Appreciating the Whole: A Look into the Form and Meaning of That They May Face the Rising Sun

Reviewed ByAda Wofford

On the surface, That They May Face the Rising Sun is a slow meditative look at rural life in Ireland and little more. In this paper I will attempt to explain the importance of this novel’s lack of, what one might refer to as, traditional plot or “action,” while relating it to Joyce’s “The Dead,” Irving and his Picturesque, and the ideas of Theodore Adorno. With That They May, McGahern created a novel as focused and poetic as Joyce’s “The Dead” but with all of the room, space, and rhythm only a novel could possess.

Anyone familiar with Theodore Adorno’s monumental essay, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” will understand that its gravity and scope is far too reaching for it to be a primary source in an essay such as this; rest assured I will only be referencing one major point from the work. That is, how an over emphasis on the parts of a work distract from the whole and thus devalue a work. 

Adorno writes:

The delight in the moment and the gay façade becomes an excuse for absolving the listener from the thought of the whole, whose claim is comprised in proper listening. The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser. No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of that whole; instead, they suspend the critique which the successful esthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of society. (273)

Adorno’s ideas, as mentioned, are heavy and complicated and this paper is attempting to tightrope above the cavernous depths and focus merely on this one idea (Please refrain from pointing out the hypocrisy that I am in fact, focusing on only a part of the whole!). Adorno speaks about the regression in listening in music. He describes how the popular parts are emphasized and the whole is ignored. His argument is that the parts serve the whole and without taking them as a whole that they can never be properly appreciated or understood. 

To put this as clearly as possible: I’m currently listening to what amounts to a cheap survey course in Dvorak, a veritable “Best Of”; the very thing Adorno would loath. How is one to fully appreciate the third movement of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony if one only hears the third movement? —Which is all one is given of it on this CD. But Adorno takes this further in his critique of what he refers to as “light music,” which is anything other than “serious music,” which is his term for what most call “classical music.” His argument is that light music is essentially nothing but the parts. It’s devoid of an artistic whole, which would merit careful listening and consideration and is instead produced merely for consumption (i.e. pleasure). 

Now if any Adorno scholars read this, please forgive my summarization of his immensely complicated critique. For everyone else, let’s apply this idea of art requiring to be taken as a whole, instead of for its parts, when considering That They May Face the Rising Sun.  

In a review of the American release of That They May, inappropriately titled, By the Lake, Publishers Weekly describes the novel as, “underplotted,” and that, “the absence of a strong story line reduces this book to an extended character study.” Keeping Adorno in mind we can assert two critiques here: 1) The importance of a work’s title as being part of the whole. And 2) the function of plot as part of a work, rather than, as Adorno might describe it, a “fetish character.” 

The title of That They May Face the Rising Sun is essential in understanding the work. When the men are burying Johnny, Patrick Ryan asks, “Does it make a great difference that his head lie in the west?” To which, he himself eventually, and somewhat ironically, answers, “He sleeps with his head in the west…so that when he wakes he may face the rising sun.” He then, “stretched his arm dramatically towards the east,” and recites, “We look to the resurrection of the dead” (297). This scene orients the reader via the title to the focal point of the novel—the same way the title of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler orients us, or Camus’ L’etranger, McCarthy’s Child of God, and of course Joyce’s “The Dead.” To reduce McGahern’s work to, what one can only assume was, a more marketable title, By the Lake, is to throw any well-intentioned reader off the scent of McGahern’s vision. Imagine if a publisher felt that The Great Gatsby would sell better if they named it, Cool Nick Carraway

This scene, in a sense, is what the seemingly pointless parts of the story prop up, and it is because of these parts that we can appreciate the scene at all and thus appreciate the whole. Likewise, once the whole is understood, the parts, which were before seen as dull, now radiate with color and life. As much as McGahern uses the lake as a character, it’s evident that it should not be viewed as the primary focal point (as the title By the Lake might suggest) in the same way that it’s clear that none of the characters should be seen as the primary focal point. The primary focal point here is death (and by association life) and tradition. This is made clear by the novel’s action, or lack of action; McGahern paints a sort of breathing still-life of routine and of the quotidian. Even the unexpected, such as Johnny’s death, falls neatly into the ancient footprints laid forth by tradition. Conor McCloskey, writing for the Irish Times, comments at length on McGahern’s focus on custom and tradition:

