‘The Distant Past’ by William Trevor: Discussion of how the theme of cultural encounters is developed using narrative techniques, language and structure.
William Trevor’s short story, The Distant Past, addresses the complexities of cultural encounters in a subtle and ironic way that emphasizes the value of the short story as a literary form. “But whatever geographical distances these fictional characters travel, far or near, the tightness of the short story’s form can throw into sharp focus the effects of psychological or emotional distance” (Prescott 2008b, p.xii). Lynda Prescott’s observation of the power of the short story form to suggest or augment distance is something that the author implements with excellence. Through his use of language, narrative techniques and the overall structure of the short story, Trevor is able to draw the reader’s attention to the latent social othering that takes place between the people in a small town in Ireland and the Middletons, who live at Carraveagh.
The author emphasizes the social othering (http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww03/othering.htm) of the Middletons by the townspeople over several decades by using dismissive language to introduce the Middletons and by maintaining that throughout the story.
At the start of the story, the sister and brother who live at Carraveagh are referred to as ‘they’ or ‘them’ four times before being identified as ‘the Middletons’ (Trevor 2008, p.137). The reader never learns, for example, what the Middletons’ first names are and they are regularly referred to using the third person plural, and only intermittently as ‘the Middletons’. Trevor uses this technique to focus the reader’s attention on the fact that, although the townspeople do not dislike them, the Middletons do not fit into the social networks of the town.
The author alludes to the sense that the Middletons live far beyond the town or its environs, as the first line of the short story begins, “In the town and beyond it they were regarded as harmlessly peculiar…” (Trevor 2008, p.137) and then notes that the Middletons lived “three miles outside the town” (Trevor 2008, p.137). He suggests a greater geographical distance between the Middletons and the rest of town than actually exists, a suggestion that is maintained even after the reader becomes aware of the actual distance of Carraveagh from the town. This suggestion continues as the Middletons age and it takes them longer to get into town for their errands each week (Trevor 2008, p140). The author juxtaposes the idea of geographical distance and social distance to highlight that the townspeople view them as one and the same. It is clear that the author’s intention is to separate the reader from the characters of the Middletons in the same way that the townspeople grow increasingly distant from them as well. The language Trevor uses impersonalises the Middletons and facilitates the developing rejection of them from the society of the town itself.
The narrative techniques of metaphor and the use of subtly changing verb tenses in time draws out both the objectification of the Middletons (and by extension how the townspeople impersonalise them) and builds on the dismissive language introduced earlier.
The idea of ‘polish’ becomes a strong rhetorical device in this short story, from its first reference on p.137 when the townspeople regard the Middletons with a “burnish of affection” (Trevor 2008, p.137). When the author describes Carraveagh falling into disrepair and the furniture that is dry from a lack of polish, he is subtly associating what happens when a polish is not regularly applied to what is happening between the Middletons and the townspeople (Trevor 2008, p.140). Soon the townspeople have abandoned that ‘burnish of affection’ and instead listen to the Middletons recalling the distant past “without ill-feeling” (Trevor 2008, p.141). In the final pages of the story, the Middletons are merely tolerated: “For fifty years they had experienced, after suspicion had seeped away, a tolerance that never again in the years that were left to them would they know” (Trevor 2008, p.144). The metaphor of polish accentuates the destabilisation of the relationship and objectifies the Middletons, comparing their status in town to the care one would give a piece of furniture.
The polish-furniture-object metaphor is taken further when, at the end of the story, all the items in the house (and even the house itself) come to symbolise what the town is rejecting when they reject the Middletons. The sister and brother take down a portrait of their father in his Irish Guards uniform, the family crest, a piece of ancient Irish linen with the cross of St. George on it (the symbolism here is particularly stark), and the little Union Jack that they flew for the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II (Trevor 2008, pp.138-140, 144). All these items identify what made the Middletons stand out as “peculiar” (Trevor 2008, p.137). Possessions that the Middletons were proud to own have become what the townspeople are embittered about, and this polarity inherently separates the two groups of characters.
The structure of the short story, designed around a linear chronology, becomes a powerful element Trevor uses it to draw the reader along an invisible cord of acceptance until the reality of the social othering of the Middletons is unavoidably clear.
