to be react violently herself and assume it as a natural reaction.
Violence of her Married Life with Charlo
The most explicitly described and prolonged violence represented in the novel, though, comes from Paola’s domestic abuse from her husband Charlo. Her language gives an insight into how she sees herself in relation to him, defining herself as a possession from the very beginning of their relationship, “he had me” (p.4), and continuing to define herself in relation to him after continued horrific abuse, “I needed him” (p.177). The use of first-person perspective provides an insight into how Paola internalises and deals with the persistent violence. At first, she is hit to “keep her in her place” (p.157) and she comes to blame herself for Charlo’s violence, “I gave him a too soft egg: whack” (p.157); “I provoked him. I always provoked him. I was always to blame” (p.103). She knows really, however, that she has no choice – she will get hit whatever happens (pp.103-4). This opposition between Paola taking the blame for the violence and realising she is being abused functions as a key tension throughout her monologue. On one hand she keeps blaming herself, yet on the other hand she knows that she is deceiving herself, “I’m only messing, codding myself…It had nothing to do with the tea. It was coming all the time” (p.170). This leads to her contradictory and complex feelings toward the violence around her, aware of the absurdity of blaming herself yet continuing to do it nonetheless, “He hit me, he hit his children, he hit other people, he killed a women – and I keep blaming myself” (p.170). The intensity and constant repetitions in her self-explanation reflect the turmoils in her attempts to understand her experience. Her image of Charlo oscillates between an airbrushed ideal version, “he was so kind…He loved me. He bought me things” (p.158), and the brute reality of his violence, which returns to haunt her, “He lost his temper. And he hit me. He lost his temper. It was as simple as that. And he hit me” (p.162). Despite the violence, Paola cannot shake off her ideal image of the non-violent Charlo, “I loved him when he didn’t do it” (p.157) and so seems destined to remain locked into a cycle of domestic abuse. Her use of language is interesting, usually free-flowing and colloquial it occasionally sharpens into staccato emphasis, as if her inner monologue has reached a point of shocking realisation, the inescapability of the sheer brute truth of what is going on, “He.Hit.Me” (p.171). Her repetitions to herself, “facts, Paula” (p.91; p.96) suggest that she is trying to overcome her idealised image of Charlo and focus on the violence that he has constantly inflicted upon her, the unavoidable truth that “it happened” (p.185). It is clear form the novel that Charlo has left a lasting impact of Paola’s life. This is represented physically, when she can still smell him on the pillows (p.104) and through her attitudes. She refuses to believe the police report, for example, preferring instead what seems the more natural explanation to her, “men raped women” (p.159). She is so surrounded by violence that she cannot imagine events happening in any other way.
Implied Violence With Her Father and Relevance of the Title
Another motif of violence in the novel is the implied abuse in Paola’s relationship with her father. He is represented negatively from the beginning of the novel, “only bad news came through that door…my daddy…Charlo” (p.2), yet through her discussions with Carmel it becomes clear that Paola has edited out any actual violence from her memory. As discussed in relation to her early childhood, Paola is determined to cling on to some good memories while Carmel “refuses to remember anything else. The good things about home and my father” (p.46). This leads to arguments between them over what happened, drawing attention to the subjective nature of her account, “Daddy dried us – He didn’t” (p.11). Carmel accuses Paola of “rewriting history” (p.56) but the novel suggests this is not only inevitable due to the gaps and fragmented nature of memory, but also necessary in order to repress and survive. Paola is aware of her father changing, becoming a bully (p.120), and also of her own covering over of his faults, her “making him up” (p.141), but she is determined in the story that she tells to herself, “the things that came into my head were true. My father had been a nice man. Charlo had been a loving husband. I had been a good-looking woman” (p.59). Again, the subtleties of language are telling here. What is not said provides a dark undercurrent to what has actually been said – it is quite clear that Charlo had not entirely been a loving husband, for example. The use of tense is also striking. She ‘had been’ a good-looking woman, suggesting that, in her position narrating the story now, she is no longer. Her father ‘had been’ a nice man, suggesting a change happened at some point. Further violence in her past is hinted at but not explicitly described.
In terms of the title, it refers both to how Paola defines herself to Charlo when he questions her about a black eye that he has given her, and how she defines herself – to others, and also to herself. There is a distinction, in her monologue, between ‘right’ and ‘truth’, “the things we say. Sometimes they make no sense, sometimes they’re just packed with lies” (p.122) but when Charlo asks her about her eye, “there was only one right answer” (pp.180-181). To acknowledge that he gave it to her is to acknowledge her abuse and make him confront responsibility for it. To use an obvious euphemism is to repress and deny what they both know is happening, refusing to openly acknowledge and start to come to terms with her abuse: This, at the time, she sees as the ‘right’ choice. She later goes on, “I had to fix myself up and ignore the pain…The invisible woman. The woman who walked into doors” (p.189). It is a moral obligation, she suggests, she ‘has to’ fix herself up and go on. She is part of the cycle of violence that has surrounded her since childhood, and the lies, deceit and self-blame that go with refusing to engage with it. ‘The woman who walked into doors’ suggests a distance in Paola’s description. The use of the third-person suggesting a separation between herself as the abused woman and herself that represses and denies the abuse. On one hand, perhaps such distance is necessary, the novel suggests, as a coping mechanism. Horrific events in her life are described in a numb matter of fact tone, “I lost a baby as well” (p.8), and without such distancing she may well be unable to cope at all. On the other hand, however, through the process of telling the story, she manages to face up to realities and reclaim ‘the woman’ as her own experience, “someone is crying. Someone is vomiting…I fucking well vomited” (p.184). The use of euphemism shows that she is hiding the reality of the domestic violence, “I fell down the stairs again, I told her – sorry” (p.164). On the other hand though she is desperate to tell the truth, “Ask me. Ask me. Ask me. I’d tell her. I’d tell them everything” (p.164), and ultimately, through the telling of her tale, she is able to confront the reality of the violence and list it, as it happened, without euphemism, not as walking into doors, but as actual abuse (p.175).
The retroactive structure of the narrative emphasises the cycle of violence that Paola is caught in. It starts with her hitting her own kids (p.1), before going back through her history of violence and abuse. In one sense, violence is inevitable. It is everywhere in Paula Spencer’s Dublin. In another sense though, the act of narrating the story gives her the strength to face up to it and stop blaming herself, suggesting some possibility of change. The key passage in the novel is repeated differently, ending “you fell, he said” (p.5), and then later, “you fell he said. – I didn’t” (p.162), suggesting that Paola is acknowledging the realities of her abuse, challenging Charlo’s account. She tries to rewrite her memory to make it more acceptable, “he loved me again” (p.175), but ultimately she cannot and has to claim responsibility not only for herself but also for Charlo, “I fell. He felled me/. I’m looking at it now” (p.163). As her narrative nears a close, she is no longer the woman who walked into doors, anonymous and in denial, but a clear victim of the violent actions of another. Violence may well be everywhere but her narrative allows her to confront its psychological effects.
Doyle, R. (1998) The Woman Who Walked into Doors. London: Vintage.