The Guilt of the Protagnoist in ‘Cal’ by Bernard Maclaverty Essay
Set during the sixties and using the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a suitably depressing backdrop, “Cal” by Bernard MacLaverty is the tale of a tragic love affair and the hopelessness of life during the Troubles. Cal’s struggle for normality within the chaos which was life in Northern Ireland, has enabled MacLaverty to create a complex situation where society’s view of right and wrong can be questioned. The book’s factual base gives the novel a degree of realism, which permits MacLaverty to develop the characters and their emotions to the full hence allowing greater involvement on my part. Cal’s guilt plays a huge part in his actions and are therefore integral to my understanding of life in Ireland.
Before I read Cal, I held the view that the IRA had no place in today’s society. Yet for Cal the situation is not so clear cut, as the period in which the novel is set saw divisions between the Catholic and Protestant communities at their deepest, as people remained with their “own kind” in a bid to avoid the sectarian violence associated with the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. This hostile atmosphere would make the sense of security and belonging provided by the IRA particularly attractive to Cal, as he is in the vulnerable position of being one of only two Catholics on a Protestant housing estate. Fear was not the only reason for many young catholics joining the IRA – peer pressure and a feeling of responsibility were strong factors behind joining:
Cal’s attempt to learn Gaelic “?for the sake of the movement” and Crilly’s opinion that “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” illustrate this. There was also the fear of the consequences of not becoming a member: “What you have done is called desertion. You know the penalties”. Cal’s situation is simple – either he joins the IRA and suffers from guilt or he does not and suffers the consequences. Coming from a minority myself means that I sympathise with Cal to a greater extent and, knowing what it is like to be excluded and to feel isolated, I saw Cal’s joining of the IRA as an understandable, even justifiable action – not as an act of malice or prejudice, but as an act of desperation and hope.
Throughout the first chapter, the idea of the IRA as a fact of life is introduced and strengthened. I found one of the most effective methods that MacLaverty uses to do this is through the mention of TV programmes. On several occasions Cal and his father are watching television, while speaking at the same time. This allows the juxtaposition of sentences like
‘A Catholic father of three had been stabbed to death in a Belfast entry….
“Any jobs in the paper today?” his father asked’
emphasising the normality of Cal’s situation, as Cal and his father have become inured to the frequent murders and bombings. Sentences such as
“No one had been killed because the first item was about redundancies in the Belfast shipyards” strengthens this image. These sentences do not only support the view that the IRA are a normal part of everyday life, but they are also evidence of the brutality of life in Northern Ireland. To my mind it is both shocking and sad that the taking of a human life is seen as normal, insignificant everyday occurrence.
Cal is not so blasï¿½, however, about the death of Robert Morton, a result of his involvement with the IRA and the event around which all his feelings and, consequently, most of his actions abound.
From the outset of the novel Cal’s feelings of guilt are obvious, as his emotions manifest themselves in different guises throughout the book. The most common of these is MacLaverty’s use of the flashback, a technique which was central to my degree of involvement within the novel, as they allowed deeper insight into and greater understanding of Cal’s mind. Cal suffers from frequent flashbacks, which can be triggered by almost anything, from the distant memories of his mother to the present – the sight of Robert’s widow. Flashbacks convey Cal in an endearing light, as they allow the strength of Cal’s guilt to be shown: “He felt physically sick looking at himself “. Cal is also constantly repressing his thoughts, a feature that further emphasises the depth of Cal’s feelings: “Thinking of it made it worse”. Yet not until the third chapter does MacLaverty decide to reveal what “it” exactly is, by dramatically recreating Robert’s murder in one long flashback. By delaying the revelation that Cal is an accessory to murder, MacLaverty is able to arouse greater sympathy towards Cal than if the murder been described first. Had this been the case, then the reader would have a pre-conceived idea of Cal’s nature and disposition, a situation that never arises due to Maclaverty’s technique of displaying Cal’s guilt then revealing the cause. As with the other flashbacks, the murder allowed me to see the extent of Cal’s remorse and consequently dispelled my belief that all IRA members are cold, calculated killers. I had also previously believed that extreme religious groups were contradictory in their very nature – their extreme violence is forbidden by the religion they are fighting for. Yet, as I witnessed Cal’s religious turmoil over Robert’s murder, this perspective changed also.
