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Critical Analysis of the short story "The Diviner” by Brian Friel

Critical Analysis

In Friel’s stories, imposed values of social, historical, or ethical circumstances bear upon each human impulse, but it is not with a paralyzing inevitability. By depicting characters in situations that seem overpowering, Friel invests greater value upon those traces of autonomy that do arise, at least as a missed option. Typically, as these two stories illustrate, the Friel protagonist stops short of overtly subversive behavior, but, in a sense, Friel defines each character to the degree that the heart is not scripted and the mind is not programmed.

Small-town mentalities are not necessarily small mentalities. Rich implications can exist in unexceptional lives, simple situations, and ordinary consciousness. Friel adapts himself to the mentality of his characters, and his generally inarticulate and isolated protagonists have their moments of grace and eloquence. In these moments we sense that they speak for the artist, though the message is usually indirect or disguised. "It is through his self-effacement,” comments George O’Brien of Friel, "that we become aware of him.” Ultimately, as Seamus Heaney has pointed out, Friel is a writer engaged in a "quarrel with himself, between his heart and his head….” Like Turgenev’s gentle provincials, Friel’s country-folk seem alternately silly and shrewd. Though they do not act cosmopolitan, they are often more canny than naive, and they embody a complex dynamic with their surroundings.

‘The Diviner’ is set in an unidentified area of Donegal, in the village of Drumeen. It ostensibly focuses on Nelly Devenny’s acquisition of a new, respectable husband in the person of Mr. Doherty after her former, disreputable husband dies, but the title and conclusion suggest that the entrance of the diviner into the largely closed village of Drumeen introduces a clash between two proponents of so-called ‘irrational faiths’, the unnamed diviner himself and the rigid local Catholic priest, Father Curran. The diviner presages the figure of Frank Hardy in Faith Healer in his general unkempt appearance and ability to channel secret powers. Elmer Andrews has argued that this character, ‘represents an important element in Friel’s own art, the element of the mysterious, the irrational, the pre-verbal that is set against the emphatically realistic evocation of a community and a landscape’.

While we appreciate Andrews’s accurate description of the importance of this figure in Friel’s art, he wrongly sets him against the realism of the community. The story actually privileges the diviner’s organic epistemology over both the mysteries of the faith represented by Father Curran, and the empiricist epistemology of the doctor, the English frogmen, and the men from Meenalaragan. Friel himself indicated his approval of this local, natural epistemology in general in 1962, noting that his stories ‘are about the ultimate fringe of Western Europe–rural Ireland–where one’s allegiance is owed not to the party, but to the parish, where inherited religion motivates one’s whole life up to a point, beyond which pagan instincts take over.

His early affirmation of paganism, which he would later reaffirm in Dancing at Lughnasa, suggests that ‘inherited religion’ is a relatively modern imposition underneath which lies a strong and active substratum of paganism that is closely allied to the instinctual. The postman McElwee explicitly compares the vocational call of the diviner with that of the priest when the townspeople are discussing whether to bring the diviner into the search: ‘They say he’s like a priest–he can never refuse a call.’

But the priest himself fears the diviner and after meeting him and smelling whiskey on his breath, announces to Nelly and to others within hearing, ‘A fake! A quack! A charlatan! Get a grip on yourself, woman! We’ll say another rosary and then I’ll leave you home. They’re wasting their time with that–that pretender!’

But the diviner alone is able to find Mr. Doherty’s body, a discovery that shows how Friel seems to privilege folkloric, natural epistemology that is of a piece with the natural world over not only that practiced by the representatives of theology but also of science. For Dr. Boyle, when told that McElwee is considering bringing in the diviner early in the story, says ‘We’re concerned with a man, not a spring’. Other proponents of the scientific, empiricist viewpoint are the frogmen from Derry, who are described as ‘English, dispassionate, businesslike’ and who ‘brought with them all the complicated apparatus of their trade’. They are characterized by their rigid linearity and their supposed ‘efficiency’, as they search ‘at the north end, one taking the east side, the other the west’ with ‘big searchlights’. They search six times and then suggest that the lake is bottomless because it had been a turf bog and advise that further searching is futile. After the frogmen leave, even the ‘mountainy Meenalaragan men’, who would normally be apologists for rural culture, search with more rudimentary tools but with a similar precision: “armed with long poles, [they] search the whole southern end of the lake’ but fail.”

Unlike Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, however, who can only occasionally heal people, the diviner is successful, finding Mr. Doherty’s body with his ‘quivering twig’ in ‘twenty feet of water, suggesting the elemental nature of his knowledge, which is derived from the earth and water. The priest refuses to be outdone, however and seeks to impose a false narrative on Mr. Doherty’s life after his body is brought to shore and laid on a sail. The priest’s performance, unlike the naturally hard work just carried out by the diviner, who is portrayed divining for the body with ‘hunched, tense shoulders and with ‘elbows bent, his hands at his chest, his head stiffly forward’, is self-conscious and false. Saying, ‘He was a good man’, the priest ‘lifted his chin and allowed his eyelids to droop’, then stating,

‘He was a man who lived a quiet life and loved his God and his neighbors’, and ‘is enjoying his just reward’.
The gathered townspeople have just been mesmerized watching the diviner appear and disappear in the headlights of the parked cars as he ‘performs’ for them. Now the jealous priest, anxious to reassert his and his church’s claim on the dead man, seeks to hypnotize this audience with his bodily movements and syrupy narrative. But real life intrudes. Although Father Curran assumes, ‘At the hour of his demise, he was carrying his rosary beads’, McElwee cannot find any such beads, but the priest, ever eager to assert his controlling knowledge, nosily asks about each item that McElwee recovers from the body and attempts to hide.

After revealing the wallet and watch of the drowned man, McElwee attempts to hide something else in his jacket, but the priest obnoxiously makes him reveal the two whiskey bottles taken from Doherty’s body. Although McElwee manages to get everyone to say a rosary ‘for the repose of Arthur Doherty, stonemason’, the priest will no doubt remind Nelly of her man’s dissolution, even if the forgiving community may not. At the least, she feels that ‘appearances had almost won’, that ‘a foothold on respectability had almost been established, but now is shamed publicly just as she had been by her previous husband, also a drunkard. Her illusion of respectability, created by Mr. Doherty’s habitual outfit of ‘gabardine raincoat, checked cap, and well-polished shoes, has been shattered by the priest’s rapacious desire for knowledge, which is negatively contrasted with the diviner’s successful search for the body as part of his natural vocation. The diviner’s close connection to nature and an organic epistemology is contrasted with the priest’s competing, mechanistic epistemology in a sentence placed after the priest realizes that Doherty is a heavy drinker: “Imperceptibly, it was dawn, a new day vying with the priest’s headlamps.”

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