The past perfect tense draws attention to both the history inherent in the short story and the way in which that history is viewed by the characters. It is only on p.144 that the tense changes to simple past, suggesting a more immediate past being narrated, and only on p.145 does the reader find a sentence that suggests any future direction at all (Trevor 2008, pp.144-145). When Trevor notes that the tolerance the Middletons had experienced was something “that never again… would they know”, the reader’s perspective is directed forward to an ending that extends beyond the boundaries of the story itself. This subtle arrangement confronts the very idea established in the title that the past is or can be ‘distant’.
The history of the town is explained chronologically as stepping-stones, from one point to the next throughout the short story (Trevor 2008, pp.138-140 in particular). After the 1940s, the town experiences a post-war renaissance and focuses more on incoming tourists. There is only one instance where the chronological structure is not linear, when a reference to Mr. Healy adding an extension to the hotel in 1961 (p.140) is followed shortly thereafter by a reference to Miss Middleton’s pneumonia in 1958 (p.141) (Trevor 2008, pp140-141). It is this jarring shift from linear history that catches the reader’s eye and suggests a turning point in the story.
The story also relays the progression of the history of the Middletons, in parallel to the history of the town. In a series of steps, the reader learns about the Middletons’ history, but more importantly about their routine. Every week they came into town to buy their groceries and sell the eggs they had collected and then joined the grocer Mrs Garrity for a drink at her bar and then Mr Healy at his hotel for another (Trevor 2008, pp.138-140). They were on friendly reminiscent terms with the butcher, Fat Cranley; and they were Protestants and royalists (Trevor 2008, p.138-140). The way in which the history of the town is played out, apart from one exception, is in a linear chronological manner while the history of the Middletons in town is more immediate because their history is one of routine. Despite historical distance and social distance, the town and the Middletons mirror each other from the point of that first acute awareness of time on pp.140-141 and this continues on to the end of the story.
These structural elements of parallel storylines, of linear history and of divergence, reflection and refraction demand an introspective analysis on the part of the reader as a participant in the story. “The Distant Past” is not so distant that history and routine are eclipsed by bitterness, but rather denotes the immediacy of the present as dictated by the historical routine interactions of the characters.
William Trevor’s title for this short story, “The Distant Past”, is ironic because the past for the Middletons is always immediate. He calls the way they cling to the past a form of “worship” (Trevor 2008, p.141). The past, though initially distant and vague for the townspeople, begins to dictate the nature of their social interactions by the end of the story when, for example, Fat Cranley no longer wishes to be remembered as a man who protected the Middletons from soldiers when that had been a source of such pride for him previously (Trevor 2008, p.143). This return to awareness of the past leads to bitterness that, in time, is directed at the Middletons themselves. “As anger rose in the town at the loss of fortune so there rose also the kind of talk there had been in the distant past” (Trevor 2008, p.143).
The linear chronological story no longer exists and now the distant past comes up against the reflection of the Middletons’ routine and their history with the town. The two places in town that the Middletons frequented – the hotel and the bar – become the focal points for the bitterness of the townspeople when the hotel and the bar decline obviously. That bitterness is then refracted from the places to the people who are recognisably tied to them (Trevor 2008, p.145). The fluidity of Trevor’s story works to focus the reader’s attention on how time is remembered, how history can change from year to year, and how society functions in relation to that history and to each other. The upset that leads to the end of the story, the bitterness of the townspeople directed onto outsiders who had been part of the town’s history for decades, shows how cultural encounters can be mutated by time and perception. That bitterness leads to the disturbing final lines of the story that express the social othering that has occured: “Because of the distant past they would die friendless. It was worse than being murdered in their beds” (Trevor 2008, p.145).
Prescott, Lynda. (2008a). “Chapter 4: Short Stories” in Cultural Encounters (AA 100, book 3). Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp.124-148.
Prescott, Lynda. (2008b). “Preface” in Prescott, L. (ed.) A World of Difference: An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.xii-xix.
Trevor, William. (2008). “The Distant Past”, in Prescott, L. (ed.), A World of Difference: An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.137-145.
www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww03/othering.htm (accessed 18 March 2009)
www.dictionary.com – entry for ‘burnish’ (accessed 19 March 2009)