McGahern’s respect for custom and tradition in the time and place in which his fiction occurs is evident everywhere in ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun.’ It is built into the very fabric of the work. We need only think of episodes such as Ruttledge taking Ryan to see Edmund in hospital; the Shah taking his recently widowed niece on holiday; the continual hospitality shown to visitors to the Ruttledge’s lakeside; Johnny’s annual visits home and the establishment of an accompanying routine within this disruption of the natural rhythm of life, so that it becomes an acknowledged custom too. It is interesting that all of these customs are concerned with socialising [sic] and never exhibiting the taboo of being rude or too preoccupied with self. The characters who display these characteristics and show scant respect for custom are presented as somewhat ‘degenerate’ – to use the term McGahern references in relation to O’Crohan’s custom breakers – and they are quietly shown to get their comeuppance as well for displaying this degeneracy. This retribution is quiet in the sense that there is no formal or obtrusive intervention on the part of any narrator: think of Ryan defecating in the meadow and being attacked by bees or his self-appeasing visits to his sick brother; John Quinn’s misogynistic treatment of women, which eventually results in his being deserted by a bride who is more than a match for him.

The novel slowly presents the reader with these mundane (though sometimes comic, sometimes violent) scenes of country life, leaving us to wonder why we are bothering ourselves with such trivialities only to realize it in the death of Johnny. Much in the way our own lives roll along: slow, monotonous, seemingly trivial at times (a drink, a repeated conversation, watching some asinine game show) yet, when viewed as a whole, full of meaning all the same. Death and life permeate That They May: the birth of a calf, the death of Patrick Ryan’s brother, the dead hare given as a gift to Kate by her pet cat; but surrounding all of these moments are the rituals that make our lives whole. 

In an interview on The Writing Life, McGahern states,

The image is the first thing and that’s held together by the music and the rhythm of the prose; and the last thing is the shape, which is the most conscious part…Only when the thing is finished do you put an intellectual shape on it. There’s no point in putting a shape on dead prose. That’s like sending a dead man out to a wedding.

This asserts out second point: That plot is nothing more than a part of the whole. The plot of That They May is merely the “intellectual shape,” which scaffolds the music of McGahern’s prose. It’s fitting that McGahern uses the word “music” in his description because his novel requires attentive “listening.” 

But an interesting comparison lies here: In an 1824 letter, Washington Irving writes, 

For my part I consider the story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and the faithful exhibition of scenes in common life. (Manning xix)

McGahern’s philosophy of writing seems to perfectly echo that of Irving’s; who, had boldly resurrected a dead form, that of the Picturesque, in his famous Sketch-Book. Paradoxically though, Irving’s sketches are little more than what Adorno might refer to as “light music.” To copy another passage from the Oxford World Classics introduction to The Sketch-Book:

Even “L’Envoy,” which closes the volume, stresses the desultoriness of the literary enterprise, as Geoffrey Crayon decides in the face of multiple counsel and criticism


To ramble on as he had begun…his work being miscellaneous, and written for different humors, it could not be expected that any one would be pleased with the whole; but that if it should contain something to suit each reader, his end would be completely answered. (Manning xix)

Here we have a direct contradiction of Adorno’s philosophy in what is perhaps the most famous example of a genre that McGahern clearly borrows from, the Picturesque. In the aforementioned letter, Irving explains his preference of the short story, “I believe the works I have written will be oftener re-read than any novel of the Size that I could have written. (Manning xix)” Essentially, it’s the accessibility of the form that Irving prefers. To continue our analogies to music: Though both McGahern and Irving may reference the same tonal palette (the Picturesque), McGahern writes symphonies where Irving writes pop songs— “serious” as opposed to “light.” 