Even as a lapsed Catholic Cal applies the Catholic belief that penance achieves absolution to himself with particular zeal. His attitude can be summed up by his reaction to Robert’s murder leaving him, like the biblical Caine, with:
” A brand stamped in the middle of his forehead which would take him the rest of his life to purge.”1
His relationship with Marcella Morton is the area of his life where he applies this belief with singular determination. As an accessory to her husband’s murder, Cal should regard a relationship with Marcella as unattainable. At first I agreed with Cal that
“…. by his action he had outlawed himself from her.” As Cal begins to fall in love with Marcella, however, I began to sympathise more with Cal, for he is caught between two opposing forces – love and guilt. His guilt and religious belief become part of his relationship with Marcella with his constant reminders to himself that he should behave as a “proper” Catholics should and ” ? feel guilty about being happy with her”
Cal’s guilt often expresses itself in his frequent introductions to the topic of sinning when with Marcella -“Did you ever do anything – really bad?”. I saw this, not just as a manifestation of guilt, but also as a cry for help: by bringing up the subject of sinning, Cal is subconsciously hoping that the matter of Robert’s death will arise and he can clear his conscience through confession: “He wanted to confess to her, to weep and be forgiven. He saw the scene in his mind of her holding him, comforting him; he saw the scene as he knew it would be in reality and it horrified him.”
As well as conveying the strength of Cal’s guilt, this extract gave me an insight into Cal’s psyche, as I felt that, although he was upset, Cal was also being selfish. Cal wants to tell Marcella about the murder, not to give her peace of mind, but to ease his own conscience. This made me further consider the real nature of Cal and Marcella’s relationship – was Cal really in love with Marcella or was he punishing himself in the worst possible way? I believe that Cal, in a convoluted way, saw the relationship as a form of extreme penance. This action, while damaging to my impression of the character of Cal, epitomises his confused state of mind – the Catholic in him is calling for him to punish himself, while human nature is telling him not to.
It was at this point in the novel I realised how deep my involvement in the plot was, as I had begun to see as Cal as a person not just a creation of prose. This is a testament to MacLaverty’s skilful use of detached writing, as he has managed to create a character with a distinct personality who evokes different reactions in different people. In my case the reaction is one of sympathy, aroused by the clear portrait of Cal’s torment. I did not feel, however, that the emotional complexity of the relationship was realistic, even though love, guilt and deception are often parts of relationships.
The authenticity of Cal’s character is finally confirmed in his relationship with his father, Shamie. As in all of Cal’s relationship, guilt is an intrinsic feature and in most instances MacLaverty would employ Cal’s guilt as a means of illustrating his conflicting emotions. Yet here Cal’s guilt is used to a different effect, revealing a cooler, more selfish side to his character: while speaking to Shamie, who is suffering from depression, Cal feels “guiltily good”. In previous situations this paradox would have been used to convey the idea of Cal’s attitude towards his guilt and his desire for penance but this is not the image portrayed here, as an almost frivolous tone is used. The effect was the creation of a more realistic character, and an inventive use of the medium of guilt.
MacLaverty’s description of Cal and his guilt allowed me to see the Troubles in their true context for the first time – “Cal” showed me that the people affected by the Troubles are human too, not merely statistics, and it revealed the futility of their lives. MacLaverty’s factual narrative means that judgement is left up to the reader and my own judgement on Cal surprised me at first – how could I sympathise with an IRA member? Yet this is only confirmation of MacLaverty’s skill as a writer, as “Cal” has changed my views on the IRA. As a study in guilt “Cal” shows the extent to which guilt can effect a person and, what I found most interesting, its effect on other people. The guilt and degree of realism of the protagonist Cal, paints a poignant picture of life in Ulster – during the 60’s at least – and it is the reality of this picture which is the most saddening aspect of the novel, a picture which I am indebted to MacLaverty for making me see.