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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 36 / 50





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Chapter Five

At Swim-Two-Birds’ fourth and lowest narrative level provides the audience with a variety of composition. There are several examples of poetry, including Sweeney’s recitals of ancient lays as well as those of a favourite poet of Trellis’ cowboys, Jem Casey. O’Brien also presents the reader with a commonly neglected narrative form: conversation. O’Brien places a group of rather simple men in a comfortable setting and allows their conversation to flow in seemingly random directions. This presentation of anecdotal story-telling highlights conversation as the art form that it truly is. Besides these oral narratives, it is this final narrative layer that includes Orlick’s revenge on his father, Dermot Trellis. Orlick avenges his mother’s assault by becoming an author himself, writing a revenge plot to punish Trellis. This final narrative plane displays the most brutal consequences for Trellis’ treatment of his characters, a harsh lesson for not following the narrator’s literary theory.

As discussed in my third chapter, Finn’s narrative line runs parallel with the narrator’s and Trellis’. At this lowest level of the novel, Finn’s Sweeney narrative must be addressed in the same separate manner. Finn does not fit in with Trellis’ other characters, and his narrative is more a lecture than part of a colloquy between friends. Finn tells Sweeney’s story in order to display the punishments Sweeney has endured from authors and inventors of myth. Sweeney is another difficult character to situate within the narrative structure, just as Finn is. Finn’s relation of Sweeney’s madness positions Sweeney in his traditional role in the ancient past, and not with the other characters of the Red Swan; however, there are sections of the narrator’s manuscript which place all of the lower order characters together. The reader is confronted with Sweeney throughout the last one-third of At Swim-Two-Birds, but the narrative level that he exists on changes from page to page. What is interesting to discuss about this fourth narrative level is Sweeney’s discourse within Finn’s tale. Sweeney is in many ways a reflexive character; he is Finn’s story-telling protagonist, just as Trellis is the narrator’s and the narrator is O’Brien’s. Sweeney is said to run "with a wind-swift stride" (90) and is also described as "bird-quick." In an earlier extract from the narrator’s manuscript on the subject of Finn, Finn describes himself as "wind-quick" (23). Sweeney possesses the elements outlined early in the narrator’s manuscript that are required by the members of Finn’s Fianna. Sweeney is shown as a capable warrior and poet during Finn’s telling of Sweeney’s curse. Finn is the archetype of these traits, as he sets the terms for membership in his clan. Because Sweeney possesses them, and is the protagonist in a tale told by Finn, one can conclude that Sweeney functions as another reflexive protagonist within At Swim-Two-Birds.

Sweeney also recites poetry in the same manner as Finn. While Finn is not Sweeney’s creator, he is in this authorial position while telling Sweeney’s tale, which allows him to influence Sweeney’s language. Even if the essence of the tale is mythologically correct and Finn is indeed not inventing any of the plot, the language that Sweeney uses is still decided by Finn. While Sweeney’s poetry is not exactly like Finn’s poetic descriptions of himself, there are definite similarities between the language used in each. Finn claims

I am a hound for thornypaws. I am a doe for swiftness. I am a tree for wind-siege. I am a windmill. I am a hole in a wall. (18)


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