This brings us to our comparison to Joyce’s “The Dead,” a short story which manages to transcend the limitations of the form, those in which Irving reveled, and manages to remain quite “serious,” in Adorno’s terms—a sort of concerto of a story. In the aforementioned interview, McGahern explains how a novel differs from a short story describing the novel like, “a large house; it has looser rhythms.” And that, “the intensity that is necessary for a short story would be intolerable over the length of the novel.” This is certainly true of “The Dead,” as it is a tightly focused work full of symbolism and history one could pick apart for hours. Yet, on the surface, the story rolls along about as slowly and with as loose a rhythm as That They May, and I believe it does so for the same reasons. 

“The Dead” possesses a large cast of characters, a focus on trivial conversation and gossip, detailed descriptions of food, a focus on death, a use of Nature as a character (i.e. the snow), and could also be described as “underplotted” (however myopic we know such a critique would be). The length of the work does not allow for the slow ruminations on routine and tradition in the method of McGahern, but tradition is nonetheless ever present in the work. The setting itself is an annual Christmas party, Gabriel is called upon to give a speech, “as in years past” (396), and the characters speak and behave with a familiarity that leaves one with the impression that they have played out these parts before; the eruption into “For They Are Jolly Good Fellows” is a nice example. Joyce takes the reader through the entirety of the night’s events, and all the time we are left to wonder why we are supposed to care about these characters and their party, until the end when we are presented with Gretta’s memory and its effect on Gabriel. 

Gretta explains to Gabriel that a song she had heard that evening reminded her of a young man who once loved her and who died from an ailment though Gretta cannot help feeling that he had died for her, “I think he died for me, she answered” (410). The parallels here to Johnny are quite striking—Leaving for England in pursuit a love never realized nor overcome, only to return home to his final resting place. The conversation leaves Gabriel disturbed, brought out of his merriment into a recognition of his and his loved ones’ mortality. His thoughts take a turn, which almost serves as a facsimile of the palette of mundanity and of life, which McGahern would greatly expand upon in That They May:


His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotion of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. (411)

A few paragraphs below we find the famous final passage:


A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. (412).

Notice the focus on “westward,” the direction in which we place the dead’s head in burial. Notice also the focus on places and on nature: the Shannon waves, the Bog of Allen, treeless hills, central plain, and so on. McGahern ruminates on places and nature in this same manner, albeit more drawn out. Likewise, McGahern’s title puts the focal point on death in the same way Joyce’s title does, albeit a bit subtler. 

The Picturesque was more than a literary genre, it was a genre of painting as well as a fad for tourists. Artists and tourists alike would acquire a little black mirror called a Claude glass, find an appropriate landscape, typically something pastoral and idyllic, and turn themselves away from the scene so that it may be reflected in their Claude glass. Softened by the color of the glass and slightly distorted by the curvature of its oval shape, the reflection appeared like a little momentary oil painting. Irving’s great genius was to direct his Claude glass on rural life as opposed to an idyllic scene, which, though beautiful in its visual aesthetics, is rather boring material for writing. Irving depicted the inns and cottages of rural England and even certain aspects of its more urban areas. All that said though, his work acted very much like a Claude glass—Greatly softening and slightly distorting the subject matter into something much more pleasant and satisfying than what the original might produce, and this is where Joyce and McGahern greatly differ themselves in their depictions of life and nature. 

While Irving turned away from his subject in order to heighten its aesthetic quality, Joyce and McGahern view their subject head-on with nothing but naked eyes directing their pens. In both That They May and “The Dead,” the Real is not portrayed as anything better or worse than how it truly exists. That the landscape they record is pastoral and idyllic is essentially an adventitious quality, which neither seeks to glorify or soil whether through softening tones or shocking violence. In the 2005 documentary, A Private World, McGahern states that, “If the prose is true, it’s true to emotion and true to what happens. Anything out of control is a form of sentimentality…There’s nothing more deadly in sentences than to see something exaggerated.” He goes on to talk about how Joyce described writing Dubliners, saying that the stories were written with “scrupulous meanness (“mean” meaning “middle”),” that the stories did not exaggerate one way or the other. 

Although there are elements of the Picturesque in both “The Dead” and That They May, we see these two stories abandoning any other influence of Irving they may have took and creating art with “scrupulous meanness”; art which requires the audience to appreciate as a whole and not merely as the sum of its parts

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