“A Distant Past” by William Trevor and Cultural Encounters
Cultural encounters can prove to be very enriching to all those involve, yet could prove very confusing and disrupting. In most cases these encounters lead to conflict of values, both at the individual and societal levels. Explore how cultural encounters are manifested in literary works, specifically short stories from An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents, with particular reference to “The Distant Past” by William Trevor.
In the process of answering the TMA, you should make sure to include the below five sub questions:
1) How is the concept of cultural encounter treated in the short story “The Distant Past”?
2) Is the author, William Trevor, aware of the cultural encounter theme? How does he manifest that awareness?
3) Are the main characters, mainly the Middletons, aware of the cultural encounter theme? What clues do they provide of such awareness?
4) How does the Friday visit to town highlight the theme of cultural encounter in “The Distant Past”?
5) How does the usage of “contrasts” (present versus past, now versus then) throughout the short story help in highlighting the theme of cultural encounter?
The Dilemma of Cultural Encounters in The Distant Past
The goal of this paper is to explore how cultural encounters are manifested in literary works, particularly in “The Distant Past” by William Trevor. Culture is a broad term that encompasses many aspects of life in society. It is the way people live and interact with each other. Park (1950) says that “Culture deals with the civilisations, attitudes, relations and the marginal man…” (pg 10) These beliefs, relations and aspects of life differ from one community to another and from person to person. It, therefore, means that sometimes, and often so, different belief systems, in their attempt to enrich and make life better, end up clashing and confusing to people. Whenever such situations occur, we talk of a cultural encounter. A cultural encounter can involve nationalities or ethnicities; it can also involve individuals of different cultures. Often, these encounters may throw people into conflicts and embarrassing disagreements when such cultures have competing ideologies. When this happens, it transforms people who would otherwise have been loving neighbours into hostile adversaries. In The Distant Past, William Trevor brings to the fore a confusing cultural encounter between Protestants and Catholics in wartime Ireland, encounters that are reminiscent of the old historical antagonism that has existed for many years between Ireland and England. Borrowing from his own experience, Trevor has shown extensively how these encounters can be met and resolved.
In The Distant Past, the concept of cultural encounters is treated as an event that has deep ties to the historical, religious and political alignments of a given generation. The temporal context of this story is when Ireland was still under the rule of the United Kingdom. It is well documented in history how long and fiercely the Ireland Catholics fought for their autonomy from the British rule ever since the eighteenth century. When Southern Ireland declared their independence from the British rule in 1949, the North chose to remain in the union. Naturally, this would cause great animosity between the two regions, a conflict that culminated in 1960 when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had Northern targets attacked in a series of terror attacks. The IRA was an outlawed group of Catholics. As expected, the Great Britain Protestant rulers were angry at the provocation. It is the circumstances of these religious, political and historical encounters that Trevor recreates in the life of the Middletons, and their attempts at getting reconciled with the realities of cultures other than their own. The writer tries to provide a solution of coexistence—the realization by the couple that to survive, they had to live with people from the other culture.
William Trevor is well aware of the theme of cultural encounter in The Distant Past. The events, narration, location and contradictions that he presents using the Middletons reflect a deep understanding of the cultural dilemma that resulted from the Protestant-Catholic encounter and the smaller North-South politics. Biographically, Trevor grew up a protestant in a Catholic neighbourhood. Naturally then, he would be well conscious of the way they were treated differently and how their being Protestant put his family on the course to a wider cultural clash with his own community. Lilley, Barker and Harris (2016) have a slightly different view, as they consider the global citizen as one who “takes being treated differently as a reality of the global now…” (pg 7). The characters he creates in the story, especially the Middletons, are a direct representation of his own experiences. The brother and sister grew up in the Ireland South, at a time when it was still under the Great Britain rule. The religious issues he weaves into the tale, including the supposed relationship of the father to a Catholic woman in Dublin, all point at his heightened awareness. They even remember the time when the British soldiers came to town. This event is reminiscent of the invasion of Ireland, an occurrence in Trevor’s lifetime. This suggests a kind of trying to bridge the understanding between them and their neighbours, an experience that Trevor himself must have been extremely conscious of.
The Middletons demonstrate a lot of consciousness when it comes to the question of cultural encounters in The Distant Past. Throughout the story, they demonstrate this awareness. . In the distant Past, the tourists come to town, and they notice something of the Middletons:
The visitors who came to the town heard about the Middletons and were impressed. It was a pleasant wonder, more than one of them remarked, that old wounds could heal so completely, that the Middletons continued in their loyalty to the past and that, in spite of it, they were respected in the town. (pg 97)
When the visiting tourists come, they see the Middletons as the measure of not only cultural encounter, but also cultural understanding. Their loyalty to the past does not blur their understanding of the present, and because of it, they earn respect instead of hate. Their understanding of this cultural encounter is deepened with the news from Northern Ireland that the British soldiers had clashed with members of the Irish Republican Army.
The Friday visit to town is a moment of deep reflection for the Middletons on one hand, and an eye-opening opportunity for their own self-awareness. On being treated differently, Arponen (2014) insists that “When cultures encounter, the most serious problem is prejudice.” (pg 420)It changes everything that they had believed and done, for it is remarked by the narrator that“On Fridays, only sometimes at first, there was a silence when the Middletons appeared. It wasn’t something to laugh at any more… nor were they themselves just an old, peculiar couple.” (pg 80) They are treated differently when they get to town. At this moment, they realize that their culture is not just a way of life; it is also a tag that will prevent them from getting opportunities and normally interacting with the town people. The Middletons are given a cold shoulder, spoken to differently and not treated with respect. Their changed fortune is reflective of the shifting nature of cultural encounters. “These encounters, with a little aggravation, can completely change people’s lives, sometimes for the worse.” (Heikkila, 2016)
The use of contrasts in the story heightens the critical nature of cultural encounters in ordinary life. The writer contrasts the period before Protestantism versus the period when it has to compete with Catholicism. It is asserted that “Culture, by its very nature, is a crossroad of contrasts” (Wagner, 1981). This religious contrast makes us see the difference between the two periods before and after the encounter. In a big way, it makes us appreciate why and how cultural encounters can take a turn for the worse if there is no will to have an understanding of the encountering cultures. The need for independence and autonomy is also contrasted with the desire to still belong to a larger political and social unit. The South Ireland and North Ireland bad blood is caused by this difference in desire, and we see that in many ways, it is the catapult that throws many events into action, including the changes that characterise the life of the Middletons.
The Distant Past is a story of religious encounters exploring the Protestant and Catholic encounters in Ireland, political encounters that delve into the split of Northern and Southern Ireland and historical encounters that involve the relationship between Great Britain and the larger Ireland. It reflects on the interconnection of these encounters and how through the Middletons, a solution is proposed. It is a solution that the writer holds in apprehension, for the narrator says, “Because of the distant past they would die friendless.”(pg 120)
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Wagner R., (1981). The invention of culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.